Epigenetic In/Fertilities

From the Series: Embodied Ecologies

Photo by Franck Genten, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

Infertility has historically been conceptualized as a women’s problem, and women’s bodies continue to take center stage during infertility treatments. Social scientists have made efforts to offset this gender disparity; considering infertility as a men’s issue shows the complex ways that cross-culturally variable ideals of masculinity shape the treatment and experience of infertility (Inhorn 2009). Yet even when attention to men increases, it seems that the stigma of infertility continues to cling to women’s bodies. What if scholars were to shift this rebalancing effort to a rescaling project instead? What if infertility were conceptualized as neither a men’s nor a women’s problem, but instead as an ecological one?

In recent anthropological writings, ecologies are entanglements. They are a “web of relationships among constitutive parts” (Choy 2011, 11). Or, they are “unexpected neighbors” (Stoetzer 2018, 298), surprising and contingent multispecies communities that emerge at particular historical moments. Such ecologies focus attention on the flourishing of “mortal creatures entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters and meanings” (Haraway 2016, 1). As an embodied ecology, infertility might be regarded as more than an individualized inability to reproduce. Infertility might be thought of as an imbalanced relation, whose restoration is interdependent with its past, present, and future surroundings. Who is to blame for infertility in this ecological model? Not the woman. Not even the man. But instead a set of dynamic interactions, involving humans and nonhumans.

Epigenetic understandings of infertility make this ecological lens more legible. Epigenetics is often defined as changes in gene expression that are not brought about by changes to DNA, thus emphasizing the importance of a range of molecules in explanations of life processes. Epigenetics has been deemed “a new approach to the etiology of infertility” (Lestari and Rizki 2017), stretching understandings of infertility’s causality both temporally and spatially. Etiologies now include “developmental origin[s]” (Ho et al. 2017), “environmental factors and gonadotoxin exposure” (Fujimoto and Bloom 2015), and “genomics and proteomics landscapes” (Ayaz et al. 2018). Causal explanations increasingly include the past and present of human and nonhuman environments that live within and surround us, potentially impacting reproduction in present and future generations. Such epigenetic rethinking might be understood as a movement toward infertility as embodied ecology.

Consider the research conducted by reproductive toxicologists in Nanjing, China, where I conducted ethnographic research between 2008 and 2011. Here, toxicologists understand male infertility as linked to a variety of environmental exposures. These epigenetic environments cut across human and nonhuman scales, including occupational environments with harmful chemical toxins, nutritional environments with high levels of phytoestrogens, and maternal environments where histories of exposure impact developing germ cells and, later, sperm quality. Such environmental multiplicity points to the capacity of epigenetic research to render disease etiology in multiple temporal and spatial dimensions simultaneously. Falling sperm quality and quantity were an indicator not only of individual reproductive system failures brought about by lifestyle and dietary shifts, but also of the polluted landscapes in which individuals work, eat, and reproduce. Studies of male infertility in Nanjing are, then, as much about China’s political and economic transformation in recent decades as they are about men and their sperm (Wahlberg 2018). The threat of epigenetically inheriting such transformation compounds the material and symbolic importance of infertility at this moment in China’s industrial history. Epigenetic renderings of infertility suggest the intimate consequences of entangled industrial and human development, production and reproduction.

Of course epigenetic research is not immune to assumptions about the body that permeate the contexts in which research develops. Epigenetic research problematically places blame on the mother, who is viewed as an exposed vessel whose progeny suffer due to her actions or inactions. Furthermore, epigenetic research on male infertility may have an outward-facing orientation, while epigenetic research on female infertility is still more tethered to “the woman in the body” (Martin 1987). Just as epigenetics does not replace genetics, but rather conscripts histories of individualism and determinism into ideas of environmental variability and responsibility, infertility as embodied ecology cannot replace the idea of infertility as individualized reproductive failure.

But an ecological approach to infertility can build on the work of feminist scholars to show the limitations of the skin-bound, individualized body and the flaws of what Anna Tsing (2015, 140) calls “the species self-creation story,” in which “species reproduction is self-contained, self-organized, and removed from history.” While Tsing explains this through the intimate associations of mushrooms, Sarah Franklin (1997, 2007) shows through ethnographies of cloned sheep and in vitro fertilization that reproductive technologies reproduce a variety of things, including economic and political cultures. Thinking about the species-nonspecific ways that biologies work through economies, politics, and technologies allows social scientists to reimagine reproduction at an urgent moment in history. As Michelle Murphy asks: “Why should reproduction end at our bodies? How to participate in and challenge the ontological politics of ‘reproduction’?”

An ecological approach to infertility is indebted to these epistemological and ontological reimaginings of reproduction, including considerations of where infertility ends, who it impacts, and how it should be studied. Embodied ecology stretches the idea of infertility to ecological scales, where the woman in the body is situated within multiple contingent relations, infrastructures, exposures, and imaginaries. To study infertility as a condition that comes about in specific and dynamic political, economic, social, and chemical contexts is to expand not only infertility’s etiology, but also infertility’s applicability. Infertility as embodied ecology moves beyond the individual, beyond the partnership or the choice, beyond clinical diagnosis of advanced maternal age and poor sperm motility, to a wider diagnostic lens. Epigenetic research is an imperfect tool through which such reworking of infertility might continue.


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Wahlberg, Ayo. 2018. Good Quality: The Routinization of Sperm Banking in China. Oakland: University of California Press.