A bioethicist, the Today programme reported this morning, is urging boys to freeze their sperm when they reach 18 years of age. Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Dr Kevin Smith, from Abertay University in Dundee, said that sperm-banking on the NHS should “become the norm” in order to remove the health risk to babies which are associated with older fathers.
Many listeners may have immediately concluded that this would be an innocuous way of exercising personal choice and a moral way. After all, isn’t it kinder to avoid bringing unhealthy babies into the world? The average age of first becoming a father in England and Wales has increased from 31 in the early 1990s to 33. Men may wish to be pragmatic by opting to freeze their sperm. What’s wrong with this?
The simple answer is that men do not need yet another justification for delaying marriage and fatherhood. Before we rush in to welcome this idea, spare a thought for the woman – there are many – who is lumbered with an emotionally prepubescent boyfriend and patiently waiting for his growth spurt.
You know the type of man I’m referring to. The bellowing “massive lads” intimidating everyone on the night bus home or the alpha males driving two-seater sports cars. Or the well-meaning chap who promises that he will eventually propose to his girlfriend but he’s only like 30 and so he still needs to find himself, so is like off to Asia for six months. Yah?
Admittedly, women must take some responsibility for the creeping infantilisation of men which is contributing to their fears of being tied down. The typical culprit is the mum who coos that “no one will ever be good enough for our Dave” as she pours milk on his Cheerios before tenderly ironing his socks. Naturally, Dave is pushing 35.
God help us then if sperm-banking “becomes the norm”. The average age of marriage will be even later – for men it’s currently 32 – and the culture of commitment-phobia more deeply entrenched because the experts have provided yet another means of procrastination.
Who stands to lose from all of this? A report in the Independent said that women should start trying to conceive from the age of 30 because as one doctor bluntly stated: “Ideally, if a woman is ready for a child, she should start trying by the time she is 30. She should consider having a child early because as a woman gets older, her fertility declines sharply.”
The other scenario is that women will mirror sperm freezing with egg freezing and, aside from the ethical problems with this process, it offers no guarantees of achieving pregnancy in the long term. But if men are increasingly delaying fatherhood women are bound to feel increasingly desperate.
So here is my personal plea to Dr Kevin Smith; rather than promoting weird and wonderful ways of delaying parenthood why can’t you just tell it like it is? Fertility is finite whether you’re male or female. Don’t rush into parenthood for the wrong reasons but recognise that parenthood ideally should come when you’re still young enough to kick a football and have a strong chance of being around to welcome your first grandchild.
You can’t freeze biological reality. To pretend otherwise is unfair to both women and men.