When I first read Katie’s post, I told her it was a) fascinating b) informative c) made me outraged and d) filled me with righteous indignation. A month later, and it still makes me feel all of these things. It makes me realise how little I understand the science about my own body, how that lack of information prevents me from making informed choices, and how the media exploits that lack of understanding. And yes, of course, that Katie should be Science Tsar in the House of Lords because she’d make everyone in the UK care.
Come back at 1pm for the Actual Science Bit. It will blow your mind.
Over to you, Katie:
I had an interesting experience recently. While at the British Science Festival, I attended, and wrote-up, a press briefing on reproductive ageing. Afterwards, some papers published some articles, and some people on my Twitter feed got a bit outraged about it. The comments were that women shouldn’t be told when they SHOULD have kids or even when they SHOULD think about having kids. At first, I totally nodded along, but the truth is that I am a bit torn on this issue. Both the press briefing itself, and the various reactions to it, really got me thinking.
The feminist in me wants to agree with my Twitter feed. My instinctive reaction to the whole thing is “don’t tell me what to do with my womb, you patriarchal ass-hat”. However, the scientist in me can’t stop butting in to ask some questions (my husband can attest that this is a persistent and annoying habit of the scientist in me, especially when we’re watching films). The thing is it is undeniably true that, as women, our reproductive capability decreases as we age. Unlike many of the ways in which women are oppressed, this is not a patriarchal construct. It’s scientific fact. Disappointing, but true.
So where does that leave me as a feminist talking about baby-making? I think there are two issues, really, and one is getting in the way of the other. The first issue, the obstructive one, is about how female reproductive science is reported in the media. The way that women are discussed, spoken about, and spoken to in the media generally IS a patriarchal construct. The antiquated idea that a woman is a wife and a mother, and nothing more, persists in society today: it’s visible everywhere. Women exist to have babies and, in between doing that, please men. We’re bombarded with this message, and it is this embedded notion that comes across in the way that female reproductive issues are discussed in the media. This is why they are incredibly angering from a feminist perspective. To me, though, there is a really important message that is getting lost in amongst the patriarchal bullcrap, and that’s even more of an issue. The message is that information is power, and women deserve to know and understand their bodies.
This raises a wider problem, where IS all the accessible scientific information relating to women’s issues? Seriously. It is so difficult to find real, evidence-based understandable information on female issues like fertility, infertility, pregnancy, what you should and shouldn’t eat in pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, periods, polycystic ovary syndrome, I could go on. In many of these cases, the science is out there, or at least some of it is, but finding it is a long hard slog online, and often involves wading through pages of pseudo-scientific nonsense to find and read original research and assess its validity. No-one is going to do that. People don’t have the time, there is work to do, books to read, films and TV shows to watch, and generally lives to lead out there, not to mention that all the wading through nonsense is depressing. It seems to me highly unlikely that the majority of women have the motivation or the time to delve into the literature searching for evidence-based facts about women’s health issues. Frankly, even if they do, no-one teaches the public at large how to assess the validity of scientific data or results (that’s a rant for another day), so unless they come from a scientific or analytical background, they might still be just as lost even with the data in front of them.
This is wrong. We’re being held hostage by a lack of information. I know, I know, I go on about this a lot, you’re all bored of me, I understand (but I shan’t stop). To really illustrate my point, even I, who spends her spare time loving science, and who believes in knowing how your body works and understanding how it goes wrong, had NO IDEA about my reproductive ageing. I had no idea why I would get less fertile as I get older. I still have no idea about the science behind why I should or shouldn’t eat red meat if and when I become pregnant, and many other things. Until I started writing this piece, I didn’t know the most basic facts about getting pregnant. Turns out that every month a fertile couple in their 20s or early 30s has a 20-25% chance of getting pregnant. It’s shocking to me that I didn’t know that, and that the number is so low. I have always assumed that getting pregnant was relatively easy, judging by how much time and effort I’ve gone to over the years to avoid getting pregnant.
This just illustrates how little I understand my own reproductive capability. And how bizarre is that, given that I’m an extremely nerdy biochemistry geek who loves children and really wants a family one day?
I think this is the key point that the scientists at the British Science Festival were trying to make. Family planning and sex education only teaches girls and women how to AVOID starting a family, and it only teaches us what to do, not how things actually work. This means that many of us don’t understand the science of getting pregnant until we start to try. And sometimes that’s really too late. We have the absolute right to make informed decisions about our reproductive business, and that means that we need to understand how our bodies age so that we can, if we want to, take this information into account.
This is a tricky topic to write about because I absolutely do not want to give the message that anyone SHOULD consider a family at any time in their life. However, given that age-related declining fertility is a fact, I do believe that women have the right to understand how their bodies work and age, and to have this information when they do make decisions about considering a family. If you don’t want kids now, this is not intended to imply that you need to rethink, everyone has the right to make their own decisions. It’s simply that I believe information is power, and to have all the information available puts us in the strongest possible position for making those decisions. It seems wrong to me if women are delaying starting a family without any access to information about the potential effect this might have on their chances of conceiving. If they have access to the information and make a CHOICE to wait because for whatever reason that feels right for them, then that’s excellent. As ever, it is all about choice, and I think making decisions without even the chance to be as well informed as possible seems unfair. But maybe this is a minority opinion…. I’d be interested to hear what the incredibly wise readers of AOW think about this.
SO, finally, as an exercise in putting my money where my ranting mouth is, I have written another post about the science of reproductive ageing. I can’t really shout about the fact that I think we all deserve to know that information and then not put some effort into trying to share it. Well, I can, but not without being a hypocrite. So, there’s that to look forward to, if you agree with me. If you disagree, then well… it’ll hopefully still be interesting.
You can read more of Katie’s writing over on her (brilliant, accessible, funny, science) blog, The Molecular Circus.
**Don’t forget to come back at 1pm!!**