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14 May 2014

UK: Fertility misconceptions leading to unwanted pregnancies among older women

Messages about the difficulties older women may face conceiving are leading to unwanted pregnancies among this age group, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service warns.

Launching a new guide to fertility, Bpas said that it sees women in their 30s and 40s everyday with unplanned pregnancy who were not using contraception at the time they fell pregnant because they thought it was unlikely they could conceive. While the majority of women are using contraception when they have an unplanned pregnancy, data from more than 150,000 women attending bpas clinics for abortion care show older women were less likely to have used contraception than those under 30. This is often because they have underestimated their chances of conceiving.

Widespread warnings that women are “leaving it too late” or “banking on IVF” has fostered the impression that women in this age group will find it difficult to conceive naturally. Bpas has produced a new guide to fertility to provide all women with accurate information about their fertility and combat some prevalent misapprehensions about when women may find it harder to conceive.

Bpas conducted a survey of almost 300 women aged 30 and above about their perceptions of fertility. The survey found that 88% of women thought that being older than 35 makes it “very difficult” to get pregnant naturally, yet the most recent studies found that 82% of women aged between 35 and 39 will conceive within a year of having regular unprotected sex. In addition, around one in 25 births and abortions are now to women over 40.

National statistics show that conception rates have increased dramatically among older women. For women aged 30-34, the conception rate has increased by a third since 1990, and over 20% in last 10 years. Conception rates among women aged 35-39 have almost doubled since 1990, and also risen by over one third during the last decade. Women aged over 40 have seen the greatest rise in conception rates, which have more than doubled since 1990 and increased by over one third in the last 10 years.

Misconceptions about difficulties conceiving naturally are so rife that over one third of women thought that between 10% and 20% of babies born each year were as a result of IVF or donor insemination because of difficulties conceiving naturally – when in reality the figure is 2%.

Ann Furedi, bpas Chief Executive said:

“Over the past few years we have seen much scaremongering about older women’s fertility. From “career women” leaving it too late to older women “banking on IVF” to conceive, these stories lead many women to dramatically underestimate their own fertility later in life. At bpas we see more women over 35 with unplanned pregnancy than we do women under 18. We know from speaking to women that stories and campaigns suggesting it’s hard to get pregnant after 35 – even if well intentioned – are having a real impact on women’s perception of their own fertility, and therefore their use of contraception.

“Women deserve accurate, impartial information to make their own choices about family planning in their 30s. Fertility does decline as you get older, but the drop is not as great as we are sometimes led to believe. For women who don’t want to fall pregnant the message is simple: use contraception until you have passed your menopause.”

The findings from bpas were widely reported across the press, including: 

Abortions rise as women under false illusion they don’t need contraception: Women under false illusion they don’t need contraception because of their age. Daily Mail, 13 May 2014

Abortion among over-40s on rise as older women mistakenly shun contraception: Increasing numbers of women in their 40s are having abortions as they are less likely to use contraception than those in their 20s due to mistaken beliefs about fertility. Daily Telegraph, 13 May 2014

‘Testing’ out fertility is leading to rising number of pregnancies. Shocking. Fertility myths that are just plain WRONG leading to unplanned pregnancies. Cosmopolitan, 13 May 2014

Older women beat teens in unwanted pregnancies. Times, 14 May 2014

Also read:

Analysis: What’s the problem with older mothers? Reproductive Review, 3 February 2014

This Q&A reviews the scientific and medical debates about later motherhood, seeking a balance between understanding the biological barriers to having babies in later life, and the lived reality – that many women do have healthy pregnancies in their late thirties. It situates this discussion in its wider social context, and indicates the policy implications that might flow from a trend towards later maternal age.

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