So my question is, do any of these infertility rituals actually work?
Religious or spiritual rituals, often aimed at banishing an evil presence which is preventing conception from happening, are a very common approach to solving infertility in many non-Western cultures.
This is such a different approach to our lab-based scientific approach with blood tests, microscopes, hormone treatments, test-tubes, IVF, implantations and so on.
Because these rituals are at the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s easy to dismiss them as a whole load of mumbo jumbo that wouldn’t make any difference.
Before I go any further I should point out that infertility is a tricky business, and Western treatments certainly have a way to go. Assuming the battery of tests can identify a problem, the various treatments quite often have less than a 50% success rate.
WHERE DOES THE PROBLEM LIE?
Contrary to popular belief, infertility is found roughly equally among men and women;
Male Factor 32.5%
Problems with sperm production is the reason in about 75% of cases, other reasons include male tubal blockages and ‘sperm allergies’ where the immune system reacts to the sperm.
Female Factor 32.5%
Female tubal blockages are responsible for about 50% of these cases, ovulation
problems account for about 25%, and other reasons include endometriosis and
Multiple Male and Female Factors 10.8%
Unexplained Infertility 24.2%
Doctors are unable to find a cause, even after a full series of tests and assessments.
Sexually transmitted diseases and other infections affect these percentages in different populations. For example across central Africa it is estimated that 20-30% of couples are infertile due to untreated infections, in particular gonorrhoea and chlamydia.
So I started thinking about the ritual treatments in many of these non-Western cultures and wondering if there is a possibility that some of them do actually ‘work’ by giving the infertile person reassurance – or reduce their stress. My thinking was that lower stress levels could lead to a more regular menstrual cycle, or less stress hormones could make conditions more conducive to conception.
After all, there are plenty of stories about people who had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for years, and finally something happened that made them relax and stop trying (e.g. an adoption finally arranged) and they get pregnant the next month. Coincidence or reduction in stress levels?
I have done some research now into stress and infertility and found out the following;
1. Researchers believe that psychological factors – while important – are secondary to biological ones.
I suppose this basically mean that if there is a deal-breaking biological cause such as early menopause, or zero sperm count, then no amount of stress reduction could override certain physical problems.
2. In answer to the chicken and egg question (which came first the stress or the infertility?) in Western culture stress is thought be caused by infertility, not the other way around. However, people who are stressed may behave in ways that harm their fertility, such as smoking, drinking, eating an unbalanced diet and often having a low libido.
In non-Western culture there is no doubt that infertility causes massive amounts of stress too – the ramifications of not having children are probably more far-reaching in many of these cultures. My question about this point is whether stressed people in non-Western cultures would behave in similar ways that would harm their fertility – smoking, drinking and food issues may not be a way of alleviating stress in their culture.
3. Various studies have been done to try to work out whether treating stress can improve pregnancy rates, such as support groups, cognitive behaviour therapy and relaxation training, however the results are inconclusive. Out of nine recent studies, four showed a positive effect on the number of pregnancies, and five showed no effect.
Although this is not conclusive, it does show that in some cases treating stress can have an effect - 4 out of 9 studies is better than none.
This makes me think that it is possible that the rituals with spirit mediums or traditional healers do help in some cases – the reassurance a woman gets from feeling that an evil curse has been lifted from her may be just what she needed.
For women in our culture, possibly the stress of trying not to be stressed about not getting pregnant just makes things worse? Rather like cancer patients who can be made to feel guilty if they don't have a Positive Mental Attitude all the time, being "not stressed" could be another thing for fertility patients to worry about.
If you have any experience of the relationship between relieving stress and becoming pregnant I would be very interested to hear from you.
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If you would like to read more, take a look at;
HFEA (Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority) data, 2006
Health Psychology (Vol. 19, No. 6, 568-575)
Social Science and Medicine (Vol. 57, No. 12, 2,325-2,341)