Across the world, couples are waiting longer to have children. This tendency has gone on for decades in the west and shows no signs of stopping. In the United States, the average age for a woman to have her first child rose from 21.4 in 1970 to 26 in 2013. Statistics for Europe, Asia, and the Middle East show similar data. But why now? What about our current age has produced such an effect?
While ever improving access to family planning services is undoubtedly a key factor, studies in Europe have suggested that a rise in the age of the arrival of a first child corresponds to increased participation in the labour force by women. Suggesting that women in the workforce wish to devote time to their work, despite the surprising benefits to productivity that having a child can bring. Considering the increasing number of opportunities women have in the workplace around the world, this trend of advanced maternal age is only likely to continue.
Having a child at a later age has various benefits and risks. Children born to older women tend to have a lower birth weight, more chromosomal abnormalities, and other negative outcomes. However, advanced maternal age is also associated with better parenting practices, a more stable home life, and higher income. Whether those factors cause or are caused by advanced maternal age remains in dispute.
However, the tendency of having a child later in life poses new and important questions for the ethics of parenting. Key among them, is there a right to have grandparents? After all, mothers who give birth at age forty-five run a five and a half percent chance of dying before their child’s 18th birthday. For that child’s grandparents the odds are undoubtedly much higher. If a child is born too late they can hardly be expected to have much of a relationship with their grandparents at all.
Gillian Lockwood, a British medical director, has recently suggested that delaying childbirth to the point where a relationship with grandparents is denied amounts to depriving the child of something valuable. Citing the benefits of a strong bond with grandparents that becomes impossible to forge for a child born too late.
There is more to consider here than just the effects on child. What parent doesn’t occasionally ask for the help of someone who is experienced? What parent hasn’t sent the kids to their grandparent’s house for a few hours of peace? Is the loss of being able to expect grandparents to help raise children a major loss for all involved?
And what about the concerns of our elderly grandparents? They may not have a right to grandchildren, but as Ira Byock, professor of medicine and of community health and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School, explains, they too frequently receive short shrift.
Perhaps having a child later in life is disadvantageous to the child in more ways than just the health risks? Of course, if the parents had a child at an earlier date, it wouldn’t be the same child to disadvantage. This is the “Non-Identity Problem” in philosophy; the problem of trying to improve some person’s existence by altering the circumstances that allow them to exist. Think your child would have been better off being born at a different time? They wouldn’t be, because then you are discussing a different person. Some argue that this renders any discussion of what a child born to older parents is deprived of a moot point.
The ethics of reproduction have other answers to the question of the right to grandparents that more directly answer it. Perhaps most practical is Julian Savulescu’s principle of “procreative beneficence”. His principles support having children who can be expected to have the best life. His work is concerned with embryo selection, but can also be applied easily to the question of when to have children. Perhaps having a long relationship with your grandparents is objectively good for a child? Whether or not that good outweighs the negatives of having a child when the parents are too young is another question.
Of course, the decision to have or not have children at all is a personal one. The question of if children are owed grandparents or not is but one question of many that prospective parents must ask when deciding if to have children. Given the demographics of our age, it is one that will be asked more often then it ever has been before.
Busetta, Annalisa, and Ornella Giambalvo. "The Effect of Women’s Participation in the Labour Market on the Postponement of First Childbirth: A Comparison of Italy and Hungary." Journal of Population Research J Pop Research 31.2 (2014): 151-92.
Mathews, TJ. "Delayed Childbearing: More Women Are Having Their First Child Later in Life" (PDF). 2009. CDC
Morris, J. K., D. Mutton E., and E. Alberman. "Revised Estimates of the Maternal Age Specific Live Birth Prevalence of Down's Syndrome." Journal of Medical Screening 9.1 (2002): 2-6.
Schmidt, L., T. Sobotka, J. Bentzen G., and A. Andersen Nyboe. "Demographic and Medical Consequences of the Postponement of Parenthood." Human Reproduction Update 18.1 (2011): 29-43.