Definitions of infertility + conception and why gender should be left out of them

As a preface, I have now learned that studying for the MCAT, surviving the responsibilities of the semester, and applying for various fellowships, leaves very little time to blog something constructive. But, I’m trying! This post was written as a reading response for my Medical Anthropology course at NYU for Part 3 of Margaret Lock and Vinh-Kim Nguyen’s “An Anthropology of Biomedicine”. For anyone looking to gain valuable insight into clinical and public health practices through the lens of anthropology, I recommend this text wholeheartedly. I actually recommend it to everyone… It’s lengthy but worth it. Alas, what follows is my response to Part 3 of this text. 

In Part 3 of Lock and Nguyen, the authors address how the creation and use of biological and technological entities made from living cell structures challenged traditional scientific and moral ideas around the body. Chapters 8-10 cover these themes by addressing the replacement of faulty/failing body parts and organs using new entities and how they promoted research using these technologies to enhance and replace many functions and parts of the human body. In Chapter 8, Lock and Nguyen present the commodification of eggs and sperm through case studies of cell lines and DNA data banking to address the question of ownership of the human body. In Chapter 9, the authors focus on organ and tissue transplantation as a specific type of bodily acquisition. The repercussions of organ sales and donations on kinship networks and national identity are explored, and transplants are considered through the lens of an intervention that maintains biological life in an otherwise non-alive body to allow the “living” to carry on. Lastly, in chapter 10, the authors focus on reproductive health by addressing the implementation and ramifications associated with reproductive health technologies and the intricacies of pushing fertility control on the political and socio-economic agenda, while research knowledge about infertility remains scarce, especially in low and middle income areas. In this reading response, I will be analyzing and asking questions about the idea of different definitions used across disciplines and cultures for a single condition.

I was very compelled by the differing definitions of infertility in relation to definitions presented by the WHO, presented by pg. 256. The initial WHO definition centered around a couple who hadn’t been able to conceive after a year of unprotected sex. Clinicians and epidemiologists altered this definition into terms that more suited their area of work and allowed them to maximize their findings. I want to reflect on this, because I’ve never thought about how individuals from various professional fields mold factual definitions of disease, illness, or differences into subjective definitions that focus heavily on particular aspects of the factual definition. In the case of epidemiologists and infertility, these individuals modified the definition to include “live births”, a phenomenon that could be much easily and more accurately monitored than conception. This example made me think of HIV/AIDS and the various definitions that HIV clinicians, researchers, social activists, and historians might use for the disease. An a current social activist and a future infectious disease physician (hopefully!), I currently define the illness as a communicable disease that deteriorates an individual’s immune system and leaves him or her susceptible to clinical, political, and socio-economic vulnerability and stigma. This definition takes into account who I am as a person: my social beliefs, my scientific knowledge, my perspective on what aspects of disease and illness are important. In a similar fashion, my definition of infertility is not gendered, unlike the majority of the definitions seen in Lock and Nguyen’s text. I define infertility as the inability of an individual to produce an offspring due to anatomical and physiological differences. There is no mention of gender, because, in my opinion, gender what you identify yourself as, not what your anatomy dictates. I believe that’s important, and at the risk of arguing with professionals from a wide array of fields, I think my definition works better than all gender-centric definitions.

As Chapter 10 makes clear, the role of the woman in contraception and birth is strictly defined in many regions of the world, including but not limited to examples from Egypt, Israel, and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the social repercussions of allowing fertility to be viewed through the lens of gender are enormous. Women, as a population of individuals who are more likely to experience abuse and mistreatment, are the only one’s associated with these gendered definitions. Thus, we further add to traditional beliefs that the role of women in conception is of more significance, in both good and bad ways, than the role of the man. While this may lead to a sense of pride and identity of childbirth and conception as something inherently “womanly”, are we not also propagating the false ideas that woman are to be abandoned, to be blamed, to be ostracized for not being able to produce children? In some cases, the woman is fertile and capable of reproduction, but the man is not. The text illustrates Israel as an example of a nation that promotes reproduction, regardless of whether the childbearing woman is married or even going to raise the children herself. However, I worry that, overall, our definitions of diseases, illnesses, and differences can promote perceptions of social, cultural, political stigmatization and generalization, especially in regards to infertility and gender. I have to say, let’s leave gender out of infertility, and then create various definitions of the situation that emphasis the different aspects of life that are impacted by an individual and a couple’s (whether heterosexual or homosexual) to procreate.