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infertility, inability to conceive or carry a child to delivery. The term is usually limited to situations where the couple has had intercourse regularly for one year without using birth control. The term sterility is restricted to lack of sperm production or inability to ovulate. Approximately 40% of reported cases of infertility are due to problems in the male; another 40% to problems in the female; the remaining 20% are of unknown cause or due to problems in both the male and female.


Infertility can be caused by any interruption in the usual process of fertilization, pregnancy, and birth, which includes ejaculation of normal amounts of healthy sperm, passage of the sperm through the cervix and into the fallopian tube of the female, passage of an ovum (egg) down the fallopian tube from an ovary, fertilization in the fallopian tube, implantation of the fertilized egg in a receptive uterus, and the ability to carry the fetus to term. In women, the most common problems are failure to ovulate and blockage of the fallopian tubes. In men, low sperm count is the most common problem.

Underlying problems include disease, such as diabetes or mumps in adult men, hormonal imbalances, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease (often caused by sexually transmitted diseases, e.g., chlamydia), the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and exposure to workplace hazards or environmental toxins. Uterine irritation or infection that sometimes accompanies IUD use can also reduce fertility. Occasionally there is a chemical or immunological incompatibility between male and female. Psychological factors are difficult to evaluate because of the stressful nature of infertility itself.

The number of couples seeking treatment for infertility has increased as more of them have postponed childbearing to a later age. In women, fertility begins to decline in the mid-twenties, and continues to decline, more and more sharply, until menopause. Male fertility declines gradually until age forty, then declines more quickly.

Evaluation and Treatment

Evaluation includes examination of sperm, observation of basal body temperature or luteinizing hormone peaks (see gonadotropic hormone) in the female to determine whether ovulation is taking place, the ruling out of obstructions of the fallopian tubes or vas deferens, and blood tests that measure hormone levels. Treatment is geared to the specific problem. The first step may be treatment of underlying disease and, in men, avoidance of substances that might affect sperm count. Fertility drugs, some of which increase the likelihood of multiple births, are often prescribed. If necessary, surgical correction of blocked tubes can be attempted.

Artificial insemination, in which the man's sperm or donor sperm from a sperm bank is inserted directly into the woman or a surrogate mother may be attempted. Another method is in vitro fertilization, in which an egg is taken from the mother or an egg donor and fertilized outside the body by the father's sperm. The resulting embryo is then inserted into the mother's uterus. Gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) mixes the egg and sperm outside the body, then, using laparoscopic surgery (see endoscope), introduces them into the fallopian tube. For men with low sperm count or sperm of low quality, a procedure called intracytoplasmic sperm injection can help by inserting a single sperm directly into an egg. If none of these measures succeeds, adoption is sometimes considered.

Some controversy has surrounded infertility treatment. Many of the procedures are very expensive, and some question whether insurance plans should be responsible for the cost. The multiple births that sometimes occur with fertility drugs can put great strain on a family's resources. The legal rights of surrogate mothers and sperm donors are also of concern to all parties and have sometimes been resolved only after extended court cases. The wisdom of stretching the definition of “the childbearing years” has come into question as well, as methods used for treating infertility have been used to allow postmenopausal women to have children. Some are uncomfortable with the ability to choose the sex of the child or the screening of sperm or egg donors for characteristics such as height and intelligence.

See also gynecology; obstetrics.

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fertility (and fertility rate)

  1. (fertility) the physical capacity of a woman or man to sexually reproduce.
  2. (fertility and infertility rate) the extent of actual childbearing in a population, usually expressed as a combination of the crude BIRTH RATE, that is births per thousand of a population, and the total fertility rate, being the average number of children women bear, currently below 2.0 in most industrialized countries. Compare FECUNDITY.
Fertility in sense 2 is affected by social factors such as income and housing conditions, contraceptive methods, religious and social attitudes to contraception and family size, and age of marriage. Fertility characteristically declines with INDUSTRIALIZATION (see DEMOGRAPHIC TRANSITION) and can be controlled by government strictures. For example, the Chinese government aims to restrict population growth by limiting fertility through social measures, while Russia, France and the UK have adopted various policies in the recent past to encourage higher fertility among their populations. The economic depressions of the 1930s led to lower fertility, alarming the British government, which then introduced a policy of encouraging larger families. The postwar ‘baby boom’ can be regarded as the result of both government policy and the end of hostilities.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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Fertility figure. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.
Enlarge picture
Cerne Giant, Dorset, England. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

There has long been a belief that fertility can be controlled by magical means. Extant cave paintings and rock carvings show that religious or magical rituals were performed for this purpose; for example, a clay figure of two bison mating was constructed to ensure that the real bison mated. Clay models and rock carvings were made of the Mother Goddess, emphasizing the feminine attributes: heavy, pendulous breasts and greatly enlarged genitalia. Similarly, representations of the male deity showed him with an erect phallus. The Venus of Willendorf is typical of the female deity representation, while the Cerne Abbas Giant—a huge, pre-Roman figure with a club and erect phallus, carved into a white chalk Dorset hillside—is perhaps typical of the male.

