As a current sixth-form student, I am well-acquainted with the format of sex education in secondary schools. The single take-home message is: 'Don’t have unprotected sex because you'll get pregnant, get an STI, sexually transmitted infection or both.' I think that this needs to change. Not only does this message instil fear and paranoia among teenagers, but it also ignores many other important aspects of sexual and reproductive health – in particular fertility.
I am lucky to know more than most about fertility, but only because my father works in this area. Having this advantage made me realise that the school system needs to change. Fertility education for teenagers can be controversial. On the one hand, planning a family is a distant prospect for many teenagers, and fertility education could be seen as an unnecessary source of stress at this point in our lives. On the other hand this is potentially vital information for later life.
One potential problem with implementing fertility education is that it could cause students to worry about their own fertility, and they might rush into having children before they reach the 'right' age for them. There is already a lot of pressure on young people to look ahead to the future – would such information add yet another thing for them to worry about? On the other hand, it might encourage us to at least consider our hazy plans for the future and the impact that they might have on us, which is a good thing. Many young people already worry about having both a family and a career. However, they don't currently have sufficient information to be able to make good plans for the future. This could be changed with the right education. I'm not thinking of clichéd lessons about women's 'ticking biological clocks' – the lessons need only to clarify current preconceptions and misunderstandings and provide unbiased facts.
The main source of information for young people at the moment is the media, which presents an overdramatised and misrepresented view of fertility. The 'biological clock' metaphor does not accurately describe declining fertility with age; loss of fertility is not necessarily a sudden event, nor does it occur at the same time for every woman.
I frequently hear classmates say that they're going to wait until their mid-30's to have children, without a single doubt in their mind that they will be able to conceive naturally. To many a baby is just a timetabled slot on the calendar. It is easy to think that fertility is a constant unwavering state from puberty to menopause. A quick look at the many graphs and studies describing decreasing egg number and increased miscarriage and chromosomal abnormalities with increasing age shows that it is just not that simple. However, a few well-taught lessons would help to correct these misconceptions.
Men aren't exempt from consideration either. Male infertility could be prevented in some cases by a better lifestyle. Factors such as smoking, drinking and obesity can have an effect on future fertility, but many people my age do not consider these factors to be relevant to them. It is difficult to imagine young people overhauling their lifestyle to preserve their fertility, but they should at least be told about the potential impact of their actions.
Improved fertility education would hopefully allow young people to plan ahead for their future. If we are aware of the options available, then it's possible to have some degree of control over our lives. We can decide when to have children, considering both the benefits and the risks. Having children earlier may mean a less stable career and housing situation, but waiting may risk infertility or the potential difficulties of pregnancy in later life. Despite this, there are still options available. Using IVF and screening procedures can reduce the likelihood of chromosomal abnormalities while also making it possible to overcome some fertility issues. But IVF is not always successful, and it shouldn't be thought of as a guaranteed way to have a baby. Egg-freezing is often suggested for 'career women', allowing them to continue their career without worrying about when to have children. Unfortunately, as with IVF, the procedure doesn’t always result in a baby.
I am lucky to know enough about fertility to make informed decisions. I would like children, and it's something I consider, but I don't worry about. It does seem to be in the distant future and it is hard to imagine, but it is useful to start thinking early. Fertility education could help young people to enter their adult life with the knowledge they need to create the life they want, irrespective of whether they want children or not.
Some might fear that fertility education could cause young people to rush into having children, undoing the campaign against teenage pregnancy. Fertility education must be taught with care and sensitivity to avoid sending the wrong message – 'have babies before it's too late' – but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be taught at all. If we are trusted to drive cars and get married, then I think that we should also be trusted with this important information.