Perhaps some Crikey readers are old enough to remember when Bettina Arndt was a credible voice on gender and sexuality. But for my generation she’s just that nutty reactionary who likes to criticise women for not adhering to submissive gender roles, and to blame them for any unhappiness in their intimate lives.

Judging from the 555 outraged comments on her op-ed in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, I suspect the paper feels similarly cynical about using Arndt to be provocative. (The Age turned down the story when Arndt offered it to them.)

It’s not really worth responding in detail to Arndt’s ostensible argument, which was that Julia Gillard’s ascension to PM will encourage other Australian women to emulate her decision not to marry and not to have children. Which Arndt believes are bad decisions. Pat Rafter was involved somehow, too.

Hearteningly, the popularity of the Twitter hashtag #wastingpreciousbreedingtime demonstrates the public’s ability to mitigate an intended provocation into a joke.

But Arndt does, inadvertently, reveal a social attitude to women’s fertility that’s far more widely accepted than her critics might like. It’s the attitude that fertility is a game, a gamble, in which women are the sole players, and they ‘win’ or ‘lose’ depending on how they ‘play the odds’.

Just on Monday we learned of a proposed blood test that could predict women’s menopause decades in advance, to an accuracy of within months.

An Iranian research team says the test’s main use would be planning for the potential health risks of early or late menopause: osteoporosis, cardiovascular disorders, and increased risk of breast or uterine cancers.

But if we think, as Arndt seems to, that women are gambling with their fertility by entering into de facto relationships — that is, they are ‘betting’ on their likelihood of having children within an unpredictable set of circumstances — the new test sounds like bookies’ odds — a rough, not always reliable, indicator of where to place your bets.

That’s the way the media are viewing this scientific discovery. The Vancouver Sun’s headline was “Menopause test empowers women”, while The Guardian reported, “Menopause test could close baby gap”.

Well, not really. Associate Professor Peter Illingsworth, president of the Fertility Society of Australia, told The Australian that menopause isn’t the same as the end of fertility, “which is a much more gradual thing. So even if one could predict the day of the last period, of which I’m sceptical, that doesn’t help many women.”

As a culture, we rarely stop to ask why we feel so strongly that childbearing is a gamble of risk and return, and that it’s solely women’s game to win or lose. And we don’t only criticise educated career women for wasting their “precious breeding time”. Pretty much all women are problem fertility gamblers.

We condemn women who take economic risks by having large families or raising children alone. We condemn teenagers who gamble their futures away by becoming young mothers, and older women who cheat their offspring of an energetic childhood by being doddery, exhausted mums.

Thing is, women’s decisions about childbearing are not, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, about “knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em”. Motherhood can indeed come down to an unpredictable and chaotic combination of emotions, decisions and resources. But we need to recognise that if it’s a game at all, it is largely a game of chance, not a game of skill.

Bettina Arndt, along with many other media commentators, is telling women that they need to play the fertility game shrewdly and calculatedly. If they end up gambling and ‘losing’ in their private lives, it’s their own fault for not seeing the odds were against them.

But childbearing is not just a gamble women take. Men are deeply implicated, too: their reproductive health, personal choices and financial circumstances can determine the likelihood of pregnancy as much as their partners’ fertility.

Yet we’re keen to believe the stakes are much higher for women. Rather than acknowledging men’s role in childbearing, we’re putting all the pressure on women and saying that even their choice of partner is another variable in the game; another card they’ve got to play right.

The house always wins. The anxiety that women will gamble foolishly and recklessly on their fertility is everywhere in the media and in our quiet judgments of other people’s lives. However, we need to be much more compassionate and supportive. Rather than seeing decisions around childbearing as a short-odds game whose risks need to be mitigated, we need to reimagine it as a shared responsibility between men and women. Otherwise we all become the losers.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey