Opinion & Features

Mary Kenny: When fertility is not a ‘nuisance’

Presenter Alex Jones is worried she may have left it too late to start a family (PA)

Alex Jones, the popular presenter of The One Show on BBC One, has made public her fears that, at 39, she may have left it too late to have a baby. She has only recently married, and thus her thoughts have turned to starting a family.

She has used the opportunity to highlight the fact – as she sees it – that young women today lack information about their fertility. She’s now in the process of making a television documentary which she hopes will expand public knowledge about conception.

Learning “how to preserve your fertility”, says Ms Jones, should be taught in schools along with safe-sex lessons. Doctors, too, should be more proactive in discussing conception, and helping women to understand that after the age of 35, conception may be more difficult.

But if younger women today are under-informed about the subject of fertility, it’s not hard to understand why. For the past decades, sex education has focused almost exclusively on contra-ception, rather than on con-ception.

Conception (and thus fertility) has been regarded as a bother and a nuisance, with all energies being directed at preventing it. Contraception in every form was the vital message to drum into the heads of the young, along with, latterly, ‘‘safe sex’’. “Teenage pregnancy’’ has been anathemised, although having a baby at 19 might be just what nature intended.

It’s scarcely surprising that Alex Jones complains that the positive side of female fertility has been elbowed aside, and that women of her age feel they know little about it.

When the Catholic Church tried to promote Natural Family Planning – which requires women, and men, to understand about cycles of fertility – it was often laughed to scorn. It was even satirically dubbed “Vatican roulette”.

Ms Jones also complains that in vitro fertilisation (IVF) is a “postcode lottery” – whether it is available often depends on where you live. But nature’s chances are sometimes in the form of a lottery, and perhaps that, too, should be mentioned
in dispatches.

The Lady in the Van – now out on DVD – is an enjoyable chamber-piece of a movie, capturing a typical slice of life in London’s fashionable Gloucester Crescent, NW1. Alan Bennett wrote it, of course, Nicholas Hytner directed, and Dame Maggie Smith is a joy to watch as the eccentric Miss Shepherd, who was a nun and a concert pianist, and finally ends up as a kind of hobo. (One of my favourite actors, Roger Allam, also features and is great fun.)

But part of the point of the story seems to be that being an elderly Catholic – and certainly being an ex-nun – is something wacky anyway. Dame Maggie delivers a very comical line about speaking to the Virgin Mary outside Camden post office. It is also implied that convent life may have driven Miss Shepherd – her real name was Margaret Fairchild – bonkers in the first place, by squashing her natural musical talents, and repressing her individuality.

Perhaps such things have happened. Antonia White, in her memoir of convent life, Frost in May, wrote that talent was sometimes discouraged for fear of developing the sin of vanity. Humility had to be exalted, pride averted. At the same time, Alan Bennett is slyly good at ambiguity. Whether Miss Shepherd, living in Gloucester Crescent in her battered old Bedford van, had a more interesting elderly life than Bennett’s mother, consigned to a hushed care home in Weston-super-Mare, is left as an open question.

The former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, will be speaking in public conversation with Clifford Longley at Westminster Cathedral Hall on June 23 – coincidentally, the date for the Brexit referendum. Anyone can book a place by emailing [email protected] – there’s no entrance fee but a donation of £10 would be appreciated.

Mrs McAleese and Mr Longley are each darling people, but they are both Catholic liberals, and when liberal speaks unto liberal conversation isn’t always stimulating or robust. And I would say exactly the same thing if one conservative was in public conversation with another. Contrarian and counter-cultural conversation is usually more sparkling, because discourse is at its best when it is challenging, not compliant. But we can always be surprised.