The Janus Face of Infertility in the Global North and South: Reviewing Feminist Contributions to the Debate

Sara MacBride-Stewart and Rachel Simon-Kumar


This chapter explores feminist contributions to perspectives on infertility in the global North and global South in the period after the emergence of biomedical techniques (assisted reproductive technologies or ARTs) to overcome infertility.1 A comparative study of feminist discourses on infertility in these diverse global sites realizes several possibilities. At one level, it offers an account of the historical emergence of infertility critiques in the global North and the global South, especially in the period from the 1970s onwards, corresponding to the development of late twentieth-century feminist consciousness in both regions.2 Some feminist approaches have embraced the view that women are empowered by technologies that promote individual rights and choices in overcoming infertility, while others have been critical of the capacity of reproductive technologies to widen local and global divisions, with increasing evidence of an infertility divide. These contradictions in feminist responses to infertility across the globe mirror more fundamental entanglements between feminism and capitalism. Pitched against the [1] [2]

contrasting waves of the rise and decline of capitalism in the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’ world, this chapter highlights how the emphasis on a politics of recognition (including in healthcare) that came to dominate later second wave feminism became aligned with neoliberalism. This central thesis of Nancy Fraser’s 2013 account of second wave feminism in its global context is useful for our chapter.3 While a politics of recognition does not represent all strands of feminist activity and influence, Fraser suggests that its dominance over a politics of redistribution and its emphasis on inequalities perpetuates stratifications and inequities between and amongst women in the global North and the global South. From a conceptual point of view, each new development in reproductive technologies has generated a response from feminist scholars, and in feminist responses to these technologies it is possible to see the interplay of key feminist debates within a global context. To that extent, as Thompson has argued, ‘infertility in the age of reproductive technologies has been performed as the perfect feminist text’.4

The chapter draws on, as its theoretical scaffold, recent commentary by Nancy Fraser on the ‘dangerous liaisons’ between feminism and capitalism. Her work traces the evolution of feminism from the 1970s, and charts a parallel trajectory between the transition from state-led capitalism to free-market neoliberalism in the global North and South, and feminism’s congruent obsessions with a politics of recognition in place of a politics of redistribution. Feminism’s neglect of economic and social justice in the 1980s, she argues, reified the stronghold of neoliberalism, which ironically deployed the very vocabularies and critiques of the second wave for its own purposes. What emerged was a rhetoric of individual ‘choice’ aided by the presence of the free-market in a minimally regulated state, opposite to an emancipatory discourse of collectivist action. The appropriation of feminism by capitalism in effect ‘served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society’.6

In this context, in the global North, medical science progressed as a matter of public concern, with infertility becoming a cause celebre for reproductive medicine. Scientific progress and emancipatory discourses of work and career aligned feminisms’ own goals with capitalist goals of productivity. Furthermore, a new wave of regulation focused on reproductive rights reaffirmed the alliances between the state and feminisms, as both sought a political and moral stake in reproductive processes. The encounters of women’s rights groups in the global South with capitalism produced similar, although not quite the same, contradictions. Capitalism embedded itself in development discourses and turned its reproductive intent towards antinatalism. Meanwhile, through the 1980s and 1990s, feminists in the global South fought for the recognition ofwomen’s rights in the face of government efforts at population control, while seeking redistribution through fair and just reproductive healthcare provisioning. However, as a ‘new’ strand of neoliberalism emerged which fostered the growth of unregulated markets in fertility and infertility, reproductive rights were increasingly discussed in terms of personal choice rather than collective empowerment.

Capitalist transitions, and their concomitant implications for feminism, are the germane ground on which the contradictions of infertility discourses have been


inscribed, and are central to the argument we make in this chapter. Indeed, the history of late twentieth-century capitalism frames the Janus-faced history of feminist discourses of infertility. By tracing these historical transitions in the global North and South, we intend to use feminist critiques (including those of feminism itself) to examine how the entanglements between capitalism and feminism cause infertility to be ‘read’ onto the bodies of infertile women very differently depending on the wider social and economic context, and produce multiple responses that further compromise a feminist vision of just societies. As Fraser has argued, in the context of accelerating globalization, feminisms’ attention to gender injustice transferred from the ‘maldistribution’ of resources to identity politics and the ‘recognition of difference’.7 As the chapter will go on to show, this switch offocus radically undermined attempts to broaden the access of different groups to infertility resources, and generated a series of divisions between and within the global North and South.

The chapter is divided into four main parts. We first profile infertility across the two regions. The chapter then explores feminist contributions to understanding the role of medical technologies in ‘overcoming infertility’ and the consequent revolution in understandings of kinship and conception in the global North. Next, the chapter turns to the global South and summarizes feminist contributions to discussions on gender development and fertility rates, reproductive health services, and population control. Finally, it examines the implications of the diversity of feminist discourses in both regions, focusing on the reproductive stratifications they have engendered in recent history. Our conclusion critically analyses the Janus face of infertility from our perspective of the inequalities generated as feminism moved into the era of advanced global capitalism.

  • [1] We would like to acknowledge Naomi Simon-Kumar for her research references for thisarticle.
  • [2] MacBride-Stewart (*) Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, Cardiff, Walese-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it R. Simon-Kumar The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealande-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017 G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertilityin History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_24
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >