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?