Do I think fertility education should be taught in schools? Definitely, and in some schools, it is already on the curriculum.
As a teen and young adult, the closest I got to to fertility education was “don’t get pregnant, or a disease”.I wasn’t even given much information on that, having attended a Catholic school. I had no idea that my late-starting period (age 16) and my irregular lengthy cycle was an issue at all.
Even as a student nurse, fertility and infertility were too specialist to be taught in depth. Fortuitously, whilst still training, a notice about a clinical trial found its way into my hands. The notice was requesting a control group: someone not on hormonal contraception willing to wander around for a couple of days wearing a blood pressure cuff. It was investigating any links between high blood pressure and something I hadn’t heard of: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS.
I thought I may as well do my bit and, as part of the trial included an abdominal ultrasound, I was excited to have an opportunity to know my insides looked healthy. At 18 years old, I clocked up the hours with the blood pressure cuff which was monitoring my ridiculously low blood pressure – a family trait. I had a couple of blood tests and then the ultrasound. Expecting this to be the end of it, I was surprised to receive a call from the consultant asking me to pop in for a chat.
Low and behold, my blood tests and scan showed exactly the opposite to what I was supposed to be part of the control group for: I had PCOS. It was apparent my ovaries weren’t releasing an egg – not that month anyway – and that my irregular and long cycle was classic of PCOS, which could affect my chances of having a baby amongst a host of other medical issues.
At the end of this chat I was reminded if I wanted a family to “get on with it sooner rather than later”. I felt alarmed. However, I also felt grateful I had this information with enough time to act on the advice. Up until this point, I hadn’t given any thought to my fertility being on a time line. I was only a young woman, after all.
I went on to experience my own infertility journey having decided to try and get pregnant not long after.
I went through surgery, medication trials and then “unexplained infertility” when, even though I had begun ovulating (releasing an egg), I still didn’t get pregnant. It was a really scary and challenging time.
During this period of medical intervention, I was introduced to a nurse who taught me natural fertility methods. I learnt about the anatomy and physiology and the signs the body tells you when it’s fertile. I learnt about my own menstrual cycle and mine and my partner’s combined fertility.
Again, I wondered why this information was not taught at school. I found it empowering and my partner was also fascinated. It was a significant part of my feeling more in control of a part of my life that was feeling further and further away from my life plan.
Fortunately in my case, after about three years of trying, we were pregnant. We had a healthy baby boy and, two years later, a healthy baby girl followed. Having these experiences most definitely contributed to my decision to specialise in women’s health care and, ultimately, fertility nursing.
As my children started school, I was interested to see how sexuality education had improved.I was disappointed to find not much had changed from my day. Very little time was spent on the subject in younger years and the only focus in older years was on avoiding pregnancy and diseases.
Also, I noted this education often used fear tactics.
Additionally at this time, I was given an amazing opportunity to train with the charity Natural Fertility NZ as an educator. I worked with women and couples. Some were trying to conceive and others were avoiding conception. The feedback was always the same. “Why weren’t we taught this at school?” Often, couples had no idea about age and its relation to fertility, male factor infertility, lifestyle choices and fertility. They had little general understanding of when a woman is fertile and what the body does which may indicate a problem with fertility.
Many women had left attempting to conceive far later in life than they would otherwise have done, had they been aware of this information. Others expressed that they thought IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies would solve any problems.
This isn’t always the case.
In response to these issues and comments, I decided to spend some time researching and finally put together programmes for kids while they’re at school. They’re meant to empower these students by teaching them about their bodies at age-appropriate levels.
At the end of 2009, we ran our first workshop.
There are now 102 programmes, at various year levels, running throughout Auckland and Northland with plans to expand to Waikato and Tauranga. Every single school that has run the programme has rebooked.
The timeless topics of avoiding pregnancy and infections are very much included for the appropriate age groups, with a focus on avoiding but also on what to do if it happens without shame or blame. But we also acknowledge the importance of really understanding consent, the risks of pornography, social media, what a healthy relationship is, body image and fertility wonder.
Research repeatedly suggests that giving teens information results in positive outcomes such as less sexual contact, safer sexual contact, fewer infections and fewer teen pregnancies.
Infertility affects men and women, up to one in four of us. Perhaps with a little information, delivered early enough, treatment could be sought sooner reducing these statistics substantially.
It needs to start with younger children receiving good sexuality education at home, and at school.
By the time they reach high school, they should already have a good relationship with their body and their place in the world, with solid skills in communication and decision making.
In my opinion, it is a subject that needs to be taught, and taught well.