Fertility and the Royal Family

In case you live under a rock and missed it, the big news this week is that HRH the Duchess of Cambridge has a royal bun in her royal-by-marriage oven (and if you do live under a rock, you might want to prioritize getting out from under said rock because that can’t be comfortable; I’m getting claustrophobic just thinking about it.).

After the news broke, I saw a lot of people on Twitter pondering Kate’s fertility and whether the royal family had made her undergo fertility testing before she married William. It’s plausible.  I can think of half a dozen tests off the top of my head that could have provided some preliminary information on her apparent fertility.  That led me to think about what would happen if Kate had been infertile.

Scenario 1: Fertility Treatment

What would it be like for the Cambridges to pursue fertility treatment?  Would the palace be open about what they are trying or would it be something forever whispered? Fairly or unfairly, William’s genes are the ones that matter, so that would free up the couple to consider donor eggs if there were a problem with Kate’s eggs.   If she were unable to carry a pregnancy to term, could they pursue surrogacy?  I know that surrogacy is handled very differently in the UK, and the surrogate must waive her rights to the child regardless of its genetic parentage, so I doubt that William and Kate would pursue surrogacy at home.  For the purpose of anonymity, I could see them pursuing surrogacy in California with an agency used to handling high-profile clients.  Bringing colonialism full circle, they could pursue surrogacy in India.  It is doubtful, but it makes me snicker at the same time.

If the couple had to use a donor egg or surrogacy, I’m curious how it would be addressed. If it were donor egg, it wouldn’t be obvious and therefore no need for them to address it publicly (although it might be nice), but if they needed surrogacy, how would the public react?  Would they support the heir to the throne having a future heir via surrogacy?  British history is full of pivotal events that were caused by the lack of a legitimate heir to the throne, but until recently, there has never been a way for the monarch and his or her family to handle this challenge with viable science.  It is rumored that the Queen Mother used a turkey baster to conceive AKA the “old-fashioned IUI,” but that was probably the exception.

What is interesting about a royal couple pursuing treatment for infertility is the triumph of science over human frailty (potentially).  How would the history of the UK and maybe even the world have been different if Richard I, Richard III, Henry VIII or Charles II had legitimate heirs?  Or what if Edward VIII had decided to stay on the throne and had children with Wallis Simpson?  What if Mary Tudor had been able to have a child despite her advanced age?  What if Mary of William and Mary or her sister Queen Anne had produced living children after multiple miscarriages and stillbirths? 

It is tantalizing to think about what could have been if fertility treatment had been available “back in the day.”  Yet, for some monarchs, it is a good thing fertility treatment was not available because theirs was a line we didn’t want to continue.

Scenario 2: Adoption or Living Child-Free

The UK has made a lot of progress in attempting to eradicate primogeniture.  For example, it is likely, that if the Cambridges have a girl first, she will be the heiress presumptive, regardless of how many brothers she has who are younger.  The abolishment of primogeniture is a major step for a monarchy; we’ll see how this change plays out.

I’m curious about what happens if infertility treatments fail and the couple decided to live child-free or to pursue adoption.  If they live child-free, that makes Prince Harry the next in line to the throne, meaning that pressure is now on him to find a suitable spouse and have children.  The only problem with this outcome is that Prince Harry, as the “spare,” has likely grown used to being able to do what he wants.  He’s not bound by the rigid rules a direct heir to the throne has.  However, if William and Kate had no children, Harry would be on the hook. One day, he would likely be king.

If the couple adopted, the outcome would sadly be the same because at this time, an adopted child may inherit the parents’ money and property but not any titles or money and property tied to the title.  Bloodline remains all-too important here.  For example, Jamie Lee Curtis’ children are ineligible to inherit her husband Christopher Guest’s title; it will go to a cousin if I recall correctly.

I’m curious how the public would react 1) to the child of a royal couple being adopted and 2) how important bloodlines are to them now.  Would they express outrage at the title or throne passing to a cousin when there is a suitable candidate in the family despite  not being related by blood?

