Reproductive Writes: The Baby-Makers

Holly Grigg-Spall
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Barely a week goes by without a new cautionary tale for would-be mothers making newspaper headlines. This last week, there were two. Both household furniture and healthy eating have been found to cause infertility. Well, fire-retardant chemicals and high-fiber diets to be precise. Not actual infertility, you understand, but the recently media-minted problem of subfertility. Subfertility is diagnosed when a woman takes longer than one year to become pregnant.

The issue is no longer whether you can get pregnant, but whether you can get pregnant quickly. The attention to this issue could be seen as partly due to women leaving it until later in life to start trying, and having made the decision, not wanting to wait. But it could also be seen as an anxiety-inducing marketing ploy to feed the billion-dollar fertility industry. I lean towards the latter reasoning.

According to this new research, hormone-disrupting polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) delayed pregnancy for over 12 months in 15% of the women studied. Women eating their otherwise recommended daily allowance of fiber, particularly through fruit, experienced a 10-fold increase in anovulation. When looked at from an informed standpoint, these numbers should not provoke alarm, but they do because many of us have no clue how a healthy female body is supposed to function. I for one have always thought an apple a day kept the doctor away.

We do not often know what is 'normal' and what is 'abnormal' and therefore in need of medical attention. There are, we would sensibly think, many healthy versions of normal, but definitions have been drummed up elsewhere for the purpose of profiteering, and for the perceived higher purpose of control by medical authorities over women's bodies.

Susan Faludi wrote in her classic book Backlash that infertility was once established after five years, not just one. Nearly 20 years ago, she presented the statistic that 91% of couples who were trying would become pregnant within 39 months. More people contract potentially infertility-causing STIs now, but I would bet the profit-growth graph of the fertility industry makes for a far sharper upward curve.

Now maybe if you start trying for a baby at 32, you might worry that within three years your chances of conceiving will have naturally depleted, but not many of us know whether this concern is truly founded. Science might be giving us the freedom to choose, but all the facts needed to make that choice aren't always easy to come by.

We understand infertility as always being a health problem, when in truth, women are 'infertile' for much of every month. The monthly hormone cycle is stress-sensitive, therefore some months any physically healthy woman might not ovulate. The apparent 'infertility crisis' increases the uptake on fertility treatments. It also allows medical authorities to take control of reproduction - women then need doctors to conceive. When it is reported that some women have a reserve of 2 million eggs whereas others have 35,000 most of us can only translate this information as something-else-to-worry-about.

The message then becomes, Do not wait to have a child, start in your twenties, stay home and let your husband have a career. Historically women have been told infertility could be caused by a whole host of activities - reading too much, getting educated, exercising, working. Now we can add sitting on furniture and eating fruit to the list.

Advocate for reproductive rights and director of the Canadian Federation For Sexual Health, Laura Wershler, introduced me to the idea of 'body literacy' - that is, having knowledge of how our bodies work. I don't think I am the only woman who can admit to not knowing (until recently, and after much reading) how the ovulation/menstruation cycle really works within my body.

Many of us are made to fear our fertility and be suspicious of our bodies starting at an early age. The 'teenage pregnancy crisis' and 'abortion epidemic' cause many of us to think that young women can get pregnant instantly and at any opportunity. So when, in our thirties, we start trying for a baby, our surprise at not getting pregnant immediately can be easily exploited.

We spend a long time combating, restricting, and suppressing our healthy reproductive systems at the encouragement of the pharmaceutical and feminine hygiene industries. The more ignorant we are when it comes to our own bodies, the more money they make. Women with better body literacy would not only be able to make informed choices, but have the self-confidence to be free enough to do so.

Flame-retardant chemicals cause infertility

High-fiber diets cause infertility

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

The assertion that this is

The assertion that this is alarmist propaganda for the fertility industry doesn't make sense. You say yourself that there are two hazards to fertility. 1. High fiber diet. 2. Fire retardant chemicals.

So surely finding alternatives to the chemicals and eating less fiber are the proposed solutions? And quick conception has always been an issue as far as I'm aware.

And there's always been plenty of research about the decline in fertility after age 35. Do you have sources for the supposed uptake in fertility treatments? Has the current economic conditions, or that women lost fewer jobs in the recession impacted that, if you do have support for your claims?

