By Jennifer Lahl
I recently wrote about women who wait later into life to conceive and find they struggle with what they call “infertility.” In fact, there is no infertility as a result of aging; rather it is the biological reality of menopause. Menopause is a natural and normal event that occurs in a woman’s life. It is not a disease that needs to be treated as most Western medicine does. Fertility is a natural organic treasure—one that is temporary and unique for each woman. It can be understood, protected, and cared for, just as we try to do for all other aspects of our health and well-being.
The human body is an amazing organism and human reproduction is a finely tuned orchestration of events. Women would do well to learn more about human reproduction and the sensitive system of fertility so that we can protect and preserve and utilize our fertility and do everything possible to prevent true infertility. We cannot stop the aging of our bodies and the naturally occurring menopause. But there is still much we can do to understand and care for the reproductive season of our “fertility” and be sure we can bear children.
It’s a miraculous event that human beings can procreate at all. While we are not as bad as the koala bear, which has a very low birth rate of typically one baby every other year, and human beings aren’t rabbits either. The female rabbit can produce as many as “800 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren” in a single mating season!
So, what can you do to protect your fertility?
1. Do not wait too long if you hope to have children. Maternal age is a big factor—perhaps the single most important factor—since our fertility dramatically drops as we age.
Maternal age also negatively impacts our ability to carry a baby to term. This study states, “There is an increasing risk of fetal loss with increasing maternal age in women aged more than 30 years. Fetal loss is high in women in their late 30s or older, irrespective of reproductive history.” (emphasis added)
Increased maternal age also causes significant risk of maternal morbidity, with the older mother being more at risk for gestational diabetes, having babies born with chromosomal abnormalities like Down’s syndrome, hemorrhage, and hypertension.
2. Know your menstrual cycle and your body. Understand your fertility the way you understand your food and exercise. In the best case scenario, a woman has about 5-6 days each month when she is fertile and can achieve pregnancy. The spread of these few days is dependent not only on when a woman ovulates, but also on how long sperm can survive and how fast they swim and reach their destination. This highlights just how finely orchestrated the event of conception is.
3. Engage in a healthy lifestyle—avoid excess alcohol, smoking, and obesity. All have a negative impact on our fertility as does high stress levels.
4. Avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, “Chlamydia and gonorrhea are important preventable causes of infertility. Untreated, about 10-15% of women with chlamydia will develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).” They note in 2009, in the United States, there were, “1,244,180 chlamydial infections and 301,174 cases of gonorrhea.” Think about how much these totally preventable diseases negatively impact fertility! The impact of STDs on fertility is not often shared with young women, particularly by interests (e.g., the media and the sexualization of women) that encourage, support, or promote sexual “freedom” and promiscuity for young women. This is like encouraging girls to smoke because it’s cool and not telling them about the known impacts of smoking upon their short term and long term health.
5. Avoid being too thin. Athletes and women with eating disorders are especially at risk of infertility due to their low body weight and the impact low weight has on amenorrhea—causing a women’s menstruation to stop.
6. Avoid egg freezing schemes and gimmicks that “promise” you the ability to freeze your eggs so that you can use them later on when you are ready to have a baby. Egg freezing is expensive and considered experimental. There are no long-term studies done on the results of the effectiveness of egg freezing and the health of the resulting children. It also ignores the serious health risks to older pregnant women.
Human reproduction and specifically, our fertility, really is a gift that needs to be protected and preserved, just as we have learned to protect and preserve the health of our respiratory and muscular systems. Natural conception, within the normal timetable of human fertility, is better for the human body and for the children. For women who intend to have children, natural conception should be the goal, a goal achieved by understanding and caring for the body and avoiding risk factors including oral contraception. Oral contraception, like those pills that have been given a Class 1 carcinogen rating by the World Health Organization, might control your fertility for a while, but at the risk of cancers, clots, and death. Why would you take this risk—or any risk—with the precious gift of your fertility?
Jennifer Lahl is president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network