There Are Many Reasons Why Women Can’t Just ‘Have Children Sooner Rather Than Later’

A Conservative MP says we should have children earlier, but can we really afford to?

by Maria Lally |
Updated on

Many theories are put forward as to why women today are having children later, if at all. We’re too focused on our careers, they say, too keen to travel, or wait for the right partner.

While the Conservative MP Miriam Cates has another theory altogether. Talking to an interviewer over the weekend, the 41-year-old mother of three says it’s because ‘some big corporations’ are paying women to freeze their eggs to ‘retain you in the workplace’ under a ‘false promise’.

According to Cates, ‘egg freezing doesn’t work. A tiny percentage of people who freeze their eggs will ever become pregnant.

‘But, unfortunately, if you freeze your eggs after the age of 35 or so, they are not good quality enough to likely result in a later pregnancy, and I think it is quite unethical for commercial companies to be targeting women. There are some big corporations that will pay for women to do this, and I believe it is really exploitative because it’s saying we want to retain you in the workplace and so we will give you false promises,’ before adding, ‘if you really want to be a parent then your best chance is sooner rather than later.’

Where to begin? While she might have a point about egg freezing being no guarantee of future fertility, she’s also missing several bigger ones.

According to the fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), one in five women who use frozen eggs go on to have a baby. While in December 2022 Professor Imogen Goold, an Oxford professor of medical law, warned that women freezing their eggs in their late 30s or older should be made aware the chances of being able to them were as low as 3 per cent. ‘It’s the kind of market where [clinics are] preying on women being anxious and getting them to throw money at a problem,’ she told the annual conference of the fertility charity Progress Educational Trust.

However, the reasons women freeze their eggs are varied and complex. Those who undergo treatment for cancer are often advised to do it, while some do it if they’re single or unable to afford a family but want to future-proof their fertility.

But what of these ‘big corporations’ that Cates claims are paying women to freeze their eggs? So-called ‘fertility perks’, which include subsidised egg freezing or IVF, are still relatively rare as a workplace benefit in the UK. They’re slightly more common in the US where around five per cent of companies with over 500 companies, such as Amazon and Google, offer egg-freezing to staff.

In the UK, some companies offer subsidised egg freezing, while others like the BBC and Santander have launched fertility policies. Most UK couples, however, currently have no such help in place to help pay for any fertility treatment they might need. And Cates’s advice to do it ‘sooner rather than later’ fails to consider another reason why UK women are putting off motherhood.

The UK’s birth rate has dropped to an all-time low, and according to the ONS (Office for National Statistics), women are having fewer children and having them later. Which is hardly surprising given that the charity Coram Family and Childcare published its 23rd annual Childcare Survey this week, and it found growing childcare shortages across the UK, with childcare costs having risen by 7% in the last year.

‘The new childcare support that is being rolled out from April has the potential to be a game-changer for parents up and down the country – many of whom have found themselves facing eye-watering childcare bills and sometimes even locked out of work because of childcare costs,’ says Ellen Broomé, the charity’s Managing Director.

‘Our findings – with higher costs and dramatic drops in availability of childcare places – are concerning at this crucial time, showing the scale of challenge and the very real risks around this policy not living up to parents’ expectations. Unless this policy is properly funded and supported, it could have the opposite effect, with families unable to access or afford the childcare they need and the most disadvantaged children set to miss out.

‘The recent additional funding from the Chancellor was welcome but won’t address the long-term systemic challenges of high childcare costs for parents.’

Put simply, having a child in the UK is becoming something increasing numbers of people simply can’t afford to do.

A study in 2022 found that almost a third (29.2%) of women who want children haven’t had them yet because they can't afford to, while research from Barclays recently found that 66% of expectant parents had delayed having a baby for the same reason. Little wonder when research from campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed found that one in four parents who use childcare say the cost is now more than 75% of their take home salary.

Have children sooner rather than later? It’s a surprise UK women can afford to have them at all.

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