The Death of Birth — Our Dismal Fertility Rates

Through Collapsed Fertility Rates, We Are Self-Exterminating

Archive for November, 2007

The Risk of Birthing at a Later Age

According to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare the number of Australian births jumped by 6% from 2004 to 2005. Though this is good news for the child-hungry nation, it may well be temporary. As in other countries, the daughters of baby boomers are reaching their thirties — their most fecund years. Once this cohort has passed its mid-30s, a smaller number of women will enter this age group, and fertility rates will likely fall again.

What may not be such a quickly passing phenomenon is the rise in the percentage of pre-term births and the associated health problems. The average age of a woman giving birth rose from 28.6 in 1996 to 29.8 in 2005. Equally foreboding was the age increase of first time mothers from roughly 26.5 to 28 over the same decade. Pre-term births and low birth weights are often found with birthing by older women, and the new statistics bear out this association. Of all babies born, 8.1% were three or more weeks premature with 6.4% officially underweight at 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) or less.

Low birth weights increase the risk of infant mortality and closely correlate with a number of physical problems including respiratory illness and neurodevelopmental difficulties.

The report, “Australia’s Mothers and Babies 2005,” notes that 17.4% of mothers smoked during pregnancy. Dr. Sullivan, of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s National Perinatal Statistics Unit stated, “Poorer outcomes such as pre-term birth and low birth weight were more common in the less advantaged groups.” In addition, wealthier mothers were less likely to smoke while gestating. The American Lung Association notes that “If a woman smokes during pregnancy she takes a big chance with her baby’s health. There is a greater chance that she will lose the baby during pregnancy. The baby could also be born too early, before the lungs are ready, so he or she will have trouble breathing.” The organization also points out that “when the mother smokes, so does the baby. Smokers take in poisons such as nicotine and carbon monoxide (the same gas that comes out of a car’s exhaust pipe). These poisons get into the placenta, which is the tissue that connects the mother and the baby before it is born. These poisons keep the unborn baby from getting the food and oxygen needed to grow.”

The March of Dimes points out that “Smoking has long been known to slow fetal growth. Studies also suggest that smoking increases the risk of preterm delivery 37 weeks of gestation. Premature and low-birthweight babies face an increased risk of serious health problems during the newborn period, chronic lifelong disabilities (such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation and learning problems) and even death.”

Countries that pay women to have children would do well to look into what impact the practice has regarding the health of society’s newest members. We need to ask if a middle class or wealthy woman will have a child, whom she otherwise wouldn’t have had, in return for a monetary payment. Is it more likely financial compensation will lead a poor woman, who is desperate for money, to have a child that she wouldn’t otherwise have had?

In considering these matters, it would of course be necessary to avoid racism or classism or any of the other pernicious isms that so often plague societies. Perhaps governments should spend more to educate and care for poor, pregnant women. Certainly societies should not cavalierly engage in practices that result in a higher percentage of children with serious health problems.

A Solution in the Offing? The Brave New World of Artificial Wombs I

On February 22-23, 2002, the Ethics Center at Oklahoma State University sponsored a conference entitled “The End of Natural Motherhood? The Artificial Womb and Designer Babies.” The event’s call for submissions stated, “We strongly encourage essays on the topic of ectogenesis/artificial womb technology.” A primary purpose of the conference was to examine technological developments in ectogenesis as well as their impact on relationships and social values.

In “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley’s 1932 depiction of a dystopian future, society’s elite were genetically designed and gestated in artificial wombs, while those conceived and gestated in nature’s manner were considered savages. Fast forward to the present, in which a number of laboratories have progressed toward the creation of environments, external to the human body, where people may soon be brought from conception to the level of a healthy newborn. These labs include one headed by Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara of Japan’s Juntendo University and another led by Dr. Hung Chiung Liu of the Centre for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College. The former has constructed a bread basket sized plastic tank, containing body-temperature amniotic fluid, in which goat fetuses have survived and grown for 10 days or longer. Machines functioned as placenta, disposing of wastes as they provided blood, nutrients, and oxygen.

Using a mix of hormones and drugs, Hung Chiung Liu’s lab grew cells, from the lining of a uterus, on a biodegradable scaffold. After completion of the growth, the scaffold degraded and left an artificial uterus. Liu then placed embryos, by-products of in vitro fertilization, inside the womb. The embryos attached to the uterine walls and survived for several days, after which the study was terminated in accord with legal time constraints on human embryo experiments.

