British researchers have, this week, announced the development of a new test which could tell women when they are likely to reach the menopause. Scientists already know that the women reach the menopause at a remarkably variable age because the number of egg follicles - set whilst still in their mother's womb - varies widely. The study, conducted by childhood cancer expert Dr Hamish Wallace, demonstrates a strong link between the size of the ovary and the number of egg follicles remaining. Thus, an ultrasound scan can be used to measure a woman's 'reproductive age'.
The test could have real benefits for women at high risk of losing their fertility. Women who have had successful cancer treatment, for example, could use the test to find out how much damage chemotherapy has done to their fertility. Women embarking upon IVF could be offered this test in order to give information about their chance of succeeding. And women with a family history of very early menopause might also glean valuable information from the menopause predictor.
The medical benefits of the test are clear. But what about its social implications? Will seemingly fertile women find the results of this test a boon or a burden? British newspapers have concentrated wholehearted on this issue, publishing vox pops, interviews and opinion pieces from women of all ages. Many commentators were rather disparaging about the menopause predictor, objecting to the hype surrounding the test. Women shouldn't be 'lulled into a false sense of fertility', as one columnist put it, but should understand that factors such as egg quality and miscarriage can quickly scupper a forty-something's family planning, even if she still has plenty of time left before her menopause. These are sensible words of warning. But women have been relying upon uncertain methods of family planning for long enough to know that controlling fertility is not to be taken for granted.
Other critics of the menopause test - dubbed the 'egg-timer' in one newspaper - were more concerned women being able to plan their reproductive lives. Yasmin Alibai-Brown, commenting in the Daily Mail, said that 'to remove so much of the rhythm of reproductive life and its unpredictability... seems wrong.' Broadcaster Jenni Murray suggested that rather than this test representing 'the luxury of having options', it will really only add to the 'tyranny of choice'. However, choice is precisely what is good about this test. It may not be entirely accurate or give us a full picture of whether we will be able to conceive at any particular point in our lives, but anything which provides a little more information is surely helpful.
What many of the commentators miss is that deciding when to have children is not just a matter of trying to second guess one's biological clock. Women also ask themselves questions about their relationship, their readiness to become a mother, their employer's policies in relation to maternity leave and working hours, the availability of affordable childcare or, should they decide to stop working, how many of their friends are also stay-at-home mothers. Of course, making choices is difficult when there is so much to weigh up. And that's why any information which can shed light on the imponderables can only be a good thing.