I really, really hate the word ‘infertile.’
No kidding, right?
But in all seriousness, it’s a sloppy and offensive use of language almost on par with ‘Israeli Defense Forces.’
I understand that, medically speaking, one may need a scary-sounding diagnosis to justify certain prescriptions and (if one is lucky) insurance coverage.
But in day-to-day parlance, the term is not only demoralizing, it’s also illogical.
This post will explain why.
Let’s start with the sloppy part. To be diagnosed as ‘infertile,’ a couple has to have had one year of unprotected sex with no baby to show for it. From what I’ve heard, this happens to about one in eight couples trying to conceive. A surprisingly large number, right?
But the majority of them — around two-thirds — will go on to have biological kids.
Call me crazy… but that doesn’t sound very ‘infertile,’ does it?
I mean, if someone has cancer with a 66% chance of survival, should he be diagnosed as ‘dead’?
OK, so what about the remaining one-third of the one-eighth who don’t manage to produce biological kids and decide to build their family in alternative ways or to live childfree? Should they be diagnosed as ‘infertile’?
Not really. Some of them — a minority to be sure — end up having happy surprises. So, extrapolating backwards, it turns out they weren’t infertile after all.
What about the ones who reach menopause without any happy accidents?
Even then you can’t know for sure if they were truly ‘infertile’ or just unlucky.
What about when a woman reaches menopause? Is she infertile then?
No. She’s in menopause.
What if a man or woman’s gonads have been removed or destroyed? Then they’re definitely infertile, right?
No, they’re not infertile. They’re sterile. (Another word with unnecessarily unpleasant connotations, but that’s a post for another day.)
And even if a woman has her ovaries removed, if she has a functioning womb, she can still gestate and give birth to a child. Which doesn’t strike me as a particularly ‘infertile’ thing to do.
The bottom line is, you can’t prove a negative. So it makes little sense to describe a couple as ‘infertile’ pretty much ever.
But especially after only a year or two of trying.
So, we’ve established that the term is illogical and inaccurate. Now let’s talk about how demoralizing and offensive it is.
Many years ago, I was watching a TV show with my mom, and there was some kind of drama going on that I didn’t quite understand. I asked my mom about it.
“That woman is barren,” my mom explained.
“She can’t have kids.”
The woman in question was a doctor, petite and strong-willed, one of my favorite characters. As soon as this label was attached to her, I remember seeing her differently. Images came to mind of a dry field, like the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. Something post-apocalyptic. Pitiable.
This beautiful strong-willed professional woman was reduced, with one word, to something dried-out and useless.
As if a woman’s worth is measured by her reproductive capacity.
It wasn’t my mom’s choice of word, by the way. It was the accepted parlance of the time. Thankfully that particular label has gone out of fashion. But ‘infertile’ is barely one step removed from ‘barren’ in terms of being insulting and diminishing. It’s at least as cruel as labeling someone ‘lame’ or ‘crippled’ if they have a problem with their legs. Especially if they’re actively working on healing their leg issue.
Not to mention there are so many ways to be ‘fertile’ in this world that don’t involve producing a biological child. Some of the most fertile people I know — fertile with creativity, generosity, compassion — don’t have biological children.
And even though I know better than to define myself by my timely reproductive capacity, a lifetime of social conditioning dies hard. I didn’t exactly feel ashamed as I became incrementally aware that I might have a tough time getting pregnant. But there was definitely a sense of not wanting to tell people because I was afraid they would think of me differently. The way I thought differently about the doctor woman on TV back when I didn’t know any better.
And it was hard to know how to talk about it at all without resorting to a label that made no sense to me. I didn’t feel like salted earth, and I was actively trying to get pregnant. If I was ‘infertile,’ why was I even bothering?
But there was no other commonly-accepted language with which to discuss it.
It was really helpful for me when I finally realized I could come up with my own language.
So what term do I use instead of ‘infertile’?
To be honest, I’m still working on it. Suggestions are welcome.
But it should imply an empowered state of action, not a static state of being. It should be more accurate and less discouraging. And it should put things in a medical rather than judgmental context.
So here’s what my husband and I are currently up to (among many other things):
We’re dealing with reproductive issues.
That’s it. Just like any other body part — the arms, the heart, the spleen — things can go a little wonky with any of the scores of components and processes that make up the incredibly complex human reproductive system. Like cancer or asthma or a car accident, it can happen to anyone. And we’re doing our best, as active adults, to overcome our particular difficulties with the help of modern medicine.
We are lucky to live in an age with so many treatment options, and so many wonderful possibilities for building a family if the bio-route doesn’t work out. We can’t wait to meet our child(ren), however they come to us.
I don’t say any of this to minimize how painful it can be to deal with reproductive issues. There are difficult days to be sure, and lots of time and money spent that we’d much rather dedicate elsewhere. (Like to raising a kid, for example.) I’ll write a post later about all the reasons why it’s so tough, quite apart from the labeling issue. And then another post about some of the unexpected blessings of it.
But while we’re in the limbo of not knowing exactly how or when our kids will arrive, I won’t be using the word ‘infertile’ to describe myself.
And I think it’s only a matter of time before it’ll be phased out of polite usage entirely.