The History of Infertility
Frustration survives the centuries, but ignorance does not
Though infertility is as much a male problem as it is a female problem, people throughout history have attempted to place the blame solely on the woman’s shoulders—or in her womb!
Henry VIII, a randy sort of ruler, went through wives like fish go through water. Though there are political reasons for some of his six marriages and their dissolutions; in many cases Henry decided to dump his wife because she had not produced a male heir. Medical science would later show that it is the male chromosome that determines gender in offspring.
Louis XVI, King of France and spouse of the flamboyant and sensual Marie Antoinette, suffered from infertility. Louis did not have a low sperm count, the most common factor in male infertility cases, but suffered from an “inability to penetrate.” Medical scholars still debate whether the king suffered from hydrocele, a collection of fluid around one testicle, or phimosis, a condition that causes the foreskin of the penis to become painfully tight and restrictive. At any rate, for years the peoples of France angrily blamed the “Austrian whore” for not producing an heir. In fact, the French were so certain the fertility problem lie with Marie Antoinette they even wrote inflammatory pamphlets accusing her of lesbianism and instructing her on how to “properly perform.”
Modern-day infertile women are forced to suffer some of the same indignities women throughout history have been forced to endure, including gratuitous or officious advice, pressure from well-meaning relatives, and insensitivity from the medical community and society. Infertility can be just as stigmatizing today as it was in the olden days.
Potions, Prayers, and Plants
An infertile woman of Renaissance England would have been advised by her barber surgeon to swallow an elixir of mare’s milk, rabbit’s blood, and sheep’s urine.
By the 1600s, infertile women in England had had enough imbibing of blood and urine and had switched to catnip tea. According to the 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper, women of his day believed breathing in the fumes of catnip tea would cure their barrenness.
If the subject was even broached, a physician in Victorian times would have instructed his barren patient, in a most proper manner of course, to take to the medicinal waters. That is, he would have suggested she take a relaxing holiday to one of the coastal towns and spend her time soaking in hot baths.
The process to overcome infertility is still arduous, unpleasant, and unpredictable, but thankfully, the medical treatments have advanced considerably since the days of mare’s milk and catnip tea!
Today, once the problem has been established, a couple is subjected to a slew of medical tests and procedures including semen analysis, evaluation of cervical mucus, sonograms, hysterosalpingogram, laparoscopies, daily injections of the potent fertility drugs, in vitro fertilization, and gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT). But, if the process to become pregnant is daunting or discouraging, the outcome is not.
Advances in endocrinology and gynecology, the two areas of medicine that deal with infertility, have brought encouraging results. Couples that wouldn’t have known the joy of being biological parents are now bringing home baby, and in some cases, multiple babies. The use of powerful and controversial fertility drugs, used to stimulate egg production, has made thousands of couples the proud but tired parents of multiple, miracle babies. Between 1980 and 1999, the overall multiple birth ratio increased 59 percent, according to research by a March of Dimes group. A 2007 article on Babble.com states that one in 33 children born in the United States is a twin (in contrast to the approximately one in 80 ratio known throughout history). The rise can be attributed, at least in part, to the use ovulation drugs.
Advances in neonatal care have also increased the number of miracle babies. Premature babies born as early as 25 weeks and weighing only a pound have been known to survive today, a miracle by any standards.
Infertile couples today also have the added benefit of being able to read and learn more about infertility than at any other time in history. Dozens of books about infertility are published every year (see our reading list) and we strive to keep you up to date on Babyzone.com. See our infertility pages for more.
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