Lament of a Barren Woman

Sarai is just one example of the biblical stigma of not being able to conceive.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In Parashat Lekh L'kha we encounter the first of what will become a common refrain in the book of Genesis, the lament of the barren woman. The opening verse of Chapter 16 informs us that “Sarai, the wife of Abram, had borne him no child.” This theme of infertility is repeated with each matriarchal generation--Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.

The Importance of Children in the Bible

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It is telling that in this part of the Bible, the primary female voices are anguished cries about the inability to conceive. The Matriarchs repeatedly lament that without offspring, they lack stature and worth in their families. Sarai, after years of barrenness, is so desperate for a child that she offers her maidservant to her husband, effectively introducing a competitor for Abraham’s affection, in order that “perhaps I [Sarai] can build a family through her.” Rachel equates the value of motherhood to life itself, begging her husband to “give me children, or I am dead.”

Even Leah, the only one among the four Matriarchs who does not appear to struggle with infertility, expresses her belief that her status in the family and the love of her husband is dependent upon her bearing children. She names two of her first three sons using words that express the hope that with each birth, her husband will surely come to love her.

The biblical text poignantly demonstrates the importance of children to the women of that time and the emotional and social distress caused by infertility. In developing countries today, the anguish is compounded by social stigma and economic repercussions. Lacking universal health care, adequate social services and financial insurance like Social Security, many African women depend on children to sustain them in their old age. Barren women frequently see their husbands leave them for other wives. They are often cut out of family inheritances, become social outcasts and, in extreme cases, may even be driven to suicide.

woman holding stomachInfertility in Devoloping Nations

To make matters worse, infertility rates in many developing nations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are higher than they are in the West. While the infertility rates in the United States among women ages 20 to 44 hovers at approximately 10 percent, in the Central African Republic, it is almost 30 percent; in Lesotho, 27 percent; and in Cameroon, 25 percent. These are troubling numbers: nearly a third of women in some countries are unable to bear children. Yet despite the severity of this epidemic, women experiencing infertility in many parts of the Global South lack access to the costly and complex treatments that have become, if not commonplace, then at least accessible to many in the United States.
Ironically, countries that suffer from high infertility rates also tend to be in poor regions where there is significant effort being made to lower the birth rate. While smaller families might be beneficial to the development of many countries, this should not take precedence over each woman’s right to have a child if she chooses, or mitigate the pain, stigma, ostracism and financial insecurity that individual women face when they cannot conceive.

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Aviva Presser Aiden

Aviva Presser Aiden is a student at Harvard Medical School. She co-founded Bears Without Borders, an organization fostering economic opportunities among developing-world artisans, and is co-founder and CTO of Lebone, a social enterprise developing microbial fuel cells as an off-grid energy and lighting solution for Africa.

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