The issue here is more what the actual study claims were. And how popular media likes to exaggerate and put an opinionated spin on science, not necessarily the science itself.

I don't understand how you can see this as an attack on body literacy either. Surely understanding how harmful chemicals impacts the reproductive cycle is part of body literacy? Or are we just body literate if we aren't concerned about having children?

This post needs desperately to be researched and supported. With more than just one quote, with data from the actual findings and have the contradictory statements addressed.

I forgot to add

LOL you are taking the Daily Mail at face value. *Slow Clap*

The Daily Mail is widely known as one of the most misogynist publications in the Western World. They frequently have alarming articles about how those womens shouldn't work. You would have been better off with something at least a little more mainstream.


I hail from the UK so I am very aware of the usual stance of the Daily Mail, and I would argue that the Daily Mail is very 'mainstream' in that it is read, and believed 'at face value' by many, many people. It's as mainstream as Fox News, I would suggest, which I believe is trusted as a news source by at least 50% of Americans. That said, I wasn't taking this paper as an example of general media, and I'm not sure which publications could be - as a journalist I would be curious to know which publications you would consider to be mainstream and under what criteria?

I disagree completely. The

I disagree completely. The Mail, even in the UK is well known for its ultra conservative perception of women and their roles. It's daily circulation is in the top 5, but lags behind the Sun by a far beat.

I would have gone for anyone else, hell, even the Guardian publishes alarmist editorials about fertility:

If you'd Googled, you would have found plenty. Like a site called Women's Fitness FFS.

The abstract for the actual study came up as well:

(For the record, my 80 year old father in law reads the Mail. And that's pretty much it's target demographic but picking an article in the Mail about how modern women are destroying society is like finding a hipster in Portland.)

Body Literacy Matters


Great give and take on this subject. Since Holly (kindly) mentions me in this post as the 'conceiver' of the concept of body literacy, I'm going to weigh in.

What's the real point here? Infertility among young women does seem to be growing. There are many reasons for this, including post-hormonal contraception amenorrhea and the ones that Holly mentioned in this post. One of the biggest detriments to women conceiving or not conceiving (whatever their age) is lack of body literacy - which for this purpose is the ability to know when and if they are ovulating from one cycle to the next. Contrary to what many doctors and others would have women believe, knowing when and if you ovulate is a skill that all women absolutely are capable of developing. I would assert that it is life skill that all girls and women should have. (At least, if not more, important than learning to swim.) And not just because it can help them get pregnant or avoid pregnancy. Consistent ovulation is connected to many health benefits that most women would probably appreciate knowing about. For Tiffany and other interested readers you will find scientific evidence of this explained in this series of articles posted on , (Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research).

First article in series:

Ovulation and overall health:

Ovulation and bone health:

Ovulation and breast health

Because we do not teach girls to understand how their bodies work, we leave girls and women ignorant about the signs of fertility (eg. changes in cervical mucus, ovulatory pain, swollen vulva, raised cervix, post-ovulatory basal body temperature increase, optimum number of days between ovulation and menstruation, etc) that can help them to conceive or avoid pregnancy. Or know when to seek help. When women don't conceive quickly they may panic, and I would agree with Holly that many women are seeking out invasive infertility treatments they may not require. If all women understood how to determine when and whether they are ovulating, then more would get pregnant when they want to get pregnant and more would avoid pregnancy when this is their intention. (Caveat – I most definitely appreciate that infertility is much more complicated than this for many women. At the same time, what women don’t know but could know about their own fertility is an issue we should all be talking about.)

I read the article Holly noted (women over the age of 35 have been so convinced of their infertility that they are having just as many abortions as teenagers: It makes me angry and sad. This is a perfect example of how important it is for all of us to understand ovulation and the signs of fertility, to be body literate. Knowing the signs of fertility could prevent many of these mid-life pregnancies. (Not all women want to continue to use hormonal contraception into their 30’s and 40’s, nor should they be urged or compelled to do so.)

Most importantly, we should know if we are or are not ovulating consistently throughout our 30’s and our 40’s. As per the articles I linked to above, we want healthy ovulatory menstrual cycles to assure good health throughout our reproductive years and beyond. And not just because we may want to have children later in life.

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