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.