Fertility Lessons

Helen Charman

On 10 October, the Sunday Times ran a story about Murray Edwards College, one of the two remaining women-only colleges at Cambridge University, offering ‘fertility seminars’ for its students. The college’s new president, Dorothy Byrne, was quoted as saying that fertility was a ‘forbidden subject’, and implying that the classes would be a kind of aide-mémoire: young women, she said, might ‘forget to have a baby’.

The piece was widely shared, and the backlash was swift. A chorus of voices from opinion columnists to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service expressed their exasperation at Byrne’s words. Many pointed out that focusing, as the piece in the Times does, on the way fertility declines with age, ignores the socioeconomic reasons for the falling birth rate: insecure housing, precarious and exploitative employment, the rising cost and falling standard of living, and the fact that childcare is more expensive in Britain than almost everywhere else in the OECD.

What are we really talking about when we talk about fertility? Reproductive anxiety has long been central to rightward swings in cultural life; the similarity between the language of the ‘birth rate crisis’ – Britain has been below the ‘critical replacement rate’ since the 1970s – and the increasing prominence of the far-right ‘white replacement theory’ is not coincidental. In a recent report, the Social Market Foundation considered ‘the liberal case for pronatalism’, sounding the alarm over Britain’s impending shortage of working-age adults.

Pronatalism in Britain has historically relied on the image of the mother as a worker (doing the ‘most important job’) within a heterosexual nuclear family. It is also intertwined with the fortunes of the state: since the 1980s, the notion that looking after children is a collective duty has been disappearing like free school milk. The figure of the ‘good’ or ‘responsible’ mother is now synonymous with the notion of individual reproductive responsibility.

From the perspective of equality feminism, then, such fertility lessons are regressive. Murray Edwards is itself an attractive symbol of pioneering feminist pedagogy: when it was founded, as New Hall, in 1954, Cambridge had the lowest proportion of women undergraduates of any British university. Many of the articles about the fertility seminars mentioned the glittering careers of some of the college’s alumnae and emphasised that Byrne is a former head of news and current affairs at Channel Four. There is, perhaps, an undercurrent to some of the conversation that suggests fertility classes are an affront to these women in particular.

The term ‘reproductive justice’ was coined in Chicago in 1994 by Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, who refused to separate reproductive rights from social and economic demands. Rights alone are not a stable concept, and can be withdrawn by a hostile state. Byrne’s assertion that ‘it is a woman’s right to choose to have a baby’ is not in itself reactionary: there are many ways in which the claim could be inclusive and even radical, as part of a wider discussion of prohibitive social frameworks and the ways they could be altered and challenged. Similarly, Byrne’s observation that contraception is the primary focus of healthcare for young women – ‘parents and teachers just give out information about how not to get pregnant’ – is not necessarily conservative: contraception is not a straightforwardly liberatory technology, as its historical misuses at the hands of the state demonstrate.

When I contacted the college seeking clarification of the story – what kind of seminar, optional or compulsory, led by whom – I was told the classes don’t exist: ‘Murray Edwards College is not offering fertility seminars or lessons to students. What we hope to do is support open discussions on the issues that affect and are important to young people.’ Fair enough, but why the manufactured furore? On 16 October, Byrne told the Times she hadn’t anticipated how ‘newsy’ the story would be. In the meantime she had published ‘a defiant and personal cri de coeur’ in the Daily Mail under the headline: ‘How can it be TABOO to advise girls to plan to be mothers?’ The Mail on Sunday followed with a piece that described the whole affair as ‘another sign of a troubling new discourse where millennials try to bend reality to suit themselves’.

Byrne acknowledges the critiques that focus on ‘maternity rights and childcare’ but maintains ‘that it’s perfectly reasonable to emphasise biological truth’. There is no catch-all ‘truth’ to fertility, however, even when the intended audience are of a similar age and gender: not all Murray Edwards students will be able to conceive. The concept of ‘biological truth’ is also central to the transphobia running rampant through much discussion of women’s issues, forging new allegiances between self-declared feminists and the historically misogynist right that the Mail has long been a mouthpiece for. It goes hand-in-hand, too, with the dreary culture war that seeks to portray universities and ‘millennials’ as censorious enemies of ‘common sense’ fact. (It isn’t clear if the author of the Mail on Sunday piece, who tells us she’s forty, realises that she is herself a millennial.) University classes on consent, to which Byrne originally compared the apparently non-existent seminars, have been a target of the Mail since at least 2014.

