Tag Archives: Infertility

It’s all teh feminists’ fault of course

So there I was, sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying a quiet cup of coffee after I had walked my girls to school, and gone for a longer walk myself, leafing through the paper, taking some time for myself before getting into the daily round of washing clothes, cleaning, preparing meals, heading off to university to teach a tutorial (last one for the semester – hurray!), and feeling somewhat melancholy because of the way Senator Clinton has been treated – read Melissa’s excellent post at Shakesville for the reasons behind the melancholy. But fortunately (that would be dripping with sarcasm, BTW), Janet Albrechtsen’s opinion piece in The Australian has shocked me out of the melancholy into outrage. Her pleasant little line – feminism causes infertility.


Here’s the basic argument.

(1) Feminism told girls they had choices, they could have careers.
(2) Feminism neglected to value baby making.
(3) All women really want is to have babies, and they will be really sad if they don’t.
(4) Feminists neglected to tell girls and women that the older you get, the more likely you are to have fertility problems.
Conclusion: Big, bad feminism – ruining women’s lives.

As it turns out, that conclusion really does follow from the premises. It’s a valid argument i.e. it is logically valid. But it is completely unsound, because some of the premises (like all of them bar premise 1) are false.

Let’s take it one step at a time.

(1) I take it there’s no problem with 1. This premise is true.

(2) Feminism did not neglect to value baby making. What it stressed, and still stresses, in most of its manifestations, is that baby making is not the only “choice” available to women. Earlier feminism certainly stressed the ideas of choice, of pursuing a career, of making choices about what to do in life, rather than just assuming the wife / mother / housewife role, but of course, one of the consequences of paying time and attention to other possible roles is simply that a lesser proportion of airtime is devoted to the status quo (of wife / mother / housewife). That’s a standard, basic thought – of necessity, if you introduce something new, then anything ‘old’ necessarily no longer occupies 100% of the space. And even so, has Albrechtsen not noticed the big battles that contemporary feminists are fighting over little things like work-life balance, about access to childcare, about (d’oh!) getting paid parental leave, about flexible work practices. All part of valuing babies and families, of enabling women to balance children and career, instead of being required to sacrifice one for the other. Feminists do value baby making and child rearing.

(3) Women want many, many things, and at least some, if not a majority, or even most women, do plan, at least vaguely, on having children sometime. But that’s not all women want, and at least some women, quite legitimately, do not want to have children at all. Furthermore, many, many people lead happy, rewarding, valuable lives without having children at all. Absolutely, if you have decided that you want to have children, and you find that you can not, then you will be devastated. I know that from the inside, from my own experience of infertility. Nevertheless, having babies is not the only thing that women want, and it is not the only thing that makes women happy.

(4) Gosh, I thought this was a responsibility of midwives and doctors and family planning practitioners, of people who routinely deal with human health and human reproduction. Not feminism per se. What Albrechtsen mentions, but does not analyse, is people’s attitudes towards IVF and fertility. She reports what one woman says about it.

Featherstone says it’s critical that young girls learn about their biology. “They may hold off having babies and do the career thing. And then they’re like: ‘Oh no, I’m 35 and I’ll have to do IVF.’ She says IVF should not be treated lightly as a fallback position for the next generation of career women. “It’s not something nice to go through.”

And earlier in the piece:

Of course, with male infertility accounting for 40 per cent of cases, there is a need for both sexes to understand fertility. Unfortunately, there is a profound gap between perception and reality. A study by the Fertility Society of Australia in 2006 found that 57 per cent of women in their 30s and 43 per cent of women in their 40s believed they would be able to conceive without any problems.

What I take out of these two extracts is that people have an idea that it will never happen to them, and even if it does, that IVF will work. They underestimate the odds that something bad will happen to them, and overestimate the odds that something good will happen – apparently a common enough bias for people to have. That’s where the work needs to be done – by contraceptive and medical advisors, and especially by fertility experts and practitioners, telling people what the odds are, urging them to think seriously about it, and making sure that people really do know the odds. It needs to be done as part of front-line medical care. That would mean that women could make informed choices.

And I think that’s where Albrechtsen’s argument really comes unstuck. You see, feminism is about giving women the freedom to make choices – real choices. That entails the freedom to make choices that you might later either regret or celebrate, including the choice to delay childbearing in order to pursue a career, or the choice to have children and let your career take a backseat for some years. The big thing is to make an informed choice. Even then, it’s hard to know whether better information would help people to overcome their predisposition to be optimistic (over-estimate the chance of good things, and underestimate the chance of bad things happening to them).

