The last couple of days have seen much furore and debate over my call for Nicky Morgan and the new Government to add fertility as part of Sex and Relationship Education to the secondary school curriculum. As to be expected with a sensitive issue, my call for young people to be better informed as to their fertility options has prompted intense response from many camps. The point overlooked by many is that my call is for both men and women to be better informed not only about the fertility facts but, just as crucially, prevention of infertility. As well as age, there are a number of factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol, recreational drugs, body weight, STIs, thyroid conditions and mother's age of menopause that can have both short and long term effects on fertility.
We have been successful in reducing teenage pregnancies through education on contraception. Sex and relationship education is for now and fertility education is for the future. Conception and contraception are two sides of the same coin. We need to empower our young people with education on fertility, so that they can stand a better chance of falling pregnant when they choose to. Education empowers.
Through my work at St George's Hospital and at my own IVF clinic, I witness first-hand the anguish for those couples and women who realise they cannot have the family they dreamed of because they were not made aware of the decline of fertility with age and other factors affecting fertility. Although sperm quantity and quality decline with age, this decline in fertility is not nearly as marked as that of women, whose eggs decline in quantity and quality as they get older, especially in late thirties. That's why the age of woman is important when it comes to successful conception, whether natural or assisted. The aim of fertility advice is to have a healthy mother and a healthy full term baby without any future health risks and if possible without the need for fertility treatment. I am not prescriptive that women must have a child at 30, but given the scientific facts, if you have the right partner, are financially and socially stable and physically ready to have a child, then my advice is not to delay trying for a child.
I deeply care about women's health, safety and welfare in fertility treatment and wish to make this journey safer and easier for them. Let me make it clear that I want women to "have it all" and that's why I am promoting early education on fertility. It should be remembered that it is the woman who undergoes fertility treatment even when it is a man's problem. We do not want women to undergo multiple IVF cycles or suffer any health risks if it can be avoided by early education.
There are undoubtedly wider societal issues at play as well. There needs to be adequate levels of access to both maternity and paternity benefits and better childcare. And it is important that society promotes a family-friendly environment. The addition of fertility education is not a substitute for action in other areas, in fact it is complementary. Better education around fertility will empower the next generation to shape society for the better. Knowledge is power.
The bottom line is that I believe that complete reproductive education including fertility issues is the right of all our young people. My experience as a school governor has convinced me of the impact this type of education could have. We need to shift the paradigm from treatment to prevention in fertility. This may take up to a generation to achieve, and so we must start now.