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The History of Reproduction and Fertility Preservation

I recently sat in on a new fall course offering at Northwestern University, the History of Reproduction, taught by Sarah Rodriguez, PhD. Over the last few years, Sarah has contributed her historical expertise to the Oncofertility Consortium, ensuring that the Consortium receives a healthy dose of the humanities. This past summer, Sarah and I shared an office space and discovered shortly thereafter, a similar background in women’s history, and randomly, a love of Iowa.  How could I not pass up an opportunity to get my history fix in and catch up with Sarah?  So off I went…

The seminar was just the right size to foster dynamic yet intimate discussion and the students hailed from a variety of academic disciplines, including Woodruff Lab member, Robin Skory, who is pursing an MD with a PhD in Reproductive Sciences. This would definitely be my first experience sharing a history course with a student of her background, but then again I work in an organization that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration. I like that this is becoming the new norm in my life!

The study of reproduction is a relatively new specialty, and developed in large part from a focus on body politics during second wave feminism in the 1970s.  It was also in the 70s, that the first IVF baby was born, making “infertility,” more of a chronic condition as opposed to barrenness or sterility. As new technological advances made it possible for increasing numbers of infertile couples to conceive biological children, more people came forward to seek assistance with reproduction.

As more advances are made in the Reproductive Sciences, we’re seeing the paradigm shift from individuals who are infertile being treated to people being treated that may become infertile due to cancer or it’s treatment.  Infertility has also become a place where people with seemingly competing interests, converge and engage with one another. In the 70s, feminism denounced reproductive techniques claiming it reinforced certain stereotypes of women as only mothers and made them victims of patriarchal medical “advances.” Today, however, we see another side of feminist thought arguing that ART has the ability to empower women because it has the potential to enable them to take control of their reproductive future. It’s based in the same ideals, but the discourse has changed.

How did your parents view reproduction and fertility? What do you think about it today and where do you think we will we be in 25 years? How has your experience shaped how you view fertility and reproduction? These are the kinds of questions that are important to discuss and explore because how we understand our history, shapes how we see our present and ultimately guides how we map out our future.


Are you a cancer survivor? Help oncofertility researchers study and prevent treatment-induced fertility loss by joining the FIRST online fertility registry for cancer survivors!



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