Chief Medical Officer is worried about women delaying motherhood
Women delaying motherhood is ‘worrying issue’, says Chief Medical Officer
The number of women choosing to delay motherhood is a “worrying issue”, the country’s most senior doctor has said, as levels of childlessness reach levels not seen since the Second World War
By By Louisa Peacock and Laura Donnelly10:00PM GMT 16 Jan 2014CommentsComments
Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, said she was concerned about the “steady shift” towards women choosing to postpone starting a family until their late 30s and early 40s, reducing their chance of conception, and increasing their medical risks.
“The steady shift to have children later, there are issues with that. We all assume we can have children later but actually we may not be able to,” Prof Dame Sally told a group of health practitioners on Thursday.
She also expressed concern that “many more women” are “choosing not to have children”.
Her comments come as the current levels of childlessness among British women in their 40s have reached levels not seen since the 1960s – when tens of thousands of women who missed out on motherhood because of the war reached middle age.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 20 per cent of women now reach the age of 45 without having children – twice the proportion among the previous generation, born in 1945.
Analysis of the data by The Telegraph shows that current childlessness levels are now reaching those not seen since 1965 – when thousands of women who were widowed or left unmarried because of the war reached the end of their childbearing years.
However, Prof Dame Sally said she was not suggesting women should have children earlier. “It’s not for me to tell women what to do,” she said.
The chief medical officer, 64, also said she was “lucky” to have had two children in her 40s.
But Prof Dame Sally said it was a well-known fact that fertility declines as women get older. “As couples we have to face that,” she said.
The average age of a mother giving birth in the UK is now 30 – the highest in the world, a joint position shared with Germany. The average age has increased by almost two years since 1995, and is now two years later than the average across all industrialised countries.
Four years ago the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists provoked a major debate after publishing advice which stated that women who want children should do so between the age of 20 and 35, and warning that thousands of women who want to start a family are leaving it too late.
On Thursday night Patrick O’Brien, a spokesman for the college, said: “The average age has been rising steadily for a long time – in my experience it is usually because women want to get an education, maybe travel and get established in their careers before they think about starting a family and often don’t appreciate the difficulties that can mean.”
The consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology at University College London Hospitals said that some women had been left with an impression that scientific breakthroughs had bought them far more time than was the case.
“Quite often we will see businesswomen of 42 or 43 who will think that with IVF they can easily have a baby, whereas really success rates are very low for women using their own eggs,” he said.
Mr O’Brien said as well as lower fertility rates, women in their late 30s and early 40s have far higher rates of miscarriage, foetal abnormalities and health risks which can affect childbirth – such as higher blood pressure.
However, Natika Halil, a spokesman for the Family Planning Association, said: “Fertility doesn’t just disappear overnight. While women should be mindful, let’s not panic – you don’t wake up at 34 and suddenly discover you can’t have kids. There are a myriad of reasons why women can’t conceive, it’s not always linked to age.”
She pointed to ONS statistics showing the number of women over 40 having a baby has risen fourfold in the past three decades.
In 1982 there were 6,500 births in England and Wales to women aged 40 or more – about 1 per cent of all babies born that year.
By 2012 the figure there were 30,000 births to women aged 40 and over – more than four per cent of births.
Siobhan Freegard, founder of networking site Netmums, said: “An awful lot of women conceive in their 40s. There is new science now, we are healthier and live longer. Many women on our forum describe themselves as ‘IVF mums’. Having a baby at 40 doesn’t seem so old now. It’s not just ‘luck’ making this happen.”
Louise Silverton, deputy general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said current levels of childlessness among women in their 40s were not simply a reflection of women ‘leaving it too late’ – but also the fact current generations had more choice and control over parenthood than previous generations.
“If you are a woman in a relationship and you know you want a child, I would say get on with it,” she said. “But a lot of women are intentionally childless – let’s not knock the fact that woman have more choice now about planning a family than was the case in the past.”