Written by SEAN PARNELL
What will the babies of today grow up to think of our world? How will their world be different to the one we grew up in, the one that seems to be changing around us? One thing is for certain, today’s children will have longer to figure it all out than we have. The Australian Bureau of Statistics last week reported that females born last year could be expected to live to 84.6 years on average, while males have a life expectancy of 80.4 years. Our boys have the third-highest life expectancy in the world and our girls the sixth. Improvements in quality of life and medicine have done much to increase our lifespan. In the 125 years to 2015, life expectancy in Australia increased by 33.2 years for males and 33.7 years for females — extraordinary gains only now starting to slow down as causes of death shift from infectious diseases to chronic diseases.
The most recent data from the ABS has Australia’s fertility rate, for 2015, at 1.81 babies per woman, down from a 30-year high of 2.02 in 2008 (actual real-life babies come in whole numbers).
Since 1976, the fertility rate has been below replacement level, which is to say the average number of babies born to a woman has been insufficient to replace herself and her partner.
Fertility rates were highest for women aged 30-34 years, while the teenage fertility rate has continued to decline. Fresh data will be released by the ABS in December.
For a variety of factors, including socio-economic status, there are state by state differences in births, fertility and life expectancy: the ACT had the highest median age of mothers (31.7 years), and the Northern Territory the lowest (29.5 years); the NT had the highest fertility rate (2.11 babies per woman) and Victoria the lowest (1.68 babies per woman); and the ACT had the highest male and female life expectancy (81.3 years and 85.2 years) and the NT the lowest (75.6 years and 78.7 years).
Of the babies born as a result of in vitro fertilisation, most come from frozen embryos for the first time, according to a report out this month.
The University of NSW’s National Perinatal Epidemiology and Statistics Unit found that in 2015 there were 7412 babies brought into the world as a result of frozen embryos compared with 6628 from fresh embryos.
“This move to more babies being born using frozen embryos reflects changes in clinical practice as well as improvements in IVF success rates using frozen embryos,” says Michael Chapman, president of the Fertility Society of Australia.
There was a 6 per cent increase in the number of IVF treatment cycles performed in 2015, compared with 2014, with 77,721 cycles reported from Australian and New Zealand clinics. A total of 13,344 babies were born following IVF treatment in Australian clinics and 1447 in New Zealand clinics in 2015.
The report also charted a decrease in the rate of multiple deliveries, from 6.9 per cent in 2011 to 4.4 per cent in 2015.
IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies are helping people have babies but not everyone will be successful.
Speaking at the FSA annual conference last week, fertility specialist Bill Ledger said women had a better understanding than men about declining fertility with age “but at times there is an element of self-delusion about their chances of success from IVF”.
“Some older women explain that they have healthy lifestyles, including being fit and having a good diet, but physical health has no influence over egg health or egg reserve,” Ledger said.
Ledger said a woman with normal ovaries had about 80 per cent chance of pregnancy after two cycles of IVF, including both fresh and frozen embryo transfers. This figure falls to about 10 per cent at age 42. “We can’t beat biology,” he said.
Ledger urged health practitioners to rely on the latest evidence, data and statistics to inform individuals and couples, and support them through the process — including, for some, the grief of not having a child.