Should We Be Having Babies at 20? Lessons From the Past

Babies. The constant stream of news stories about when we're having them, why we're not and the technologies available that can help us obtain them, seems testament to how all consumed we are with the issue of fertility in 2015...

Babies. The constant stream of news stories about when we're having them, why we're not and the technologies available that can help us obtain them, seems testament to how all consumed we are with the issue of fertility in 2015. With the news that British surgeons have been given the green light to start womb transplants and French scientists claiming to have created sperm in a laboratory from immature germ cells, fertility has never been more in the news. The so-called 'biological clock' has become mainstream in the ways we talk about having babies and age. This ticking clock is something we as women are told we have to worry about in a way men do not. This is despite scientific studies suggesting the quality of male sperm declines with age too. In June of this year, Dr Kevin Smith, of Abertay University in Dundee, went so far as to call for the NHS to freeze the sperm of all 18-year-old men in the UK.

On 21 October 2015 the Cambridge Festival of Ideas will host a debate that brings together leading experts from a wide variety of fields to debate, 'Should we be having babies at 20?' Two historians of the family, one of the UK's first professors of Andrology, a leading psychologist and a writer, will join us to discuss whether there really can ever be a correct age to have children.

This is obviously not just a question about biology. It is about social and cultural norms, as well as financial and personal stability. The stream of older male celebrities such as Paul McCartney, Simon Cowell, Rod Stewart and Steve Martin, make being an older father of a newborn seems both culturally more acceptable, and physically attainable. But really, there can never be a 'right' age to have a baby, even if biology makes it more difficult after a certain age.

We tend to see infertility as a wholly modern concern. I am a social historian of medicine of the seventeenth-century. I am constantly immersed in the letters, diaries and medical texts of the 1600s, and one thing is clear: infertility, or fear of infertility, is everywhere. The midwife, Jane Sharp, who wrote a directory for fellow midwives in 1671 stated 'To conceive with child is the earnest desire if not of all yet of most women.' And yet a great many women, often because of their 'great longing', were unable to conceive. In the 1680s, Sarah Savage, the daughter of a prominent non-conformist minister, struggled to conceive for two years after marriage. She recorded late periods in her diaries, hoping she was pregnant, yet fearing that God would 'delay or totally deny the mercy of children to me.' For her, conception was a sign of divine approval.

But medical authors of the seventeenth-century did not chiefly consider age the determining factor in whether or not a married couple could conceive. Each spouse had to be healthy, and as both partners were believed to ejaculate seed, this had to be properly and equally mixed in the womb.

Importantly, a fertile marriage had to be happy, harmonious and loving. The medical author, Nicholas Culpeper stated that in a great many cases marriages proved childless because of incompatibility and lack of affection. He asked: 'if their Heart be not United in love, how should their Seed Unite to cause conception'? A letter from 1672, now held in the Huntington Library in California, written from Arthur Stanhope to his nephew, Theophilus, the Earl of Huntington, graphically describes how Theophilus ought to pay greater attention to his wife's sexual pleasure in order to secure a conception. Despite being married for months, Theophilus and his new wife had been unable to consummate the marriage. She found sex uncomfortable. Arthur wrote with recommendations. He promised that once the couple had engaged in pleasurable sex, not only would they have a baby, but they would be the 'fondest lovingeste couple in the world'.

The ideal age to have a baby in the seventeenth-century, therefore, was when one had married, hopefully in a suitable and godly union. The relationship had to be loving and sexually satisfying. This came at different times for different individuals, depending often on their social strata. For the majority of men and women who were not wealthy, marriage and childbearing was only possible once they were economically independent and able to set up a new household. For those of the 'humbler sort', this did not happen until their mid to late twenties. The Earl of Huntington, of course, had no such worries and generally, the aristocracy, particularly women married much younger.

The lesson we gain from the past is that the reasons people have children are complex and as much about social and economic pressures, as biological. Science is not always the answer, something the debate on 21 October will discuss.

Leah Astbury is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge researching maternal and infant health in seventeenth-century England. The debate is part of a programme of events set up by Generation to Reproduction and the Casebooks Project, major projects on the medicine supported by the Wellcome Trust. 'Should we be having babies at 20?' takes place at Cambridge Festival of Ideas on 21 October. Book here

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