The right of a woman to control her fertility is at the very heart of feminist politics. It’s a cornerstone for women’s ability to secure economic freedom through the labour market rather than the man market, by determining when she should have a baby.
Feminism, especially in its second wave since the 1970s, has been central to producing these changes. For example, in the early part of the 20th century, contraceptive practices were rooted in men’s culture and it was men who initiated discussions of birth control, determining the choice of methods and interacting with providers.
For women with economic resources in high-income countries across the world, this is largely no longer the case. Just last week, the European Medicines Agency licensed a change in the availability of EllaOne. Now, women of any age can obtain this “morning-after pill” over the counter in pharmacies following a consultation with the pharmacist. In addition, in the UK at least, contraception is free of charge to all women from 13 years of age with a prescription from a family physician or practice nurse.
The results of this feminist movement have been immense in terms of advancing control for women over when, and with whom, they become pregnant. But with all these rights, of course, come all the responsibilities. There was no talk last week of making EllaOne or other such emergency contraception available to men. If a man walked into a pharmacy and requested EllaOne, would he be regarded as being a loving partner or a coercive one?
This problem raises the question of how men participate in family planning as well as heat-of-the-moment decision making. Why is it that women’s bodies bear the responsibility of birth control? Why don’t we have a range of contraception available for men other than the male condom or male vasectomy? Men are assumed to be sexually active but reproductively innocent.
The same issue applies to fertility. We often hear stories of a fertility crisis in relation to women delaying childhood in order to have both career and babies, only to find assisted reproductive technologies are not always successful. Where are all the men in these stories?
A growing body of evidence suggests that men’s bodies are also implicated in this fertility crisis, highlighting that sperm quality reduces with increasing paternal age from 40 years on. However, society, science and healthcare are focused on women’s maternal bodies. According to one researcher: “It’s always the wife who prompts the investigation. Men are lazier and are keen to rely on the women.”
Notwithstanding advances of techniques that rely on medically removing sperm from men’s testicles, most invasive fertility treatments are practised on women’s bodies. This is even the case when fertility problems rest with the male partner and methods are used to help make the woman’s body more receptive to faulty sperm.
The suggestion that men should be offered the option of freezing their sperm at 18 through the NHS is another way of offering men the opportunity to kick this topic into touch. Why not instead help boys and men to think through the potential of fatherhood in their lives, to plan it alongside their work lives as women do? Why not make fatherhood a routine part of relationship and sex education in schools – and encourage boys, as well as girls, to have conversations about when and how they might become a parent? It’s time to engage boys and men in the foreplay of fatherhood.
Fatherhood has recently received increased positive attention in society. But there is also a need to engage men productively so they have opportunities to think and plan for parenthood alongside their reproductive partners and receive appropriate counselling and medical treatment.