A newborn baby in an incubator. Photo: Getty Images
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True reproductive justice is more than being allowed to become a mother at an older age

Simply having the choice to have children later than before isn't a sign of greater freedom - it's simply a sign of greater privilege under the same old patriarchy.

Older mothers, feel guilty no more! David Richmond, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has decided that there’s no point in berating you for having “left it too late”. The shift towards older motherhood is, he claims, unavoidable and hence he’s not here to judge you:

I think it [the trend] is irreversible because of increasing equality in the social, professional, financial [and] corporate environment we live in. If you put a man in that situation, they would do exactly the same. I completely respect that position."

At thirty-nine and as the mother of two small children, perhaps I ought to be delighted at this laissez-faire attitude, but the truth is, I’m not. It’s not that I regret having children later (I don’t), it’s that any talk of an “irreversible” trend due to “increasing equality” strikes me as untrue. The apparent inevitability of older motherhood isn’t a sign than we’re becoming a more equal society; on the contrary, it relies on an implicit acceptance of all the inequalities that persist, ones based not just on reproductive difference, but on class, race and age.

Older motherhood is nothing to be ashamed of. Nevertheless, the risks involved in delaying conception – risks which include miscarriage, high-risk pregnancy or simply never conceiving at all – are not a price we are paying for our individual workplace “liberation”. They’re the price individual women pay for a broader societal resistance to economic redistribution and cultural transformation. That it is, apparently, unthinkable that we organise our working lives and social relations any other way is anything but a cause for celebration. As Nina Power notes in One Dimensional Woman, this betrays an appalling lack of imagination in the face of contemporary capitalism:

We can have as many vibrators as we like, and drink as much booze as we can physically tolerate, but anything else outside the echo chamber of money-possessions-pleasure is strictly verboten. Communes, you say! Collectives! Alternative models of the family! What are you, mad?! It’s a weary indictment of the state of things when virtually every book on these topics has been removed from your university library. People can’t possibly have once thought that there might be more to life than Daddy-Mummy-Me...could they?"

And yet they did. However resigned we are today, it wasn’t always like this. One of the key demands of second-wave feminism was free 24-hour nursery care, making economic independence feasible for mothers of any age, class or familial set-up. While this may now seem hopelessly naïve, it’s worth noting how much further away the UK is from such a goal in comparison with other OECD nations. How “inevitable” are a woman’s choices when they vary so greatly depending on where she was born?

Radical feminism has argued that men exploit women for their reproductive capacities. To many this will sound ludicrous. But they don't, not any more! Women have the right to choose! But (relatively) legal abortion, access to contraception and a (slight) reduction in the expectation that all women must breed are not the same as true reproductive justice. This is a point that Black feminists and womanists have made repeatedly but which middle-class white feminists have often ignored, focussing instead on how to work the current system before realising it doesn’t work, not even for us. It’s a mark of our privilege that we leave it too late. We’ve bought into a myth of choice which wasn’t even offered to the majority of women. 

In a 1989 interview with Time magazine (quoted by Power), Toni Morrison offers up a vision of motherhood that is truly inclusive, dependent not on wealth, race, age or the presence of a partner (male or female):

I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community – everybody – to raise a child […][Young Black mothers] can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. […] I want to take them all in my arms and say, ‘Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.’ That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.

When challenged over how one would in fact pay for this since “you can’t just hand out money”, Morrison’s response is simple:

Why not? Everybody gets everything handed to them. The rich get it handed – they inherit it. I don’t mean just inheritance of money. I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s shared bounty of class.

To put the injustice in such simple terms is, I think, devastating. We deprive mothers and babies of the support they need to thrive because we’ve reduced it to a matter of “individual choice”. We describe the different choices women make as “inevitable” even though they are quite clearly dependent on social prejudice, racial privilege and the prioritisation of profit over human life. We even have the nerve to couch this in terms of “increasing equality”. It is nothing of the sort.

My partner once taught a bright eight-year-old girl who told him she planned on having a baby at twelve. Taken aback, he asked her why:

If I leave school at 16 the baby will just be starting so I'll be able to find a job and get my life back."

How we laughed. Laughed and laughed. And then we stopped laughing as it became clear that, given the choices currently available to young women, it's not that ridiculous a plan. We could all be doing so much better but right now we lack the will. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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