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Infertility – the making of a modern experience, Germany 1870–1930

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When IVF was introduced, it was seen as ushering in a new era marked by the ability to manipulate life. Regarding infertility, IVF was perceived as a watershed, neatly dividing a past in which infertility had been regarded as fate and present in which involuntarily childless couples faced unprecedented but ethically problematic options. Historians of medicine would not subscribe to this view. Rather they would point to the fact that infertility had long been perceived as a medical condition, demanding sound diagnosis and at times rather aggressive forms of treatment. In my paper, I will ask how the meaning of infertility changed during the late 19th and the early 20th century. I will look at the forms of diagnosis and treatment that were available during this period but also at the changing value Western societies attributed to motherhood and fatherhood, to children and to the ability to shape one’s own life course. Was there something specifically ‘modern’ about the ways in which infertility was perceived during this period? How does it compare to earlier times? And if there was substantial change, how can we understand the relationship between broader social and cultural changes and the dynamics brought about by advances in science and medicine?

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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