Back To Social Infertility

A couple posts back I put up something on “social infertility”–a phrase I had run across that struck me as interesting.   Then just as the discussion there got going, the Florida Supreme Court issued an important opinion and I got sidetracked.   Now I want to return to the social infertility discussion, but tie in something that made more apparent by the Florida case.

One thing was particularly striking to me in the discussion around social infertility.   I began with the assumption that “social infertility” was rather a disparaging term.   Those who were merely “socially” infertile could be distinguished from those who were “medically” (or perhaps “really”) infertile.    Since they weren’t “really” infertile they might be entitled to lesser concern–perhaps not covered by insurance or maybe even not able to access fertility services.

But my assumption was, if not wrong, at least debatable.   For readers the phrase “social infertility” was an effort by those who were not really infertile to claim the mantle of infertility–and with it the benefits of health care, etc.   In other words, “social infertility” could be understood as a term strategically employed to claim entitlements.

It’s not so much that one of the other of these is true–I can see it both ways.    But I didn’t, initially, see it both ways and so I’ve learned something.   (It would be lovely if someone researched the history of the term and figured out where it came from, though this would not conclusively resolve questions about how it is used now.)

There was another thread to the discussion on the earlier post that I want to pick up on.    Does infertility afflict an individual or a couple?  In a way, all individuals is socially infertile–which is to say that no individual produce genetic offspring by herself or himself.   The individual has to have genetic material from another individual.   If you are all by yourself you are, because of your social position, infertile.

In fact, infertility is frequently diagnosed in a couple.   As was noted in the comments, if a different sex couple doesn’t get pregnant after a year’s unprotected sex, then they may be deemed infertile.   And it a way it makes sense–that couple is unable to conceive.  Of course, there may well be some identifiable medical issue that only directly affects one of them, but that in fact does have an impact on both of them.

But here, to me, is where things get a bit slippery.  Suppose you have a woman who is unable to produce eggs.   I think I would say she is infertile.   Now suppose she is married to man who is perfectly able to produce sperm.   Is the married couple infertile?  Maybe so.

But it seems to me that the man is socially infertile rather than medically infertile.   What I mean is that there’s no reason he cannot father a genetic child except for his social position–as spouse of a woman who does not produce eggs.    But we may think of his social infertility differently.  We do not expect him to go off and find some new fertile partner.  We respect his choice of spouse.  And we deal with the couple’s infertility issue so that they can have children.

Now suppose instead the woman who cannot produce eggs is married to another woman, who I will call her wife.  I think I could say many of the same things.   The wife could find a different spouse (fertile male) and have children.  Thus the wife is socially infertile.    Do we expect her to go off and find some new (fertile and male) partner any more than we expected the husband to in the preceding example?   Why?  Why don’t we respect her choice of spouse and deal with the couple’s infertility issue?

The one constant in both of these cases is the woman who cannot produce eggs.   That, I suppose, is “real”  (as opposed to “social”)  infertility.  Is it possible that her infertility somehow changes how we think about her spouse’s infertility?

I ask this because here is my next example.   Keep the second variation–with the two women who are married.   But now let’s suppose the first woman can produce eggs.   So now both spouses are socially infertile–meaning each of them could go off and find another person (fertile male) to have kids with and could produce children.   Do we expect them to do that?     Perhaps when only one of a couple is socially infertile and the other is really infertile we are more solicitous of the couple’s infertility?   Which suggests that infertility is not so much about individual condition but rather the condition of the couple?

I’m really not at all sure what I think about all this.   But it does seem to me that the husband in my initial example is just as much socially infertile as the wife in the second example.   But maybe I’m missing something.

I would note that in the Florida case one woman could not produce eggs and so the other provided the eggs.   I’ve been pondering that  for other reasons.   In any event, there’s a real case where one woman is socially infertile and the other woman is really infertile.   How should we think about that?  Would we do better if fertility were just an individual concern?

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27 responses to “Back To Social Infertility

  1. My parent's donor is my father

    Infertility is always individual.

    I would consider ‘social infertility’ both heterosexual/coupled (when one or both partner(s) is infertile) or uncoupled (when one single individual does not/can not find a partner to reproduce with) and homosexual (when both partners are fertile or infertile but are naturally incapable of reproducing together).

  2. My parent's donor is my father

    Which is why I strongly disagree with “donor conception” being classified as an “infertility treatment” for anyone.

  3. The majority of cases of medical infertility is a result of sub-fertility from both parties. This is not widely understood.

    Again, the Mayo clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/infertility/DS00310/DSECTION=causes

    “In about one-third of cases, the cause of infertility involves only the male.
    In about one-third of cases, the cause of infertility involves only the female.
    In the remaining cases, the cause of infertility involves both the male and female, or no cause can be identified.”

    Most cases of medical infertility are actually sub-fertility. If one of the partners is switched out with a young, very healthy individual, the chances of pregnancy occurring within a few years goes up significantly. This is true for both males and females.

