The Global Culture of Infertility

Being in the midst of National Infertility Awareness Week I have been thinking a lot about the impact of infertility. I was just visiting a friend at Yale University who told me about her colleague, Marcia Inhorn, Ph. D., an anthropology professor at Yale. Dr. Inhorn has just completed a book, The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East.

Her book looks at assisted reproductive technology and the impact of infertility on men in the Middle East. Her research reveals that newer infertility treatment methods like intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and egg donation are now more frequently being used to treat infertility there. The impact of this is enormous and is changing the lives of men and women in the Middle East. Her research shows men are more supportive of wives that are experiencing infertility. She also concluded that men are now becoming more open about their infertility. According to Dr. Inhorn, Islamic leaders are more accepting of assisted reproduction treatment to stop the emotional toll created by infertility. She reports Sunni Muslims still don't approve of this type of intervention. However, members of the Shia Muslim community are more accepting causing a growth in this reproductive technology specialty area in Iran and Lebanon.

An article in the Daily Beast called "What it Means to Be a Woman" looks at the many challenges women who live in developing countries who experience infertility must face. This article offered this compelling quote from David Adamson, past president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, "It is very, very difficult for people in the United States to deal with [infertility], and yet when you go to other cultures it is even more devastating." Women in some cultures are blamed, face social isolation, can be beaten, or worse for being infertile. They frequently remain silent about their husband's infertility. Dr. Inhorn comments in this article that "Infertility is an issue of profound human suffering, particularly for women. It's a human rights issue." Women in less developed countries do not have the economic or job opportunities that are more available in comparison to Western Nations. Motherhood is a central part of their identity and self worth. The inability to conceive a child has huge implications in terms of their identities and their ability to function in their societies.

My husband and I were having an anniversary dinner and our waiter, who was East Indian, asked how many children we had. I told him about our daughter and asked him about his family. He knew nothing about my infertility advocacy work. He poured out his heart telling us he and his wife had been trying for years to have a child and they had been unsuccessful. They had just come from a family "vacation" with a relative who had 20 children and it was emotionally devastating for them both. My husband revealed that I specialized in working with people on infertility related issues. The waiter sat down and spoke with us about their cultural challenges in terms of speaking of their infertility and the resulting feelings of isolation he and his wife felt. He was eager to support her but wasn't sure how to do it and where to go for help.

I participated in a workshop last year that looked at infertility and the Catholic Church. The church's position on infertility treatment poses enormous personal and religious challenges for couples in many countries who want to build their families and also honor their religious traditions. It creates enormous challenges for all concerned.

Infertility is a life crisis no matter who you are, what your religious or ethnic background is, and what country you live in. The emotions stemming from repeated unsuccessful attempts to have a child are universal. The sense of isolation and the need for comfort and support from family and friends is also global. The cultural, economic, medical, social barriers and resources available to those in need of infertility guidance vary worldwide. During this week of National Infertility Awareness please take a moment to expand your thinking on an International level. Consider people here (perhaps someone you know) in the US and worldwide whose lives are turned upside down by infertility. Send them your thoughts, prayers, or good wishes. Be sensitive to their situations and the challenges they face. If there are ways you can offer support through education, financial or charitable contributions to established organizations please consider it. Infertility awareness needs to be raised on a global scale.

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