Mating of man and woman would ensure fertility of the tribe and, by extension, it was thought to ensure fertility of the crops. It was noted that the Moon, representative of the Goddess to many pagans, equated with woman's menstrual cycles and ovulation. Those who lived close to the earth, who worked daily with livestock and with seeds and grain, were more aware of the life cycle. They continued the fertility rites long after the coming of the new religion, Christianity, and its somber declamations that all things sexual were of the devil. For centuries, the pagan people performed the sex act in the furrows of a newly plowed field to ensure a good harvest. (In fact, it is said that some farm families continue this belief even today.)

It was perhaps because of knowledge of these continuing practices that the Church's witchcraft persecutors concentrated so much on sexual matters. Accused witches were charged with making animals and fields barren and with interfering in the sexual intercourse of married couples. The Malleus Maleficarum

of Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger (1486) included such chapters as: "Whether witches can hebetate the powers of generation or obstruct the venereal act"; "That witches who are midwives in various ways kill the child conceived in the womb"; and "How witches impede and prevent the power of procreation."

Some fertility rites did continue, apparently unnoticed, under the nose of the Church. One was the Maypole dance (see May Day). Originally the Maypole was a phallic symbol, with the ribbons streaming from it representing the semen flowing. For hundreds of years, Maypoles were kept in villages and towns across Europe. A huge one was set up in the city of London, only taken down in 1517 after being repeatedly preached against. Even then it was kept, stored within a row of cottages, until 1549. At the site of the Cerne Giant on Trendle Hill, a circle of stones just above his head was the site of a Maypole ritual held annually for generations. Originally these celebrations included sexual intercourse by most of the participants, but this was eventually curtailed by the clergy. In addition to the Maypole dancing at this site, it was (and may still be) common for a woman wishing to conceive to sleep overnight on the phallus of the figure. Many Maypole celebrations still take place today in villages, towns, and cities across Britain and other countries.

Insofar as Wicca is a fertility cult, there is still recognition of the power of sex in its ritual and magical operations. The sex act is recognized as a way to raise power for the working of magic. In the Third Degree ritual of degree-oriented traditions is found the Great Rite, which is a symbolical joining of the initiate with the God or Goddess—a hieros gamus, or sacred marriage. Yet sex is looked upon as something sacred. Because of this attitude, there is no promiscuity in modern Witchcraft.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in animals, the capacity to bear offspring, compensating under normal conditions for natural mortality. Fertility, which developed in the course of evolution, is associated with longevity and varies in species with different types of reproduction. Monocyclic animals, that is, those that reproduce once in a lifetime, usually bear numerous offspring. Polycyclic animals, each of whose females may bear several litters, are usually less fertile. Animals with a long life-span bear one or two per litter; litters often are not produced every year. Short-lived animals, such as small rodents, can reproduce several times a year, bearing as many as ten to 15 young per litter. The fertility of animals changes with age and, in species with repeated reproduction, varies regularly with the seasons. Changes in the food supply and climatic conditions cause fertility to vary from year to year.


The fertility that is characteristic of each species also characterizes agricultural animals. For example, cows and mares usually carry a single fetus. Cows produce twins 1-3 percent of the time, and mares 1-1.5 percent of the time. Births of three to seven calves and four foals have been recorded. Sows, depending on the breed, bear an average of six to 12 shoats per litter. The most fertile sows may produce 17 to 20 young (sometimes as many as 30). Sheep and goats, as a rule, yield an average of one or two offspring. Romanov sheep produce two or three lambs (sometimes as many as nine). Rabbits bear an average of five or six young (up to 18). In captivity the fox produces four offspring, the sable three, the arctic fox eleven, and the mink five. Maximal use of the natural reproductive capacities of animals is important in animal breeding. It is an indispensable condition for expanded reproduction of a herd.

Domestication and the accompanying changes in the life of agricultural animals have for the most part fostered an increase in fertility, which is conditioned not only by the genetic nature of an organism but also by its physiological state and by external factors. Increased fertility may be transmitted to offspring and be established by selection and culling as an important breed characteristic. For this reason fertility is taken into account in evaluating animals and selecting them for breeding. Prolonged inbreeding or interspecific hybridization often causes a decrease or complete loss of fertility in the offspring.

