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The Fertility Syndrome


By Amanda Bennett

BEING A FRESHMAN and frightened, I did not think to be offended. In an infirmary bed and gown, reeking of mono, I was grateful for the place to rest and willing to answer any questions. The doctor came in my room--it was the first time I had seen him--holding my folder in his hand. "I see from your file that you are a Catholic," he said, "Does that disrupt your sex life here at Harvard? Maybe you'd like to tell me what's really bothering you."

Since then, I have been offered birth control pills to console me for my sore throats, the morning-after pill to cure the flu, and pregnancy counseling to remove any number of stomach aches.

It has almost become a game. If the doctor does not diagnose the cause of my medical complaint within 30 seconds as having something to do with pregnancy, I win that round. My consolation prize at the close of the bout, almost always seems to be the gratuitous offer of contraception--sort of like a windshield wash with a fillup.

I am descended of peasant Irish and large-boned Teutonic stock. Round-faced and broad-hipped, doubtless some day I will be able to drop babies in the field like peas from a pod, and return to the plow before the sun is high in the sky. Right now, being young, basically healthy, and female, I recognize the almost overwhelming potential of my body for conception. At this stage, however, I wonder whether the fertility I am burdened with must necessarily cloud every doctor's perceptions of my illnesses. I go to UHS when I think I have a sore throat, the flu, or an infection under a toenail of my left foot. According to the enlightened standards of UHS, none of the above is a particularly accurate assessment of my bodily ailments. Instead, I am pregnant, about to become pregnant, confused about my sexuality, or too timid to ask for contraception.

IN THE PRE-RAISED consciousness era, the medical situation for women was much more difficult than it is now. A whole facet of women's medical needs was largely ignored: Contraception was difficult to obtain, male doctors were scornful of sexually active females, abortions were unavailable. In the late '60s, the growing sense of women's need for more open handling of gynocological and obstetrical problems led to a wide range of administrative reforms. Solutions to medical concerns associated with a woman's sexuality--contraception, pregnancy and abortion--became more easily available.

There can be no question about the worth of these reforms. But the medical profession's sharp swing from ignoring women's sexuality to over-solicitous concern for women's sexual well-being seems to indicate that a great many doctors have not understood the depth of their own prejudices. To view a woman patient as a walking baby maker, or as merely a product of her own sexual tensions is just as repressive in 1974 as denying her a sexual identity was in 1964.

One unfortunate result of the administrative reforms is doctors' prejudices about women and sex have become legitimized. It is hard for a woman to object when a doctor subjects her to casual and curious scrutiny of her private life if at the same time he or she is offering the contraception the patient needs and wants. It is often hard for a woman to judge to what extent medical history-taking justifies this scrutiny.

Woman do need sensitive, respectful treatment in gynocological and obstetrical matters. A sudden, sharp swing in the medical profession from near-total repression of sexual information to a "let's let it all hang out, girls" attitude is likely to furnish us with neither sensitivity nor respect. More dangerous, insistance on a particularly female diagnosis for a medical complaint could mask other unrelated medical problems. Or it could drive women from doctors because of their fear of not being taken seriously--which is one of the unfortunate situations the reforms were meant to correct.

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