I have been tracking the media fallout that has followed the news that Professor Geeta Nargund, consultant for reproductive medicine at St George’s Hospital in London, has written to Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, about the “fertility time bomb” and urged her to make it compulsory for schoolgirls to be taught about their fertility. “I have witnessed all too often the shock and agony on the faces of women who realise they have left it too late to start a family. For so many, this news comes as a genuine surprise and the sense of devastation and regret can be overwhelming”, she wrote.
In response, Cristina Odone admitted in the Telegraph that she had obeyed – to her cost – the propaganda put out in the 1980s and 1990s telling her that “it was work, above all else, that offered us the route to independence, success and self-confidence”. This was followed by a typically pugnacious article by Bryony Gordon on Tuesday in the same newspaper, with the headline: “Milestone madness that says you have failed as a woman.”
Stella, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, chimed in with the voices of the experts. They included the director of a fertility clinic who told female readers to “have faith in IVF”; an integrated fertility specialist who suggested “clean up your environment”; a professor of nutrition who warned against trans fats; and a yoga practitioner who advised women to “rest in a fertility-boosting position”. Today in the Telegraph Allison Pearson lays the blame on women themselves: “It isn’t scaremongering, girls – this is really scary”, is her pontificating headline.
This is a sad state of affairs – and I think feminism is largely to blame for it. For decades, feminists have preached to women that what mattered in life was not having babies but being in control of their fertility, so that they could be free to have sex and pursue satisfying careers. The advent of the Pill made this possible. It worked all too well; across the affluent West women started to focus on diet, exercise and keeping their bodies as toned and as healthy as possible – while suppressing the most fundamental aspect of such health: their capacity to become mothers.
Now the same feminists are preaching the opposite message: to “think fertility”. Instead of the body beautiful it is now the body expectant. But the philosophy behind such feminist thinking hasn’t changed – and it has nothing to do with women’s dignity. This dignity comes from personhood, of which the body is a part, not a fetish to be deliberately made barren or fruitful, according to fashion or the calendar.
I also think the Church must bear some responsibility for this situation. When feminists from the 1960s onwards were proclaiming to women, “The Pill will set you free”, were our bishops preaching the contrary and Christian message: that only the truth “will set you free” – including the truth inscribed in the male and female body? We heard a great deal about justice and peace but nothing about the life-denying sterility of contraception, or that marriage and raising a family is the path to holiness and happiness for most men and women. Indeed, if our bishops had preached harder about the central importance of the vocation of marriage, the concept of marriage itself might not have come to be redefined out of existence.
The “shock and agony” that Professor Nargund describes sounds all too accurate. Women, trained to aspire to “have it all”, suddenly wake up in the cold surrounds of a clinic to the realisation that they have been cheated: instead of their deepest fulfilment in life coming from their (instinctive) dream of marriage and raising children, they now see that they have been sold a nightmare: an endless vista of desks, offices and work suits. This is a tragedy of immense proportions.
If bishops want to preach about justice and peace, let it be about justice for women and the dignity of their vocation as mothers; and then on the peace that will ensue from listening to God’s plan for human happiness rather than the strident voices of the feminist sisterhood.