Yes, men should be anxious about their biological clock too

There are some ingrained truths about being a woman of a certain age that you can ascribe to individual circumstance: your culture, social conditioning, a Punjabi mother.

And then there are some sewn into the very fabric of your existence, the universal dictums that cut through time, space and DNA because science and society made it so: Hello and good morning to the pernicious ticking of one's biological clock!

Specifically speaking, the female biological clock, which, as everyone knows, begins sounding a dramatically piercing alarm in your fourth decade and refuses to be put on snooze sometime after 35.

Women are human egg-timers; we have the sands of time trickling away as a metaphor for our depleting ova, while men are busy making millions of sperm until they die.

So it was remarkable to read the headlines made this week by the biggest ever fertility study of its kind: Yes, men really do have a biological clock too. Yes, it also has that tick-tocky "best to procreate while you're young" vibe about it.

Dr Laura Dodge's research into 19,000 IVF treatment cycles at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre and Harvard Medical School in Boston is far from the first to present the "news" that male fertility and sperm quality decline with age, but the fact that it has caused so much noise proves that we are never just dealing with neutral facts when we discuss baby-making, but with deeply ingrained social and scientific biases weighted against women.

Women trying to conceive are told to stop drinking, smoking and taking drugs; load up on vitamins, do more exercise and eat oily fish. But, the writer says, there is little emphasis or understanding that all of the above apply equally to would-be fathers. PHOTO: REUTERS

That's not to say good old patriarchy is to blame for the well-known statistics of pregnancy: At 35, for instance, most women have a 15-20 per cent chance of getting pregnant in a given month. At 21, that likelihood is about the highest it will ever be, at about 25 per cent. I know this because both my GP and the Daily Mail kept telling me so in the year I turned 30, when it was recommended that I might try fertility treatment - even when it turned out that I didn't need or want it.

What wasn't discussed, however, and is rarely part of the popular narrative, is that in half the cases of couples trying to conceive in the United Kingdom, it is male infertility that is the problem.

Or that, as per Dr Dodge's findings, men who wait until their 40s to have a child shrink their chances by a third. Or that a man at 41 is a fifth less able to conceive a child than when he was 30. Or that older sperm carries more DNA damage and a far greater risk of miscarriage, or autism and mental health conditions in babies.

Why is this talked about so little that one doctor writing about the male biological clock in this paper last month considered herself to be breaking a major taboo?

Take the well-worn diktats thrown at women trying to conceive: Stop drinking, smoking and taking drugs; load up on vitamins, do more exercise and eat oily fish.

All reasonable, but with little emphasis or understanding that all of the above apply equally to would- be fathers. Given that two distinct sets of chromosomal differences are needed to make a human babychild, it shouldn't be a surprise that both partners are expected to shoulder the responsibility of clean, healthy living, but how often are men told this?

Male anxieties around pregnancy haven't exactly infiltrated popular culture: (TV character) Ally McBeal hallucinated dancing babies; Charlie Sheen spent eight seasons of Two And A Half Men as a character in his 40s still worried about "settling down".

Ms Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong , brilliantly reconfigures our understanding of how this situation came to be. She writes: "The assumption that men shouldn't worry about losing fertility plays into age-old stereotypes about men being more promiscuous even into old age" - which is where your pensionable celebrity dads fit in.

She goes on to add: "We also have to remember that in a couple, the ability to have a child is bound up in both partners. A woman's biological clock is de facto her partner's too, and if they both want a child, they should feel equally anxious about it."

For centuries, scientists have shaped how men and women think about our minds, bodies and relationships with one another. We trust scientific research, in fields dominated by men, to give us objective facts that have influenced decision-makers on everything from abortion rights to the vote and how schools educate us. Yet, as Ms Saini goes on to show, so much of that story is wrong when it comes to women.

From that very first school lesson on periods, when the boys shuffled off after assembly and the girls stayed behind to listen to the wisdom of a woman from a tampon company, the vast majority of information I've absorbed about the responsibilities of reproduction has come loaded with accumulated biases.

Whether it is conversations about hormones or sexual health, women are understood and defined by their genetic make-up in a way that men rarely are.

It is a basic evolutionary fact that it takes two people smushing together to make a new person; basic social progress would be for us to agree that men don't get to opt out of all the worries that come with it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2017, with the headline 'Yes, men should be anxious about their biological clock too'. Print Edition | Subscribe