Last spring I attended a lecture on the Kayapo people of Brazil (who apparently do not experience infertility – read on!); the lecturer explored the notion of commodity exchange in a culture that does not use currency or have markets, in the ways that we understand those terms. Basically, he argued that for the Kayapo wealth is family, and bearing children allows people to participate in symbolic exchanges that involve status and power, often through the ritual of naming. There was something about how important having grandchildren is but I can’t remember exactly how it all plays out. (Of course this little recap here fails to do justice to the full argument in all its social theory nuance.)*

After the lecture, a young friend approached the lecturer to ask, “What about people who are infertile?” and of course I hovered nearby to hear the answer. According to this dude, in all his many years (decades, in fact) of fieldwork among the Kayapo, he only ever knew of two (TWO!!!!!) people who experienced infertility, one man and one woman (not related to each other by blood or marriage). Each situation had its own idiosyncratic resolution, in terms of the person’s place in the family and their ability to participate in exchanges.

Deep in the Amazon, there are no REs, no dildocams, no pharmaceuticals, no health insurance, no stirrups… People also partner up in their teens and start having babies pretty much right away. The professor did say that miscarriage, abortion, and maternal mortality rates are higher than in our society, however.

I’m not sure what to do with this information. Walking around campus yesterday, I watched crowds of lusty young people still in their abbreviated summer clothes and thought about their fertility. Some have had abortions, some already have STDs, some will acquire them this year, some are indubitably still virgins. Some will have children sooner than they want to. Some will never be able to have kids. What determines which are which?

Which brings me to the title of this post. It all seems so random. I read blog after blog where the the voice of the author clearly reveals a caring, intelligent humanity, and am astounded, astounded at all the hardship encountered on the path to parenthood (which may never even be reached!!). I was raised to believe that everything happens for a purpose, that God is in control, that bad things happen to good people only because of sin in this world. But man, it just seems so random. And profoundly unfair.

Are we paying for the sin of environmental damage? If screwing with the environment is somehow having a negative impact on overall fertility rates in the industrialized world (which seems quite plausible), then of course some of us will inevitably be affected, and of course there will be no rhyme or reason in the ethical dimension as to who gets affected. It won’t be just, in the ways that we conceptualize justice.

I feel like this is a problem that is going to get worse over time, not better. I have this suspicion that future generations are going to experience higher and higher rates of infertility. More and more people are going to be affected. We who try so very hard to have children may only succeed just to see our kids go through the same thing twenty or thirty years from now. How bad does it have to get before society as a whole sits up and takes notice?

*The more I think about it, the more I see similar patterns play out in our own culture – the way that grandparents will lay a claim to grandchildren as “my baby,” for example, and seem to believe somehow that their children’s children are a gift to them in some way.


9 Responses to “Inexplicable”

  1. LJ Says:

    I actually have pondered this thought often. I do believe that a great deal of what we experience as disease, be it infertility or cancer or whatever, is a direct result of our industrial and technological “advances”. Perhaps it is a form of evolution. We’ve created so much “stuff” to do things for us, that less of us are needed and so infertility exists.

    Plastics and electronic waves, though, I believe have correlation if not causation effect on fertility. But how to go without it?

  2. Samantha Says:

    That’s a good question. I wonder if there’s evidence that other more isolated groups of people have better/worse fertility than industrialized nations. Or maybe it’s just that we start later, rather than when we’re teens.

    Sorry to hear about your cycle.

  3. mlo Says:

    It is primarily because we start too late, I think. In all of the cultures where people start having children in their teens, infertility is rather rare.



  4. Elizabeth Says:

    Yeah…probably…but I still don’t know what to *do* with this information. I can’t put myself in a time machine and go back to my younger self and forbid her to go on BCPs… And people might not take it too kindly if I started running up to teenagers and begging them to get knocked up before it’s too late.

    And then there’s the scary fact that the fastest rising infertility rates are among women in their 20s… So I think that, after all, things are changing.

    But I agree. Starting later doesn’t help.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    … but I think what’s really bugging me is still the “why me?” question. Sometime a long time ago I posted about how I never thought I’d have trouble, b/c of two friends who were older than me who got pg quickly – as in, immediately – one who was 36, and the other who was 34. I always felt as though my repro system was robust, so it was a real shock when we didn’t conceive within 3 months. I was absolutely convinced we’d get it on the first try. Convinced.

  6. mlo Says:

    I completely get where you coming from with the “why me?” I thought I took excellent care of myself – didn’t have “sex” till I was with my DH. It didn’t stop me from finding myself with a bilateral hydrosalpinx + DOR + endometriosis. It just sucks.

    I wonder how many young women who would have been dead from various infections – like me – without modern medicine just had their reproductive organs damaged. Of course, doctors, in general, are woefully unaware of the problems of infertility.


  7. Kristen Says:

    I also wonder “why me?” very often. I am only 24 (25 around the bend) and I should be at the peak of my fertility. Instead, I’ve had 2 losses and can’t ovulate on time to save my life – to even GET pregnant. I just don’t get it.

    I don’t drink often. And if I do, it is usually only one drink and that is once a month if that. I have never done drugs or smoked a cigarette. I am a healthy weight although I could probably eat better. All in all, I try to treat my body like a temple. It amazes me when women who don’t take care of themselves at all get pregnant just by walking past their hubby in the kitchen.

  8. niobe Says:

    I could come up with some kind of theory about this. Maybe in more technologically-oriented societies as more and more “infertile” or subfertile people have children through various means, to the extent that the basis of infertility is genetic, it’s passed down to the children.

  9. Elizabeth Says:

    ah – a survival of the fittest *to reproduce.* Sad.

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