Scenario 3: Kate’s Fertility is Deemed Sub-Par

Let’s say that Kate was required to have many fertility tests performed.  Let’s say she failed.  Or, let’s say that William and Kate married, but when confronted with Kate’s infertility, they discover she won’t be able to create and carry a child.  Would William be pressured or feel pressured to ditch Kate because of her fertility issues?  Would he feel obligated to find a woman with better childbearing potential?  Would the palace recommend this plan?

While the palace may support and recommend this plan, how would the public react? On the one hand, one of William’s jobs is to continue the line.  On the other hand, the 21st Century royal family is hardly in the same situation as previous generations in regards to continuing the dynasty.  After all, the monarchy is rather symbolic at this point.  The fate and direction of a nation no longer rests on who is on the throne.

But would the current royal family see it that way?  Would William stand by his wife and remain married to her despite no children to carry on the line, making Harry the heir?  If they adopted, would he actively lobby for their child to inherit the throne despite the lack of blood relation? 

If William did divorce Kate, how would the public react?  Would they condemn it?  Would they shrug and go about their business?  Honestly, I wonder if such situations would cause a constitutional crisis and possibly the end of the monarchy in the UK.  It seems a little ridiculous to insist on the primacy of the bloodline in 2012 in the same way that the various royal families remaining in the world seem quaint and outdated. 

To put it into perspective, the last time the royal family encountered the crisis of no heir was in the early 19th century after the future George IV’s daughter, the heiress presumptive, died in childbirth.  While he had many illegitimate children, it was unlikely he would have another legitimate one, so her death prompted George’s brothers to marry quickly.  It was his brother the Duke of Kent who produced Princess Alexandrina Victoria, later Queen Victoria.  Queen Victoria was born almost 200 years ago; reproductive science has advanced dramatically since then.

Maybe I’m thinking too much about these scenarios.  After all, Kate is pregnant.  Maybe I’ve been watching too much of The Tudors.   We’re at the point in the first season in which King Henry is exploring ways to divorce Queen Katherine.  Yes, much of his desire for divorce is spurred by his lust for Anne Boleyn, but he also lacks a male heir.  I feel a lot of empathy for Queen Katherine and her many miscarriages and stillbirths, but I also understand Henry’s position.  He was the second monarch in the nascent Tudor line.  If he didn’t have a strong heir, the line and all his grandmother and father fought for would end quickly.  I can’t fault him for looking at his daughter Princess Mary and thinking he needed a son.  And I say this as someone who is a long-time admirer of Elizabeth Tudor, the offspring of King Henry and Anne Boleyn.

For the royals, the pressure to produce an heir is paramount.  After ascending to the throne, producing an heir is the next priority.  It is interesting to think about the monarchy, an old, outdated institution, and ponder how new approaches to treating infertility or accepting different family building options can come into conflict with it.

What are your thoughts on the Duchess’ pregnancy?


  1. I enjoyed your take on the fertility debate in the public eye! It is very thought provoking.

    My thoughts of the pregnancy… Well, I am just so, so very excited about the royal baby! More excited than I have ever been in my life… IN FACT, maybe even more excited that I was for my own baby’s announcement (both of them). Can you feel the sarcasm? I often wonder why people seem more interested and infatuated with the lives of other people before they give that much energy and attention to their own lives.

  2. “If the couple adopted, the outcome would sadly be the same because at this time, an adopted child may inherit the parents’ money and property but not any titles or money and property tied to the title.”

    That just burns my butt. My brother is adopted, so I’m pretty sensitive to things that try and chip away at the fact that he’s my brother.

    As for the royal pregnancy? I wish them well, but honestly couldn’t care less. I find royalty to be completely absurd at this point in time.

    1. Globe Magazine this week has an incredible story that Charles and Diana had to undergo a fertility test. A doctor,using sperm from Charles fertilized an egg from Diana.This resulted in a birth producing a near-look-alike for Diana Herself. The Duchess of Cornwall interviewed her for 40 minutes in NY recently.If true,this is world-shaking news and is particularly relevant to me because I am a 6th cousin of the late Princess Diana. Please,please provide some credible commentary on all this. Thanks Much & Happy New Year!

      1. Even if that daft story was true legally she wasn’t Diana’s daughter the woman who gives birth is the legal mother that is why all babies born of surragotes are adopted even if the adopting mother is the biological parent

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