Fighting the Stigma of Infertility

(Originally published here: https://www.counseling.org/news/aca-blogs/aca-member-blogs/aca-member-blogs/2019/07/12/fighting-the-stigma-of-infertility)

The CDC defines infertility as “not being able to get pregnant (conceive) after one year (or longer) of unprotected sex.” About 12% of those individuals trying to get pregnant have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term. Despite this being a relatively common issue, historically, people have viewed infertility with shame and blame (mostly toward the individual with the uterus). In addition, not being able to have a baby “naturally” can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure, as well as self-stigmatization.
I am that 12%. Being given a diagnosis of infertility led to feelings of being “less than” those who were perceived as having an easy time getting pregnant. It led to feeling that I wasn’t a “real” woman. I felt shame and embarrassment, especially when others asked when my spouse and I were going to have children.
There are a number of realities that tend to increase the level of stigma felt by individuals diagnosed with infertility. As a working individual, taking leave for treatment can be difficult and insurance coverage of treatments is rare. Not adhering to the “normal” timeline of reproducing based on cultural norms or familial expectations can also be stigmatizing. Cisgender women of color, specifically, tend to feel a greater degree of stigma due to infertility than other ethnic groups (Griel at al., 2011).
In addition to stigma and acceptance, there are other challenges individuals face when being treated for infertility. These include medication side effects, financial concerns, and treatment failure. While those dealing with infertility are no more likely to develop anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders than the general population, according to Harvard Health, infertility treatment may exacerbate existing psychiatric conditions.
There seems to be a movement toward acceptance and less stigma. Each year, more and more celebrities have been coming out and sharing their stories with infertility. Such celebrities as Michelle Obama, Chrissy Teigen, Kim Kardashian-West, and Tyra Banks have made the decision to speak publicly about their personal struggles in an effort to remove the stigma and shame individuals often feel regarding reproductive abilities. I recall when, in 2011, Nicole Kidman publicly spoke of her difficulties getting pregnant and carrying a baby to term. This made me feel less alone, as if I were not the only one struggling with this diagnosis.
Social media seems to be changing the culture as well, with a preliminary report finding that those dealing with infertility are more likely to use internet resources to communicate with others regarding their diagnosis (Michey et al., 2012). Support through online communities can take away stigma and loneliness that may be present. Becoming more active on social media, I was able to connect with other individuals from high school and college and distant family members who were sharing their stories and speaking openly about their treatments and barriers. We shared what tests we had done and any treatment options that seemed to be hopeful.
Breaking the silence around infertility, connecting with others, and seeking professional counseling can go a long way in helping individuals not feel so isolated and shamed. Identifying ways to bring infertility issues into prominent discourse to advocate for increased medical coverage and support can help those who struggle to pay for costly treatments or give up hope in conceiving at all due to lack of finances. For more information, see RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, by visiting: www.resolve.org.
Griel, A.L., McQuillan, J., Shreffler, K.M., Johnson, K.M., & Slauson-Blevins, K.S. (2011). Race-ethnicity and medical services for infertility: stratified reproduction in a population-based sample of U.S. women. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 52(4), 493-509.
Harvard Health Publishing. (May 2009). The psychological impact of infertility and its treatment. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/The-psychological-impact-of-infertility-and-its-treatment
Infertility FAQs. (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/infertility/index.htm
Mickey, L.G., Flyckt, R.L., Soto, E., Catenacci, M., & Goldberg, J. (2012). Using social media in an infertility population: a preliminary report. Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, 98(3), S236.

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