    • This is really interesting to me. It makes me return to the underlying question here–why do we need to distinguish between types of infertility? Or who needs to distinguish and when?

      Despite the fact that I can see that from a medical point of view, infertility is at least sometimes an individual issue, I do think that we have accepted the idea that a heterosexual couple with one infertile partner is infertile. At least, I’d contend, it is widely thought about that way. Given this statistic it seems there’s good reason for that–that a couple’s infertility really may be inherent in the couple as a couple and not in each individual.

  4. “How should we think about that? Would we do better if fertility were just an individual concern?”

    Fertility cannot be an individual concern because humans cannot procreate individually. The fertility of eggs and sperm that have been banked will raise or lower the chances of a pregnancy occurring.

    It’s not just a simple matter of the sperm successfully fertilizing the egg. The quality of the sperm will affect the quality of the embryo, and the embryo’s ability to implant. Low quality eggs are helped by high quality sperm. Low quality sperm are helped by high quality eggs.

  5. julie you wrote that we do not expect the fertile partner to up and leave the marriage. but in act, many spouses agree to use other peoples gamwtes, precsely so the oter person will not leave the marriage, or at the very least remain in the marriage while stewing with resentment.

    • Only because fertility clinics suggest it to them as an option. When it was illegal adultery, couples just accepted their childlessness and maybe adopted or something. But then no fault divorce allowed people to leave infertile partners right and clinics started offering to impregnate women with some med student that looked like the husband, without the husband’s knowledge. And then it became more open and legal. But if 3PR wasn’t legal, maybe there’d be more divorces but also maybe there’d be more acceptance of childlessness and less pressure to spawn or raise children.

      • This is true but your delivery rubs me the wrong way. But its not like I have not be told the same thing a million times so hats off to ya.

      • Indeed–this is one of the big changes over time–the rise of ART as an available (and promoted) option. Surely once the “answer” was more likely to be adoption. I’m not sure I’d tie the change here to legalization of adultery–though I think I know how you are making that link. It’s important to think about how (and why) things changed. That’s a separate question from whether the change is good/bad.

    • so true

    • I think that’s right–and it’s a complicated dynamic. One person might feel pressured to agree to sue of third-party gametes and the other person might feel obliged to stay. Inherent in all that are questions of free choice–is it a choice to stay? Is it a choice to use third-party gametes.

      One thing that seems to me to be notable is how the perceptions about choice have changed over time. I think this might be what I’ll write about later.

      • Using someones gametes and are you using them or are you working with them to achieve a shared goal of creating a child together? Because the gamete donation agreements fairly well set out that a person donating is a willing participant in the effort of making babies and is choosing to do this with whoever chooses them or with whomever they are chosen for as the case may be. It is indeed a case of who is using whom? Since the person who donates their gametes is first on the scene looking for people to procreate and have offspring with. Truly they are looking for partners to create offspring with and people to raise their offspring for them, long before the people they eventually have offspring with had even a hunch that they might be looking to make babies with strangers. So using donor gametes really ignores the human beings whose bodies the gametes come from and their very deliberate conscious decision to create offspring with strangers. They are practically in the same boat when it comes to reproduction- in fact they really are in the exact same reproductive boat. The only difference is that the person we call donor, once a parent, also uses others to raise the children he or she reproduces to create.

  6. “But it seems to me that the man is socially infertile rather than medically infertile.”

    I would agree with your premise if it can be determined that the other spouse is not sub-fertile and one person is the clear & only cause.

    If the medical diagnosis was sure there were no other male factor influences, this would be true. In addition, the women would need to be producing no eggs, which is unusual unless she is post-menopausal or has lost both ovaries. But most women who are not good candidates for IVF are still producing eggs monthly, and may actually have a higher chance of conception naturally.

    Usually there is some form of sub-fertility in both partners for infertility to result. Compromised individuals often conceive over time with optimally fertile partners. Medical infertility would be a much wider phenomenon if this were not true.

    • Many infertile women have at least one moment in which they ‘ve offered to divorce their spouse so the spouse can find a new partner with whom to reproduce. It’s one of the many humiliations infertility wreaks on a psyche. I know I offered it to my husband. I offered to try donor eggs as well, but his opinion was that our child would be related to both of us or neither of us. My husband may have been technically “socially infertile” in our case, but he always considered it our infertility since we were in it together.

      • Well sure I did. After 13 miscarriages and having a son die the day he was born then we found out it was me with the problem – obviously if he wants to have his own bio children he might need to move on.

        • I mean what sounds more ethical? Divorcing a spouse who can’t meet your expectations or sequestering your child from the other half of their family so they’ll bond better with their step mother? How could people think its heartless to leave a spouse that can’t reproduce but it’s totally fine to pay the other parent of your child to neglect and abandon them? What is more important? some marriage that is held together by promises and paper or a child’s connection to their maternal and paternal family?

          It’s totally ethical to sever ties to biological family when it’s your own biological family and not someone else’s so long as the ties your cutting are ones where you are dependent and not those dependent upon you.

