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.