Men and women are having children later and later in life, the average age of first time parents is still rising; in the 1990s the average age of fatherhood in England and Wales was 31, now it is 33.
Previously a disproportionate focus was put on the mother’s age when considering reproductive health, but more recent research has shown that the father’s age plays a huge role as well. The sperm becomes more prone to errors, which increases the risk of conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, and other genetic disorders.
Bioethicists are concerned that if these trends continue, a greater proportion of the population is likely to suffer from genetic disorders – ones that we have no real cure for at the moment. Dr Smith from Abertay University in Dundee believes that this could have a significant effect when scaled across a whole country (or even the whole of the West, which follows the same trend), so this is a question of ethical importance.
Dr Smith encourages the idea of a state-supported universal sperm bank, which would ensure good sperm quality when conceiving even if average age at fatherhood continues to rise. There are a number of social reasons why people choose to delay parenthood – including the increased cost of living and attitudes towards committed relationships and life goals – so this would be a more effective way of ensuring healthy children rather than pushing against these new social norms.
However, the British Fertility Society has spoken out against the idea, calling it a ‘very artificial approach to procreation’. Professor Adam Balen, Chair of the BFS, said ‘Not only does it provide a very artificial approach to procreation, but also a false sense of security as the technology does not guarantee a baby’. Instead, the BFS suggests pushing for a societal shift and extra support for young couples to be able to work and have children – using the same systems offered in Scandinavian countries in terms of policies and attitudes towards parental leave. Concept Fertility feels that it is not currently necessary to recommend sperm freezing except in specific cases.
However, the message on both sides is clear; it is a better idea for both men and women to have children in their 20s and 30s, rather than delaying further and following the current trends.