Men have a biological clock too – so why is women’s fertility still such big, often unregulated, business?

Georgina Lawton

It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman over the age of 25 is likely to be reminded of her ticking biological clock by friends, relatives and strangers, every year, until the year in which she conceives. The unsolicited advice ranges from: “You better hurry up!” or “When do you think you’ll have kids?” to “Oh, you don’t want to leave it too late now”. As a twentysomething myself, I’ve heard these comments become more frequent (and no less annoying) in your thirties.

We love presuming that all women want kids and scaremongering others into thinking that women’s fertility accounts for any problems when trying to conceive. But contrary to popular opinion, studies show that around half of all cases of human infertility are caused by factors related to the male partner. Somehow, the age-old stereotype of the barren old maid prevails, while it’s still incredibly rare to see the words “male” and “infertile” paired together.

A recent study review confirmed that men also experience physiological changes after a certain age, which can decrease a couple’s chance of becoming pregnant. The 40-year review of previous medical literature by researchers at the Women’s Health Institute at Rutgers University found that men past the age of 45 found it much harder to get their partners pregnant, even if the woman was much younger.

They also found that men aged 45 years and older can increase their partner’s risk for pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, premature birth, and increase the likelihood of the child being born underweight, with congenital heart disease or a cleft palate.

Babies born to older fathers also suffered higher incidences of newborn seizures and, as they matured, were found to have an increased likelihood of childhood cancers, psychiatric and cognitive disorders and autism. In short, the evidence proves that men are very much in possession of a ticking biological clock, too – so why aren’t we talking about it?

It’s probably because women’s fertility – and our subsequent fears around it – is big business. Google “how much to freeze eggs” and you’re met with over 56 million search results. Switch the word “eggs” for “sperm” and you’re met with less than 5 million matches. The Human Fertilisation And Embryology Authority notes that “the average cost of having your eggs collected and frozen is £3,350” and that “the whole process for egg freezing and thawing costs an average of £7,000-£8,000”. But for men they quote just “£175-£450” per year as an average cost for sperm-freezing.

A recent four-year study of 350,000 fertility patients also found that private fertility clinics are leaving the NHS with annual bills of around £120m, after failing to treat sick and premature babies born in their care through complications.

Dr Gulam Bahadur, a senior consultant fertility specialist at North Middlesex University Hospital in London, who led the study, explained that private clinics are profit-led, and will often push expensive IVF treatments which can lead to more complications like twins and triplets.

While the clinics charge women high prices to get them pregnant, the NHS then foots the bill for any other complications. Dr Bahadur commented: “The people operating these clinics are taking the profits and not paying anything for the mess they are making.” He also found private clinics are less successful than they market themselves to be, noting that “73 per cent of people who have IVF treatment never get a baby”.

In the States, where Alabama recently waged war against women’s reproductive rights by passing a near-total ban on abortion in May, women’s health remains an ideological and political issue too. One popular female health app has recently come under fire for offering biased advice and concealing its funding sources.

Femm, which has been downloaded over 400,000 times around the world and is designed to help women track their menstruation cycle to plan or avoid pregnancy, as recently reported by The Guardian, was revealed as receving most of its funding from the Chiaroscuro Foundation – a charity supported by wealthy, Catholic, pro-life hedge fund manager Sean Fieler.

Fieler has also backed vice president and anti-abortion campaigner Mike Pence. The app’s literature also questions the safety and effectiveness of hormonal birth control, despite the fact that natural family planning – the method promoted by Femm – has been proven to be the most unreliable.

The gender bias in the public discourse surrounding pregnancy and fertility is clear, and is having notable impacts on the quality of healthcare women are receiving around planning, having or aborting a child.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like change is coming any time soon; laws are becoming more draconian in the States, and here in the UK the methods of fertility clinics are incredibly exploitative. It is therefore more important than ever to keep yourself as informed and up to date as possible on your medical options. Because when it comes to women’s health, the personal is certainly always political.