What are we really talking about when we talk about imaginary fertility classes? The perennially titillating subject of young women’s bodies. Reduced to their reproductive potential and mischaracterised as the only bodies at stake in the discussion, they are being used as vessels for discourse about the future of the country and its discontented present.


  • 19 October 2021 at 7:43pm
    jerry carroll says:
    The London Review of Books could be accurately described as "the mouthpiece of the left." Not wise to throw stones when you live in a glass house.

    • 19 October 2021 at 8:32pm
      Ann Hodgman says: @ jerry carroll
      The LRB's position (with which I agree) tends to be leftist. So why would calling it the mouthpiece of the left be an insult? Whereas calling something the mouthpiece of the right...

    • 19 October 2021 at 9:23pm
      Kel Pero says: @ jerry carroll
      It's strange how simple, common-sense matters, such as that many women may not want to be mothers and don't need to be "encouraged" to be, are now labelled "leftist." But why on earth would you be reading the LRB if you felt this way about it? Right-wingers' inconsistencies are persistently baffling to me.

    • 20 October 2021 at 1:07pm
      John Briggs says: @ jerry carroll
      But not of "the historically misogynist left", of course.

  • 19 October 2021 at 8:07pm
    vulpiani says:
    'Running rampant through much discussion' ......??? Sort of phrasing that collapses an argument.

    • 19 October 2021 at 9:44pm
      Richard Hall says: @ vulpiani
      Good point.

    • 20 October 2021 at 1:08pm
      John Briggs says: @ Richard Hall
      Bad point.

    • 1 November 2021 at 4:22pm
      recover says: @ John Briggs
      no, it's a good point actually

  • 19 October 2021 at 8:20pm
    MS says:
    As a woman in her late thirties who discovered at 35 that she was already, to all intents and purposes, too late to conceive a child, I wish someone had done for me when I was young something like what Byrne may-or-may-not be doing for those young women. I'm not alone, either - I've had quite a few conversations with friends where at some point we give in to if-only and say, why did no one tell us? We could have got tested, even when we were poorer, instead of relying on averages and family history, we could have found a way and done something before it was too late.

    I would say too that discussions about the various impacts on society of the declining birth rate, or attitudes to it - or even discussions that look at the societal reasons for it - are of course interesting, but skip over the people these perhaps-talks were aimed at: the young women themselves, not their bodies, or what they mean for everyone else. My heart is broken, more completely than I will ever be able to put into words, because I thought I had more time. No matter what happens in the future with employment or men or the cost of living, theirs might not need to be. Though I do understand that that kind of thing isn't what normally gets picked up in the commentating/backlash/think-piece-and-response frenzy.

    • 19 October 2021 at 9:48pm
      cissycaffrey says: @ MS
      What a lovely post. I turn to the LRB for its ability to sing experience through prose. Nice to know I can find the song in the comments if the actual published prose falls flat...

    • 20 October 2021 at 6:17pm
      Suzanne Rini says: @ MS
      As to the woman who "discovered at 35 that she was already, to all intents and purposes, too late to conceive a child....." Who promulgates such benchmarks? I am the sister of a "change of life" baby, a fairly common occurrence in a past happily free of such inaccuracies, which trumpet a population control agenda that has always masked its programs with women's issues.

  • 19 October 2021 at 10:46pm
    sheila42 says:
    It is concerning to read this assertion 'the concept of ‘biological truth’ is also central to the transphobia running rampant through much discussion of women’s issues, forging new allegiances between self-declared feminists and the misogynist right'.
    There are assumptions here that should be made more explicit, so we can at least debate them. Given what has just been happening to Kathleen Stock, and to other female academics I am hoping that the LRB will contribute to rational thinking on these issues.

    • 20 October 2021 at 10:24am
      Phil Edwards says: @ sheila42
      Yes - that scare-quoting "self-declared" was particularly uncalled-for. (An understanding of being a woman that starts from material embodiment as a female human being isn't very trans-friendly, clearly, and lots of feminists take issue with it now, but it's a major strand of feminist thought for all that.)

