Sisterhood Blog

Making the Case for Fertility Education

By Gabrielle Birkner

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Back in 9th grade health class, we were tasked with creating — and memorizing — a chart of the various methods of birth control on the market and how effective they were in preventing pregnancy and, in the case of latex condoms, sexually transmitted diseases: We learned about oral contraceptives, barrier contraceptives, spermicides, and intrauterine devices. Among the least effective forms of birth control, we were told, was something called the “rhythm method,” which involved “charting a woman’s cycle.”

Since getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant was something we were to avoid doing — we were teenagers, after all — and since the birth control method called “rhythm” was something that wasn’t considered all that reliable a way to prevent pregnancy, we didn’t linger on recognizing the biological signs of ovulation that this mysterious “charting” entails.

The overriding message in high school and, again, in college — where, at the campus health center, condoms and prescriptions for the Pill were handed out liberally, and brochures on preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs were stacked in the waiting room — was this: Don’t get pregnant.

It was a good message. In college and, certainly, in high school, few of us had the emotional or financial resources to care for a child. Having a baby could have seriously derailed our educational and professional goals.

But the birth control pills that so many of us were on, as a result, were not without consequences, writes Vanessa Grigoriadis, in a much-talked New York magazine cover story. In the piece Grigoriadis asserts that the Pill has given rise to a “fertility crisis” — with many women staying on it for decades, while their prime reproductive years pass them by.

Here on The Sisterhood, in response to the New York magazine piece, Sarah Seltzer spoke out against the backlash to the Pill, Allison Gaudet Yarrow questioned the willingness of so many women to take the pregnancy-preventing, period-regulating, hormones for years on end, and Elissa Strauss made a case for more education on fertility-related matters.

I’m with Elissa.

If we’re going to place blame for age-related infertility on something, it shouldn’t be on the Pill. The prevalence of long-term use of oral contraceptives seems only a symptom of cultural norms and educational structures that teach young women a lot about preventing pregnancy, but very little about how they might become pregnant — and only a sliver more about when that might no longer be possible.

I understand the fear that if high school girls were to learn to recognize the signs of ovulation, then they would rely on the lack of those symptoms as evidence that they need not use other forms of birth control. I understand the fear that if college health centers were blanketed with brochures about the inverse relationship between age and fertility, then many promising young women would be frightened into putting their educations and careers on hold. I understand that if more gynecologists were to take it upon themselves to educate women about their fertility windows, women who don’t want children and women who want children under different circumstances might be put on the defensive.

Yet, at the end of the day, I come out on the side of arming girls and women with more information — about signs of ovulation, about how long sperm can live inside the female body, about preventing STDs, about every form of contraception and, yes, about when a woman’s fertility begins to decline significantly. Knowledge, generally, leads people to act more responsibly, not less so.


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