There’s a phrase I’ve seen a few times recently that has gotten me thinking–it’s “social infertility.” I think it is worth spending a little time understanding what the term adds.
I think there are at least two separate questions to address–but they are so intertwined I don’t know if I can really separate them. And one of them–the first–seems to me to be sort of messy on its own.
The first question is what “social infertility” means. This seems to require thinking about what “infertility” means when used without the modifier. The second question is why a distinct term like “social infertility” might be useful. All in all this seems like a surprisingly knotty problem.
To begin with, I’m not entirely sure whether “social infertility” is proposed as an alternative to “infertility” (which would mean these stand as two distinct and non-overlapping categories) or whether “social infertility” is a specific subcategory of unmodified “infertility.”
Just from the structure of the language, it seems like “social infertility” should be a subset of “infertility.” This means that people who are “socially infertile” are “infertile” but there are other people who are also in the big category “infertile” but are not “socially infertile.” Maybe they are “medically infertile?” I’m not sure. In any event, I do think you have to start with what it means to be infertile–no modifier. And here is where I find myself becoming confused.
You could say that being infertile means being unable to produce a genetically related child. But that definition seems like it is way too expansive. No individual can conceive a child alone–we all know that (at least for now) it takes two gametes (egg and sperm) to conceive. So if infertile meant simply unable to produce a genetic child than by definition all individuals are infertile. As are all couples that are not male/female. As are many male/female couples. (In fact, given the limits on women’s reproductive capacity and the lengthening lifespans, I wonder if it isn’t true that most male/female couples are infertile, because in many of these couples women are beyond the child-bearing years.)
I just don’t think this is how we generally use “infertile.” Healthy single people do not think of themselves as infertile nor are they generally thought of that way.
So now I think I need to go back and reconsider what “infertile” means. I think that as we generally use it, it’s really reserved for people who are medically infertile. (The thing is, I’m not sure I know what I mean by that–imagine me waving my hands a bit here.)
In fact, I think this takes us back to the relationship between “infertile” and “socially infertile.” It seems that my initial supposition was wrong. Perhaps. the whole point of the phrase “socially infertile” is to distinguish people who do not have any traditional fertility issues but are infertile only because of their social position. So a single person is socially infertile. And a same-sex couple is socially infertile. And this is meant to be contrasted with “infertile” (unmodified). That term is actually reserved for those who are medically infertile.
Now is it useful to distinguish between those who are medically infertile (understanding that term is fuzzy to me) and those who are socially infertile? I think there are times when it might be. For instance, the fertility issue for a lesbian couple (they need sperm) is quite different from the problem faced by a medically infertile heterosexual couple. (Indeed, as I understand it, sometimes the causes of medical (as opposed to social) infertility) are never fully understood. The lesbian couple’s problem is (relatively) easy to solve.
It’s tempting to say that the issues for those who are socially infertile aren’t medical issues and in some ways that is true. But in fact, we (as a society?) have medicalized the problem. Or maybe reproductive medicine has taken over the field. In any event, the lesbian couple needing sperm goes to a doctor–in part because many sperm banks don’t just send sperm to individuals. Even beyond that, the lesbian couple might wish to use some of the more advanced technologies to increase the likelihood of conception.
I have a suspicion (not investigated and hence nothing more than that) that the term “social infertility” is often used to diminish the significance of the problem faced by those in the category. I’m thinking of reasoning that might go like this: Those who are “truly’ (or what I have called “medically”) infertile have a real problem we should all acknowledge. But those who are socially infertile don’t have any “real’ problems and are just complaining about the laws of nature and the relationship of those laws to the choices they make.
Yet this suspicion notwithstanding, I think the term is an interesting one. As you can doubtless see, I’m just organizing my thoughts about this, but I think there must be more to say.
The thing is, I don’t think we really identify all those people as infertile. So it must be that I have the definition wrong. First, I wonder if “infertilite” is only applied to different sex couples who are otherwise potentially fertile.
Of course, defined this way many instances of infertility are not medical issues at all. And I think that is what “social infertility” is meant to capture. So maybe we can say that single people are socially infertile. Perhaps this suggests that they can address their infertility by altering their social arrangements–if a man and a woman–each infertile as an individual–team up, then maybe they are fertile.
For purposes of medical treatment one probably does need to distinguish between “social infertility” and “infertility” a