      As for the idea that radical feminism (for it is she) is working as a gateway drug to "new allegiances" [sic] to the misogynistic right - well, anything's possible, particularly when huge amounts of money are (apparently) involved But I suspect a more charitable review of the field would find a number of left-wing gender-critical women making opportunistic links with right-wing platforms after being excluded from their more natural homes on the Left - often coming under criticism from other gender-critical feminists for doing so.

    • 20 October 2021 at 6:01pm
      RegPresley says: @ sheila42
      Yes indeed. That sentence rather leapt out at me too. Two thoughts struck me immediately: first that the concept of 'biological truth', whatever it is, is a much larger and deeper issue than transphobia and it is perverse to imply that it is merely a component - even a central one - of that.

      Secondly, many or most of the pieces on this subject seem to want to make whatever points they are trying to make behind a layer of distracting rhetorical fog. The allegiances between feminists and the misogynist right; the nature of 'dreary' culture wars; the market positioning of the Daily Mail; linguistic echoes of white replacement theory; whether Dorothy Byrne meant the term 'seminars' literally; whether young women's bodies are titillating - after wading through all this, it's hard to know what the author is really trying to say and one is left trying to infer meaning from the tone.

      If the last sentence means anything at all, it seems to be saying that discussion of fertility is not discussion of fertility but a proxy for a discussion of the wider ills of society, women somehow being dehumanised ('vessels') in the process. The structure of the piece seems to imply that this is Byrne's fault but again it's hard to know, since nothing is made explicit.

  • 20 October 2021 at 11:23am
    Christopher Rayner says:
    I am a retired GP who qualified in medicine in 1972. During my career I have observed the steady rise of age of women bearing their first children. When I was a junior doctor in obstetrics in London in 1973 any woman pregnant for the first time over the age of 30 was considered an „elderly primipara“. These rare folk were subject to extra intensity of observation and thought. Successful delivery of a healthy child was usual, but attended by a sense of joyful relief all round. Most families were started when parents were in their early twenties, and commonly complete, as was ours, on or around the parents‘ thirtieth birthdays.
    Nowadays it is assumed that parenthood may be postponed until middle age. In many cases this has proven to be a satisfactory strategy, but not in all. Throughout my career I took pains to encourage couples to embark on parenthood as soon as they reasonably might as I had had the dismal experience of working with infertile couples who had missed their chances and now bitterly regretted it. Of particular poignancy were those women who had terminated pregnancies in their youth and found themselves incapable of motherhood later on. I knew a number of these.
    I have no miraculous solution to this problem, nor am I much bothered by the demographic consequences. I do, however, feel that blithe ignorant wishful thinking has little to offer in any context, least of all this. My own daughter, on delivering our first grandchild, mentioned that she had not realised that her own fertility might decline as her age increased. Evidence, if it were necessary, that parent‘s advice is often ignored, but also that there was, and remains, a collective wilful ignorance of this lugubrious fact. Leaving aside the feminist politics, attention to the decline in fertility with age might possibly reduce the numbers of unhappy middle aged childless women. As I frequently reminded folk, men are at least capable of paternity until they are long past the age at which most of them would choose not to be fathers; women‘s capacity to conceive and bear children is a brief period of their lives, beginning in their teens, and all but over by their late thirties. Ignoring or wishing this away is foolish.

    • 21 October 2021 at 12:33am
      csaydah says: @ Christopher Rayner
      Christopher Raynor:
      Right on. Common sense, cogently expressed.

  • 20 October 2021 at 3:11pm
    Graucho says:
    I don't see why anyone should get into a lather about someone spelling out the biological facts of life. They are after all facts. Mountains of nonsense have been expounded on how the human race ought to arrange its reproduction. Only two rules have emerged if you want to optimise your chances of healthy children. Have them while you are young and don't breed with relatives. In a free society there can be no objection to informed consenting adults choosing to start a family late in life. There can be no objection to their being informed either.

  • 21 October 2021 at 8:36am
    michaela cook says:
    The question to be reminded of is not one of female fertility, the question is non-gender specific and is how old do you want to be when you can finally launch the little darlings from the nest and regain some independence in your life?

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