Marion Boulicault (MIT): Gender and the Measurement of Fertility: A Case Study in Critical Metrology

Human fertility is in an apparent state of crisis. In July 2017, scientists reported that sperm counts among men from North America, Europe and Australia have decreased by 50 – 60% since 1973, with no sign of halting (Levine et al. 2017). For women, the story is bleak and familiar: women’s fertility decreases with age, yet women are waiting longer than ever to have children (Kincaid 2015). In this paper, I investigate this crisis through the lens of the seemingly mundane practice of measurement, i.e. the standards, methods and instruments by which the phenomenon of fertility is quantified. By comparing two widely-used measures – semen analysis in men, and ovarian reserve testing (ORT) in women – I argue that socio-cultural ideas about gender play a significant role in constructing fertility as a measurable phenomenon. Different temporal assumptions implicit in semen analysis and ORT reflect and enforce a view of women as more responsible for – and therefore more to blame for – infertility than men. I conclude by arguing that, in the case of semen analysis and ORT, it’s not just fertility that’s being measured, but degrees of adherence to racialized norms of masculinity and femininity.

This paper also has a methodological aim. Significant philosophical attention has been paid to measurement as a metaphysical and epistemological phenomenon (Tal (2017). Following philosophers like Ian Hacking (1999) and Anna Alexandrova (2017), this paper contributes to a growing movement in analytic philosophy towards investigating the socio-political dimensions of measurement. What role does measurement play in the creation and maintenance of social norms and, conversely, how are social norms reflected in and created through measurement practices? In this paper, I develop a framework – called ‘critical metrology’ – to address these questions, and apply it to the case of fertility measurement.

Date & time

Mon 02 Dec 2019, 12:30pm to 2:30pm


Coombs Ext Rm 1.04


Marion Boulicault

Event series


School of Philosophy


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