An increase in the fertility of agricultural animals may be best ensured through proper feeding, maintenance, and use of the animals; proper rearing of the young; the use of stimulators (for example, pregnant mare serum); and the prevention and eradication of disease.


See references under DOMESTIC ANIMALS.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The state of or capacity for abundant productivity.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


See also Abundance.
antler dance
archaic animal dance, preceding mating. [Br. Folklore: Brewer Dictionary, 1]
Irish goddess of fecundity. [Irish Folklore: Briggs, 9]
goddess of fecundity. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 24]
goddess of fecundity. [Phoenician Myth.: Jobes, 144]
Astarte’s dove
emblem of fecundity. [Phoenician Myth.: Jobes, 466]
Atargatis’ dove
emblem of fecundity. [Hittite Myth.: Jobes, 466]
Athens’ patroness; goddess of war and fecundity. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 33; Kravitz, 40]
chief male god of Phoenicians; the generative principle. [Phoenician Rel.: Parrinder, 38]
Bacchus’ cup
symbolizes fecundity. [Gk. Myth.: Jobes, 397]
Bona Dea
goddess of fertility; counterpart of Faunus. [Rom. Myth.: Zimmerman, 43]
symbol of nourishment and fecundity. [Ren. Art: Hall, 52]
horned deity of fecundity, associated with snakes. [Celtic Myth.: Parrinder, 58]
nature goddess whose magical cauldron was misused. [Celtic Myth.: Parrinder, 58]
beloved maiden, goddess of new, green crops. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 62]
Irish goddess of fertility. [Irish Myth.: Jobes, 349]
symbolizes fecundity. [Folklore: Jobes, 350]
presented to women who want to be mothers. [Ind. Folklore: Binder, 85]
nature’s fruitfulness assured by orgiastic rites honoring her. [Phrygian Myth.: Parrinder, 68; Jobes, 400]
goddess of fecundity; Welsh equivalent of Irish Danu. [Brythonic Myth.: Leach, 321; Jobes, 461]
(h)da god of abundance, war, healing. [Celtic Myth.: Parrinder, 68; Jobes, 405]
(Dāgan) fish-corn god symbolizing fecundity and abundance. [Babyl. Myth.: Parrinder, 71; Jobes, 405]
goddess of fecundity. [Gk. Myth.: Jobes, 429–430]
double ax
emblem of fecundity. [Folklore: Jobes, 163]
figs, garland of
a traditional pictorial identification of Pan, pastoral god of fertility. [Gk. Myth.: Jobes, 373]
signifies fecundity. [Mexican Folklore: Binder, 17]
flowers and fruit, garland of
traditional headdress of Pomona, goddess of fertility. [Rom. Myth.: Jobes, 373]
flowers, garland of
traditional pictorial identification of Flora, goddess of flowers and fertility. [Rom. Myth.: Jobes, 373]
goddess of agriculture, peace, and plenty. [Norse Myth.: Payton, 257]
grape leaves, garland of
traditional headdress of Bona Dea, goddess of fertility. [Rom. Myth.: Jobes, 373]
symbol of fruitfulness. [Color Symbolism: Jobes, 356]
believed to promote fertility. [Art: Hall, 157]
symbolizes fecundity. [Bengali Folklore: Binder, 67]
Lavransdatter, Kristin
gives birth to eight sons in ten years. [Nor. Lit.: Kristin Lavransdatter, Magill I, 483–486]
goddess of fertility. [Babyl. Myth.: Leach, 776]
old woman who lived in a shoe
what to do with so many children? [Nurs. Rhyme: Opie, 434]
Sabine goddess of fecundity. [Rom. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 782]
orange blossoms
symbolic of bride’s hope for fruitfulness. [Br. and Fr. Tradition: Brewer Dictionary, 784]
goddess of gardens and fruit trees. [Rom. Myth.: Zimmerman, 218]
indicates abundance. [Heraldry: Halberts, 36]
symbol of fecundity. [Animal Symbolism: Mercatante, 125–126]
worshiped orgy and fertility; mother of Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Hades, Demeter, and Hestia. [Gk. Myth.: NCE, 1796]
rhinoceros horn
in powdered form, considered powerful fertility agent. [Eastern Culture: Misc.]
waxing moon
only effective time for sowing seeds. [Gardening Lore: Boland, 31]
color of fecundity, relating to yellow sun and earth. [Eastern Color Symbolism: Binder, 78]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.