I just don’t see how feminism is to blame for giving women choices other than childrearing. Just why does Albrechtsen think this is a bad thing, especially as it’s clearly something she has taken advantage of herself? Or does she think that women would be happier if other people made choices for them, or limited their choices, or treated them as children who ought not to bear the consequences of their choices. Albrechtsen’s manic rush to blame feminism for infertility bears all the hallmarks of infantilising women, treating them as people who can’t make good decisions, poor dears, and then not even treating them as adults responsible for those decisions, however they might turn out.

Now lets get something straight here. I wish infertility on no one. No one deserves infertility. As I said above, I have been there and done that myself, and it was ghastly. That’s why women and men need better information. But blaming feminism for giving women choices, and then blaming feminism because some of those choices, for some women and their partners, go wrong, is bizarre. It’s as though either women should not have choices, or if they do have choices, then they should all be soft-edged ones, with no real world consequences.

Just to top this off, when I went to The Australian’s on-line edition, to get the link for the Albrechtsen piece, this was the image that greeted me.

Enough to return me to my melancholy. WTF is it with subbies who think it’s clever to talk in terms of killing?

Christmas past

I have just finished my Christmas shopping. Nothing too spectacular this year, given our now very imminent international move. Santa is going large on books, DVDs and clothes in our house, and small toys that pack up into flat cases. And kites, which can be assembled and flown on Christmas Day, then disassembled and repacked for the move.

Even New Plymouth, a comparatively peaceful place most of the time, has gone mad. And driving me even more over the edge – the schmaltzy Christmas music.

I have good reason to loathe Christmas music. A long time ago now, my husband and I found out that we were infertile. It was a huge blow to us, and to our ideas about how our lives together would be. We wanted to have children, and to find that we could not was devastating. I know, there are plenty of people who choose not to have children, and lead rich, valuable, interesting lives. But we had made the other choice, and trying to rethink our understanding of ourselves was difficult.

I longed to have children, but a lot of the time, I found I could put the immediate pain out of my mind, and just get on with living. I was studying again, my husband had just launched into a new career, and aside from not being able to have children, life was good, and full of promise. But every now and then, in the midst of our carefree, child-free state, our childlessness would hit me, hard. A TV program would hang a plot-line around a baby, an advertising campaign would feature babies, the latest nationwide charity push would be for babies – “Little Button Nose”song, anyone?

Come Christmas, as the year was drawing to an end, and like most people we were considering the year and its successes and failures, there would come an avalanche of songs about an expected baby, and the joy and wonder of that baby’s birth. I would stagger through the Christmas season, trying not to listen, but hearing all the same, and aching inside and out because my arms were still empty. The worst Christmas of all was the one where we had finally tried a cycle of treatment, and three days before Christmas, we found out that it had failed.

My husband and my mother and I all wept, and “Hang in there,” my dad said as he handed me endless glasses of wine. Not the best for a woman trying to be as healthy as possible before starting a pregnancy, but needs must. Hang in there we did, and within a few weeks, after another cycle of treatment, we found that we had a baby on the way at last.

The immediate grief of infertility is long past. But those damned songs trigger a remembering of the grief every year. I can still barely listen to “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Mary’s Boy Child” often has me on edge.

So one of the things I do at Christmas time is think not just of my beloved husband and daughters and parents and brothers and sisters-in-law and all their children, but I also think of the people whose arms are still empty. If you know someone who is battling infertility, give them a hug, and tell them to hang in there.


Aside from drinking copious amounts of wine, one of the other ways we survived infertility was through very dark humour. As it turned out, about a year before we started trying to conceive a baby, we decided that we would start using natural family planning, that is, the much-maligned rhythm method. We took the lessons, bought the thermometer, and got on with it. We thought that we were superb at it – but then we found that it wasn’t that we were terribly clever: it was just that we were infertile. Not so bad, you might think, except that in the meantime, we had persuaded friends of ours that it was a fabulous method of contraception, provided you were sensible and careful. So they ditched all the chemicals, and started using it. They announced their pregnancy about four weeks after we announced ours.

I’ve done my bit

Demographers have lots of fun playing around with population figures. The most recent study out in New Zealand, by Professor Ian Pool and Dr Janet Sceats, has four interesting points to make: (1) although New Zealand’s fertility rate (live births per woman) of 2.0 is very close to the rate of 2.1 needed to maintain a population, it will almost certainly fall to about 1.8 within a few years; (2) many women want to have children, but don’t, or have just one child, instead of two or three; (3) waiting until you are older to have children is better for both mother and children; (4) NZ’s “family friendly” policies have failed to encourage people to have children.

So here we go, point by point.