      • I think this illustrates a good reason why considering the couple as fertile/infertile makes sense. If couples behave as we want them too–as a supportive and loving unit–then it is the couple’s problem and not the individual’s and solutions have to be found that are acceptable to both people.

        Where once a spouse might be socially encouraged to move on to a fertile partner now I think our general mores encourage the spouse to stay and help find a solution. I’d say that’s better, myself. But not everyone will agree.

        • Yeah I think people put the adult relationship on such a pedestal that the world is willing to allow them to lie and build this elaborate facade at the expense of another family’s legal kinship. It’s so unjust I just can’t fathom how we’ve allowed it to go on the way we have.

          • very interesting marilyn, i agree, the romantic relationship between adults is put on a pedestal, even though in practice they are the most likely relationship to fall apart…. makes no sense. i kinda understand why gays want to be included in the worship of their romantic relationships, but its the worship itself that is problematic.
            i do beleive that walking out on a spouse who can’t conceive (or conceiving with someone else in their face and expectiing them to grin and bear it) is selfish and heartless, but i don’t think the answer is children at all costs.

  7. Good post. This twisted social construct of marital entitlement to children right here is the crux of the problem:
    “We do not expect him to go off and find some new fertile partner. We respect his choice of spouse. And we deal with the couple’s infertility issue so that they can have children.”

    What your saying is so true! What he should do is go off and find another partner who is capable of having children so that his child will not be abandoned by their mother in order to serve as his wife’s pseudo-child. There is no reason why he could not stay married to his wife and just have her be the step mother that she is really. The problem is with the adult’s inability to accept reality and deal with their problems in a mature collaborative way. They feel they deserve to have their chosen partner be the parent of their biological child even when that is not physically possible and they are willing to have a child with someone else but only if that person abandon’s their child so they can live out their fantasy of having had children with the person they love. Sadly the message this sends the message that they’d really prefer to have had children with their partner and wish their child was related to their partner and not this other person . They wish it so much that they do everything they can to destroy any connection between their child and the other parent in order to superimpose the person they love over the parent and pretend they had a child with them. It is the height of arroance and cruelty.

    • I don’t agree. i respect the decision of keannes husband. its really not a good idea to have kids when you don’t intend to be part,of the same family.

      • Ki, I respect her husband’s decision as well. I have to assume here that they settled on adoption if neither of them is related to the child they are raising. That is a totally reasonable solution.

        When you say its not a good idea to have kids when you don’t intend to be part of the same family — what does that mean? How can a person have kids and not be part of the kid’s family? When you have kids you are their parent and are automatically part of the same family whether you are married to the mother of your child or not you are the parents of your child together forever and always even if you are an anonymous gamete donor once your child is born there is no way around the fact that you are part of your child’s family and they are part of yours. Obviously anyone the parents are married to would legally be part of the child’s family as well because step families have most of the same kinship rights as blood related family at least as long as the marriages last.

        • i meant tat its not really a good situation to raose chidren in two separate familes wih stepparents andstep.siblings. sometimes it works out really well but quite often it doesn’t. this particular situation, were one partner is inferrile, sounds like just asking for disaster.

          • Yes but Ki the alternative these people are exploring is in fact exactly that same situation with step parents and, not step siblings but real siblings be they half or whole only the kid just does not get to see those people or have any legal kinship and everyone behaves as if their family just does not exist. Is living a lie really a better alternative to living authentically in the situation your creating? I mean if you are going to go outside your relationship to make a child with another person – the suggestion here is that its far healthier for the child to be abandoned by one of their parents and sequestered from that absent parents family and have their legal kinship severed. Why? Because the adults in the situation are too squeamish and infantile to sleep in the fking bed they made? They are too juvenile to live life in the familial reality they themselves created by having a child with someone other than their spouse knowing full well that other person would be the biological parent of their child and that their child would be related to that other person’s family – honestly do you really think it would be so horrible and unhealthy to cooperate and collaborate in the child’s best interests even though living apart? Is it really a better option for one parent to be neglectful and abandon their responsibilities to the child they made and is it really so very healthy emotionally to have the child grow up feeling like they are not good enough as the child of the two people that made them they have to pretend to be the child of their step parent and participate in this big charade because the parent raising them would have preferred them to be the bio child of their partner? As difficult as it might be to raise a child up in two separate homes it is far more loving than making them feel you wish they were the child of your spouse and not the child of their absent bio parent.

  8. OOOH I know what socially infertile really means: Its someone that has 50 kids but is not the acknowledged father of any of them appearing socially as if sterile or infertile when really he’s like a King Stud king of the dead beat dad’s. Socially potent or fertile would mean someone who is totally sterile or barren appearing to be fertile or potent because they were named parents on the falsified birth records of the children they are raising.

    So the meaning of this term is LIE any way you slice it. It means they are perfectly fine healthy people that appear not to be fine and healthy because of their own personal choices. I just love linguistic gymnastics – stretching the truth and twisting the facts, distorting and contorting information so that people believe what we want them to believe in order to suit or fancy.

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