A couple of news stories about reproduction are floating around the internets this week: One about how watching too much TV might lower male fertility, and another about how the economy will tank if women don’t pop out more babies, stat. One is based on a health study; the other is the opinions of Jonathan V. Last, a journalist who just wrote a book about politics, fertility, and demographics called “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting.” Neither story necessarily commands readers to take action or address the issue at hand as an emergency, but they do follow a frustrating trend in stories about reproduction and fertility: That it’s a woman’s job to worry about making babies.
Harvard researchers are responsible for delivering the bad news about sperm: Their study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, says that 20 hours a week of television is detrimental to sperm count, and 15 hours of exercise or more per week can boost sperm quality, based on data collected from a group of 200 college student volunteers. The study doesn’t actually reveal much about the television-sperm connection; their theories include a) sitting for long periods on a couch could overheat the scrotum, damaging sperm, and b) sitting for long periods on a couch could correlate with obesity, which could affect fertility.
In a BBC article, Dr. Allan Pacey, an andrology expert who wasn’t involvedin the study, summarized what the study means for men:
It remains to be seen if coaxing a TV-watching couch potato into doing some regular exercise could actually improve his sperm count. Or whether there exists an unknown fundamental difference between men who like exercise and those who do not which might account for the findings.
This should be a relatively easy study to perform, but before all worried men hunt for their sports bag it’s important to note that other research suggests that doing too much exercise can be harmful to sperm production.
So: Don’t worry about it, guys!
Jonathan Last, on the other hand, emphatically wants us to worry about fertility and having babies. In “The Baby Bust,” a book teaser published in the Wall Street Journal, he explains why America’s success in the future absolutely depends on more women having babies.
He offers several solutions: To lower tax rates for people who have kids, to make it easier to not get a college education, and to make it easier for people to get decent jobs in the suburbs, so they can spend money on babies instead of rent. His proposed solutions aren’t all female-centric, but his explanation for how we got into a fertility pickle in the first place hints at the kind of news we’ve been hearing about fertility for a long time–that women are screwing everything up by being educated and having careers:
There’s a constellation of reasons for this decline: Middle-class wages began a long period of stagnation. College became a universal experience for most Americans, which not only pushed people into marrying later but made having children more expensive. Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men. More important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing. And the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.
And, while the aforementioned solutions to this problem are things that society can work on (not just women), on closer examination, they don’t address the problem of making it easier for women to earn a decent income and be mothers, too. Over at Slate, Amanda Marcotte summed it up perfectly:
He dismisses the French approach of offering cheap day care, because “France, for example, hasn’t been able to stay at the replacement rate, even with all its day-care spending.” But wait: If the goal is to have more people earning money, innovating and creating, and paying taxes, then the policy does work, unless you think, for some reason, that the women who are freed up by cheaper day care to earn income, innovate and create, and pay taxes don’t count because the only economic contribution women can make is to make more men.
I’d argue instead that if the system is set up so that it fails if women don’t start popping out more kids, then it’s a broken system and should be reworked to account for the reality of America today. If women don’t want to have more children, then instead of abandoning women’s equality as a goal, we should rework our economic system so it doesn’t rely on a steadily growing population to function.
And it wouldn’t hurt to start framing fertility as a problem that isn’t just for women.