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What's with the fertility panic?

By Natasha Cica - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

Right now there's widespread panic over the reproductive performance of Australian women. It has crept in almost everywhere and its pitch is shrill.

A range of otherwise sensible newspaper columnists, public intellectuals, TV newsreaders and feminists have joined the usual vocal suspects - fundamentalist Catholic bishops and their spooky political bedfellows, shock jocks, women-who-want-to-be-women (aren't they already?), not to mention aspirational grandparents - in fingering the worry-beads about how, when, and how many babies will be born to the average woman in an average year, from here to eternity.

The stated subject of concern is Everywoman. But the hot needles of critical scrutiny are really out for one particular kind of woman - working women in our 30s who are not also mothers. Or not yet mothers, or quite possibly or quite definitely never will be mothers. Or won't be "mother enough", because even if we started screwing with intent to conceive last Tuesday there is so little time left to pop a prime number of children larger than one.


And our dwindling supply of eggs is getting more addled with every day that ticks by. And soon, when we wake up to ourselves, usually around our 35th birthday or later if we're in lobotomy-level denial, we'll all be "on the hunt", and doomed to failure anyway because there's nothing more terrifying to men than that - except perhaps the prospect of a growing cabal of barren spinsters.

And, we're told, it's really important to get people talking about this issue before it's too late – for us, and for Australia.

Oh really? Might the fertility panic be fuelled, even driven, by other factors?

One defining feature of this target group of women, apart from childlessness, is that on the whole, we have better incomes, formal qualifications, and, incidentally, wardrobes - yes Virginia, beyond Collette Dinnigan there lies Prada – than women and men who have made, or had available to them, different choices. We are also generally more widely travelled, read and danced, and generally more sexually experienced and confident.

Most of us have experienced the loss of at least one great love, and its accompanying visceral grief, without devastating the lives of small children in the process. None of us has tricked or manipulated anyone into fatherhood. Most of us place great value on children, parenting and family but don't buy the white-picket fantasy. Crucially, on top of all of this, a lot of us are bloke magnets as never before, and most of us are still fertile. Some of us are even quietly hopeful of becoming mothers.

I can see why this package might fascinate, puzzle and intimidate a lot of people whose own package looks rather different. I can see how aspects of it might play terribly on their own insecurities and disappointments – everyone thinking and feeling adult has some - surrounding their own decisions about living life.


But what happens when these anxieties break out in an Australia whose nerves have already been scraped raw by hyped-up fears about protecting our body politic from a host of enemies, within and without? Tampa, terrorism and other tricky fallouts from globalisation have combined to hit some very basic panic buttons, which sit there in all of us. Pushing these buttons all together makes possible book-burning, lynching and, indeed, the hunting of witches.

So the fertility panic in Australia is more than unhelpful. It's dangerous.

It's another plank in the fortress mentality that increasingly defines Australia, and restricts the options available to its peoples - by defining difference as essentially a threat.

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An edited version of this article recently appeared in The Age.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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