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Editor’s Note: This month, that is February 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism and STEM. We seek to challenge the exclusionary biases in the field, by inviting various articles on the works of women, queer individuals, and people from marginalised communities in STEM, the ways in which the sciences are biased, stereotypes and misconceptions in STEM, and the experiences of people from marginalised identities in the field. If you’d like to share your story, email us at maduli@feminisminindia.com.


Health and illness, although popularly presented as scientific, objective and measurable states of being, are also often socially constructed notions that influence and are influenced by our everyday interactions. Within its discourse, various sets of ideas are produced as to define what constitutes as ‘pathological’ and what sort of medical attention is required to address them. And since women’s bodies were primarily subjected to various medical experiments, especially in relation to embryology, the medicalisation of women’s bodies occurred at a more rapid pace than that of men. Even today, most of the scientific, medicinal and theoretical research and surveys on infertility are conducted on women.

Although feminists have criticised such misogynistic attempts to invariably locate infertility in the woman’s body and frame childlessness as women’s predicament, male infertility, as a medical condition receives very little attention. Various medical discourses, multiple technologies, treatments and therapies are developed and are made available only for infertile women even though male-factor infertility accounts for half of fertility issues.

Infertility, which was earlier constructed as a ‘private problem’ between heterosexual couples, has gradually grown into a social issue. In most countries, infertility is conceptualised around the woman’s body and her social life. Conversely, fertility is engineered as central to women’s identities. The most obvious explanation for this phenomenon could be that women’s bodies bear the ‘proof’ of infertility whereas men’s bodies are able to hide the evidence of reproductive ‘defect’.

Various medical discourses, multiple technologies, treatments and therapies are developed and are made available only for infertile women even though male-factor infertility accounts for half of fertility issues.

Even before IVF is considered for treatment of infertility, it is necessary to highlight that women are the first patients or ‘targets’ of the medical institution when infertility is detected for a couple. The woman is often forced to undergo an extensive infertility workup which constitutes not only physically invasive but also traumatic procedures which may be uncomfortable, expensive or even perilous for the woman’s health. In such cases, it does not matter whether the woman is actually physiologically infertile. She is now considered as ‘socially infertile’.

Also read: The Surrogacy Bill, 2019 Denies Women Agency Over Their Bodies

While in some countries, women experience infertility as a ‘secret stigma’, in other contexts, where motherhood is prized as essential and ‘natural’ to the woman’s existence, infertility becomes very difficult to hide from the larger society. So, for instance, since the West is predominantly controlled by the hegemony of modern medicine, most women have the chance to negotiate with the ‘problem’ of infertility in a secretive manner. However, in contexts like India, where both traditional and medical discourses coexist, the problem of infertility becomes more pronounced and has adverse effects on the social and marital lives of women. 

However, despite the medicalization of this condition by the doctors and practitioners, infertility cannot be an issue until parenthood is a desirable social role for the couple. Further, infertility as a condition includes, not simply the individual (often the woman), but also the broader network of relationships. This complicates the entire situation where the infertile individual not simply negotiates with the medical institution, but also with the society around them. Adding to this, there is no presence of pathological symptoms of infertility, but infertility is a condition understood by the absence of a desired situation. Further, the solution to this problem can be achieved not only by medicalised forms of ‘cure’, but could be solved by various other socio-legal methods of adoption, change of sexual partners, voluntarily being childfree, etc.

The recognition and treatment of infertility as a ‘problem’ that needs redressal, to a large extent depends upon two major aspects – the form of pro-natalism practiced and the manifestations of patriarchy within specific socio-cultural contexts. For the former, while most of the mainstream cultures are pro-natalist, their emphasis on motherhood varies. In the Indian context, motherhood is so tightly bound to heteronormative marriages that a childless (voluntarily) woman, is necessarily profiled as ‘infertile’. Infertile women are often called ‘baanjh‘ or ‘barren’, a term closely related to the infertility of land. The womb is metaphorically presented as the ‘soil’, where the ‘seed’, that is the male sperm is ‘sowed’. Various rituals are carried out throughout the lives of these women in order to ensure their fertility, absence of which could lead to marital problems and social rejection. In its most extreme manifestation of social ostracism, often these women are thought to be possessed by evil spirits and are marked as witches.

And since men are not held responsible for infertility, the so called “cure” for this problem could be as simple as the remarriage of the males.

Infertility is experienced differently across different cultures since, there is not a single kind of patriarchy, but there are multiple patriarchies that are constituted with the multiplicity of realities and contextual specificities. For example, in India, women often bear the burden of infertility on behalf of men. And since men are not held responsible for infertility, the so-called ‘cure’ for this problem could be as simple as the remarriage of the males. It could also be that women who are medically fertile, may be forced to ‘cure’ themselves or may face abandonment for a ‘disease’ they did not have at all. Infertility among men then, gets unchecked and untreated. What is interesting here, is that the ‘treatment’ of the health condition is not medicalised at all in cases of male infertility, especially because the actual ‘patient’ in such cases never consider themselves as diseased.

Also Read: The Farce Surrounding Women’s Fertility

Given that the models of modern medicine are dominant in advanced industrialised societies, women tend to find both physical and psychological help to deal with the situation. However, these new reproductive technologies are not readily available in the non-Western parts of the world. Only very poor quality modern health care services are available for affordable rates. It is important to note however, that in comparatively less developed countries there is a greater availability and utilisation of alternative systems of medicine, like traditional spiritual healers, herbalists, since modern medicinal treatments are quite expensive in the third world.

From the period of pre-diagnosis to diagnosis and treatment, women keep entering as ‘antagonists’ in the picture of infertility. Of course, there are certain women who ‘choose’ to bear the brunt of the stigma around infertility on behalf of their male counterparts. However, their ‘choice’ too is structured within particular gender roles and norms.

References

  1. The Dynamics of Marital Bargaining in Male Infertility by L. Bandlamudi and J. Lorber
  2. Choice, Gift, or Patriarchal Bargain? Women’s Consent to In Vitro Fertilization in Male Infertility by J. Lorber
  3. “It’s Different for Men”: Masculinity and IVF by K. Throsby and R. Gill
  4. The Predicament of Masculinity: Towards Understanding the Male’s Experience of Infertility Treatments by Y. S. Carmeli and D. B. Carmeli

Featured Image Source: whattoexpect.com

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