While artificial wombs may strike some as the fevered fantasies of science fiction addicts, not long ago many thought the same of cloning and the use of stem cells to create body parts and germ cells (sperm and eggs). Many countries are now extremely concerned over their anemic fertility rates and the resultant aging and collapse of their populations. A number have attempted to alleviate the problem with programs, such as paying women to have children. Thus far these efforts have met with little if any success.

The creation of the birth control pill led to a dramatically reduced average number of children per woman. So did the development and evolution of safer, less expensive, and more socially accepted abortion. The question arises: Will new breakthroughs in reproductive technology help mitigate our current fertility crisis?

Numerous changes would follow the refinement and wide scale use of artificial wombs. Many individuals and couples with fertility problems could have children. Regarding abortion, the time frame for “viable outside the womb” could extend to the full gestation period, since it may become possible to remove an embryo or fetus from a woman and complete its gestation in an artificial environment. Those men, who today are wary of becoming fathers due to concerns over losing contact with their children after divorce, could confidently have children after fertilizing donated eggs or eggs created from stem cells. Both men and women may be capable of becoming true single parents (as opposed to being one of two parents with the other, for whatever reason, out the picture). We may reach a stage where men can become mothers (having had an egg generated from stem cells cultivated from their own bodies) and for women to become fathers (sperm having been thus generated). Through the combined use of artificial wombs and stem cell creation of germ cells, women may be able to mate with women and have daughters. Men may be able to mate with men and have sons and daughters (men having both Y and X chromosomes). Women may be freed from the expectations, tribulations, and dangers of gestation and birthing. Governments would be able to increase fertility rates without paying for the services of otherwise reluctant women. Religious or other objections might delay or prevent such practices in some countries, but in a nation such as China, which faces a rapidly growing problem of population aging, protestations may have little or no impact.

These are not wild imaginings of a nearly impossible future. We are close to bringing this to fruition.


Artificial wombs may someday be used for preservation of the (human) species, but they may first be used to preserve a species of shark. Australia has launched an effort to create artificial wombs for this purpose and may work with scientists from South Africa, home of the first heart transplant. On March 27, 2006, the Washington Post reported that the gray nurse shark, seen here, “is now struggling for survival in the handful of coastal areas where it survives.” The US lists the fish (also known as the ragged-tooth shark or “raggy”, sand tiger shark, and Carcharias taurus) as “vulnerable” — just shy of “endangered.” Along Australia’s east coast, where thousands once swam, the remaining 300 or so are classified as “critically endangered.” DNA analysis indicates that this colony does not breed with Australia’s west coast group or those off the east coast of South Africa — they won’t be saved by “raggies” from those regions. Because of their small numbers, inbreeding has rendered these sharks even more vulnerable.


A team of researchers including Robert Harcourt and Adam Stow of Macquarie University in Sydney reported in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters “… extinction is imminent in east Australian waters without urgent conservation efforts.” C taurus, as a primary predator, is critical to maintaining ecological balance. Unfortunately, nature has rendered it difficult for the shark to easily rebuild its numbers.

Females possess two uteruses, each of which can carry up to 20 fertilized eggs, but young life in these environments is a challenge. By the time they are four inches long, the youths launch into sibling cannabalism. When the feeding frenzy ends, two survive — one per uterus. The hope now is to build artificial wombs that can each hold a baby measuring three feet in length, the shark’s normal size at birth. At this point, in vitro insemination is not planned. Instead, females would be inseminated by males, many from distant shores to boost genetic diversity. Embryos would then be transferred to the artificial wombs for final gestation. Nick Otway, of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (manager of the state’s fisheries), heads a team that is developing a prototype.

A new report shows that the effort continues abreast. Australian researchers and the Natal Sharks Board hope to use artificial wombs to breed raggies in Durban, South Africa. If successful, the project will add young sharks to the critically denuded population off Australia’s east coast.

Artificial wombs may first be considered acceptable to preserve non-human species, but they may well find a place in the effort to preserve our own. They might carry with them a multitude of social ramifications, but, with so many people having decided to have few if any children, societies may determine that they are necessary.

