There was a couple in our church who were barren. I don’t know the medical reasons for it – I just remember watching their struggle to conceive. I remember how as a church we rallied around them; how we stood with them as they responded to altar-call after altar-call praying for a miracle. Every time another round of IVF failed, we built them up with our words and prayers of encouragement. Every time another woman in our church gave birth, we embraced them with our love. The journey was long and distressing. To this day I don’t think they ever had children.
They’re not alone of course. Experts tell us here in Australia that one in six couples experience fertility problems. In spite of the reality, most of us grow up expecting that one day we’ll be parents. It’s a God-given instinct to reproduce after our own kind. So when what seems the most natural thing in the world is denied us, it’s shocking. It feels deeply unjust – almost deviant.
Recently a friend opened up to me about her own journey through infertility. Her and her husband were on their second round of IVF after trying for five years to conceive naturally. With tears in her eyes, she shared her roller-coaster ride of hope and loss. How they’d conceived, then miscarried, conceived then miscarried again. Now they were waiting another lengthy period before they could try again. I listened with as much empathy as I could. Then I said; “I know how you feel.”
In retrospect I wondered if I should have said that. After all I’ve never been pronounced medically unable to conceive. I don’t have a problem with my uterus or have a partner with a low sperm count. I’ve never been through a round of IVF. Yet I still knew how she felt, because I’m infertile too. But my infertility is different. My inability to have a child comes under a different label. The type of barrenness I’ve experienced came because the right man never came along at the right time.
Social Infertility: The Value of a Label
When I first heard the phrase ‘social infertility’, it filled me with a profound sense of relief – like the feeling you get when your doctor finally gives you the diagnosis for a long-term illness. There may not have been an easy cure for the condition I was suffering, but at least there was a label – something that gave it the gravitas it deserved. Now my pain had a name.
But what exactly do we mean by ‘social infertility’? The term has been coined relatively recently by the IVF industry to attribute infertility to the lack of a male partner during the reproductive years. Though I’ve found it a helpful term, some say it’s not only ugly and degrading, it’s also offensive to those who are truly infertile and can’t do anything about it.
Some of course, are doing something about it. IVF clinics in major cities of Australia recently reported a 10 per cent jump in the use of donor sperm to conceive a child. Although lesbian couples account for some of the increase, doctors say the real growth is among older single heterosexual women. For the single woman who has convictions about raising a family with two parents, that leaves very few options – if any at all. A researcher in the UK recently concluded that given the current church population, the only choice for many Christian women today was singleness or marriage to a non-Christian. But what about those who want to serve God with their partner as well as have a baby?
Tania Harris is a pastor, speaker, author and the founder of GodConversations.com, a global ministry that equips people to recognise and respond to God’s voice. With a diverse history as church planter, pastor and Bible College lecturer, her ministry is known for its biblical depth, practical wisdom and ‘God-stories.’ She speaks to groups of all ages and denominations and is a popular voice on radio in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Currently Tania is completing her Doctorate in Ministry researching peoples’ experiences hearing God’s voice. Tania is an ordained minister with the Australian Christian Churches. Hillsong is her church home in Sydney, Australia