(1) – Every woman needs to have 2.1 children.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with population replacement rates, the 0.1 is to make up for the children who, sadly, die before becoming adults. And it’s couched in terms of live births per woman, because it’s very hard to divvy up responsibility otherwise. That does have the unfortunate consequence of making it seem that responsibility for the growth / maintenance / decline of the population rests with women. I can’t think of a sensible way around that problem.

In any case, all I can say is, we have done our bit, and we are willing to auction off my 0.9 oversupply – notionally, of course. We are not prepared to give up any of our daughters at all. (Before anyone tells me that deciding to have three children is irresponsible in an overpopulated world, I plead that we didn’t decide to have three – it just happened, and the twenty minutes that elapsed between the arrival of number two and number three didn’t really give us enough time to make rational decisions about it anyway.)

This is a long post. There’s more over the break.

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It happens to all of us

This story from Australia is fascinating.

A lesbian couple wanted to have a child, so they used IVF. By mistake, and contrary to the women’s verbally expressed wishes, but not contrary to documents they had signed, two embryos (as in, four or maybe eight cells after conception) were inserted, rather than one. The chances of an embryo implanting are lowish, so just inserting two embryos doesn’t entail having twins. However the chances of having twins are substantially increased, to about 1 in 5.

The women had twin girls. They rejected using techniques such as selective reduction (usually used to reduce quins or quads or triplets to just twins), and they rejected putting one of the babies up for adoption. They also rejected terminating the pregnancy altogether, and trying again, which they could have done – they still have two embryos in storage.

The couple is suing the doctor concerned, for the costs of raising one of the twins.

But it seems they are also suffering some emotional distress.

THE partner of a lesbian mother who bore twins following a botched IVF procedure yesterday told a Canberra court how her partner lost the ability to love.

The woman, whose name has been suppressed, said her partner “shut down” and became emotionally unavailable after gynaecologist and obstetrician Sydney Robert Armellin mistakenly implanted two embryos instead of one.

Sobbing, the woman described her partner as “a generous and loving person” prior to the 2003 procedure.

“I find now that she doesn’t have the same ability to love that she used to and the same capacity to embrace difficulties or issues as a couple or a team,” she told the ACT Supreme Court.

Earlier in the week, the mother told the court the couple underwent counselling to cope with the strain on their relationship.


I need to engage in a bit of disclosure. Our children were born through fertility treatment, and as it turns out, at the time our elder daughter was conceived we were living in Canberra, and the doctor at the centre of this case is the doctor who helped us to conceive her. And, we have twins. They are identical twins, so that’s just random good fortune, rather than anything to do with the drugs or our treatment. Our twins were conceived back here in New Zealand. Oh, and aside from a few low-level drugs available on prescription from GPs, we paid for all our treatment ourselves.

I don’t know anything about the legal ins and outs of this case, ‘though as an uneducated (legally, that is) non-lawyer, it does seem to me that something that is written down (two embryos) carries more weight than a verbal communication (one embryo).

What I do know about is the sheer turmoil of becoming a parent. Over night, your world changes, completely. Suddenly, you, and you alone, are completely responsible for a tiny, helpless being. Mothers (predictably) shift their focus away from their partner, and direct all their energies towards the baby. Equally predictably, the partner, whether that partner is a daddy, or a second mummy, feels left out, and neglected. You end up renegotiating your entire relationship.

Add to that the physical strain of breastfeeding. It’s true that virtually all women can breastfeed. But it turns out that some women do it much more easily than others. Some women can run a business, keep the house going, chase around after a toddler, go to the gym, and still have enough physical resources to be able produce milk for their babies. Other women can produce enough milk, but they are permanently tired, and have no energy for anything other than feeding the baby. Physiology can, and does, differ. (This is why I sometimes get upset with the “Breast is best” police. I agree, but…. However, that’s a story for another day. And again by way of disclosure, I was able to breastfeed my elder daughter, very successfully, but with great effort, but not my twins.)

Becoming a parent is an incredibly difficult task. Many relationships come to grief over it. I have taken to advising very new parents, and parents to be, that becoming a parent is one of the most difficult things they will ever do, and if they are finding it hard, then that’s completely normal. There are remarkable joys associated with being a parent, but believe me, they really aren’t in the forefront of your mind when yet again you are getting up to feed a baby at 2am.

We have done some difficult things over the years: we have survived infertility, and two PhDs – both known marriage breakers, and we have encountered various other problems. But of all these hurdles, becoming parents was the hardest, in terms of our relationship.  These women clearly encountered considerable difficulties in becoming parents. But those difficulties aren’t unique to having twins, or even to having twins when you really just want one little baby. We experienced them when our elder daughter was born, and many, many, many parents experience them.

So sue away, ladies, but don’t base your claim on the idea that becoming a parent of twins is difficult. Becoming a parent is difficult, full stop. (Period, for American readers.)