The Elephant in the Room I: The Dangerous Practice of Ignoring Men’s Role in Fertility


As reported in the New Zealand Herald , when it comes to childbearing, a significant gap exists between women’s hopes and realities in New Zealand. According to a study performed by Bill Boddington and Robert Didham of Statistics NZ, one in six of the women born in 1965 have never had a child. The analysts report a relentless increase in childlessness from 8% among those born in the 1930s to 17% among those who have their 42nd birthday this year. If current trends persist, according to the researchers, 25% of women born in 1975 will never have a child, despite the fact that 90% of 20-something women and 87% of those in their 30s have already had or would like to have kids.

As is often the case with such studies, a strong correlation has been found between, on the one hand, low fertility rates and, on the other hand, cohabitation, women’s paid employment, and first births at a later age. Of those born during the 1940s, less than 10% of women under 25 had ever lived with a partner. For those born during the 1960s, the rate rose to 60%. In addition, less than 30% of working age women in 1956 were engaged in paid work. By 2006, this proportion had risen to 60%. According to census figures released this week, the rate of working age women employed full-time rose from 37% to 41% during just the last decade. Two-thirds of women interviewed by Janet Sceats stated that they considered career-impact before deciding to have children. (Sceats, with co-authors Professor Ian Pool and Arunachalam Dharmalingam, has written “The New Zealand Family From 1840: A Demographic History.”)

A 2005 Fertility NZ survey of 1048 women revealed that 84% of women said that their 20s were the optimum age for child bearing. Despite this fact, two-thirds of women in their 20s and nearly half those in their 30s stated that they weren’t ready to have children. Since 1970, the mean age for first childbirth has gone up 5.6 years.

Pool and Sceats note that New Zealand’s current fertility rate remains near 2.0 children per woman, because of the significant number of women who are now in their early 30s — the age cohort with today’s highest birth rate. As those women grow older, however, a smaller number of women will enter this age range. Fertility rates are expected to fall to the troublesome levels seen in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia.

While the concerns of women are critical regarding fertility rates, the article in the New Zealand Herald is rather typical for what it ignores — half the adults involved in fertility. Nowhere does the piece refer to the specific interests of men. It’s as though men play no role in reproduction other than sperm donation and, in the event of most divorces involving children, household support (generally referred to, euphemistically, as “child support”). Admittedly, the article refers to the concerns of parents and of “families,” but “families” are often a woman and her children — the man, in many cases, having been removed through divorce. While it specifically addresses the concerns of mothers, nowhere does the piece consider the specific desires or needs of fathers. This is in spite of the fact that, according to the survey by Fertility New Zealand, 91% of women without children said that a stable relationship was a key factor in deciding to have a child; 68% said the same of a male-partner’s career; yet 24% were not even in a relationship.

According to an article on the Radio New Zealand website (not archived), Pool states that “improvements to maternity leave… should all be made to help the fertility rate.” There is no mention of paternity leave. It should be noted that “parental leave” is often maternity leave with no such leave assured for fathers. The danger in this should be clear, since studies (for example: The State of Our Unions 2002: Why Men Won’t Commit ) show that men have started to turn away from marriage and committed relationships due to their own considerations. These concerns include, but certainly are not limited to, presumption of joint custody in the event of relationship breakdown and a legal say in the continuance or termination of pregnancies within marriage.

An article in Australia’s Daily Telegraph provides anecdotal evidence regarding this point. The essay relates several tales of men hesitating to commit to marriage. (The piece claims that men want to get married but don’t know it, though it offers no evidence to support this contention.) An example can be seen in the following excerpt.

My newly engaged friend had been living with her boyfriend for three years anticipating an imminent proposal.

When another birthday passed with nothing of the sort, she packed her bags and cleared out, leaving a five-page letter on his pillow demanding he marry her or she’d never return.

She was careful to point out how he’d never find anyone like her, and he’d be desperately lonely on his own.

Two long weeks passed, and she feared the worst until he e-mailed with: “Alright, if it means that much to you.”

Are these the words of a man who wants to get married but doesn’t know it? Or are other forces at work?

Another example of ignoring men’s interests can be found in this opinion piece  from Australia, “Encouraging women to have more babies.” In the essay, men are mentioned only twice (once parenthetically). They hardly play a role.

The continued disregard of men’s concerns, regarding partnering and parenthood, will only exacerbate the collapse of fertility rates. Clearly men are walking away from many social roles, as can be seen in their plummeting percentage of college students, high suicide rates, and growing refusal to marry or become parents.

Marriage is directly tied to healthy fertility rates, with spouses more likely than co-habiting couples to have children. In these days of aging and collapsing populations, societies play a dangerous game by ignoring men’s needs in regard to partnering and parenthood.