I’m about to go off for a one-day meeting about how stigma operates in various settings and so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about the topic of stigma generally. That’s lead me to some thoughts that tie in here in some important ways.
Stigmatization can serve an important social function. If conduct is stigmatized people ought to be less likely to do those things and sometimes that is exactly what we’d like. For instance, it seems to me we want to stigmatize things like driving while drunk so that people will do that less.
But the picture can be a complicated one. For instance, we’ve been talking about pregnant women who use drugs. If you stigmatize that conduct you might drive it underground–which might turn out to be counter-productive. One should always be alert to unintended consequences.
With this in mind I’ve been thinking about the role of stigma in adoption and ART. It seems to me (but I am ready to be corrected) that adoption was once far more stigmatized than it is today. This might offer us a chance to think about how behavior changes as stigma changes.
I’m not sure that stigma was ever useful in this context–I mean, historically did we want to discourage adoption? I think not. So this reveals something important about stigma that I skipped over before. While stigma can be socially useful (and can therefore be a tool of social ordering), it isn’t always. Sometimes it arises out of shame and/or prejudice and has no social utility at all. In this sort of a situation (and I’m thinking adoption was one), stigma can only cause harm.
Adoptive parents sought to protect their children from the stigma an adopted child might face (or the stigma that the parents thought the child might face) by concealing the fact of adoption. I am not condoning this conduct, but I think it might have been understandable in the face of stigmatization of adoption.
As I said, I think that over time the stigmatization of adoption has diminished. Another way to say this might be that adoption has been normalized—which is to say that it seems more normal and ordinary. Normalization of adoption has, I think, played a critical role in the move towards greater openness about adoption. This move is a good thing.
I’m happy to discuss this more–and I know that many of you know more about/have thought more about adoption than I have–but I want to round out my initial picture here by moving along to ART.
Perhaps it isn’t so much that ART has been stigmatized as that infertility has been. I think many people experience infertility as a shameful failing. (And here I do mean the kind of infertility heterosexual couples experience–to the extent single parents or same-sex couples need assistance to have kids, it’s really a different story.) I think stigmatization/shame has something of the same effect you saw (I hope, rather than “see”) in adoption–by which I mean it breeds secrecy and tension. I would count this as a cost of stigmatization.
But there is a question I’m obliged to raise here with regard to ART that I brushed aside with regard to adoption: Is the stigma also useful? It might be useful if you think if you think 1) that the underlying conduct should be deterred; 2) that stigma has a deterrent function here: and 3) if you consider the unintended consequences problem.
I know that some people–perhaps many people–do not like the use of third-party gametes. I won’t focus on that (question 1) for now. I’m also going to defer discussing the second question.
Which takes me to the third question: what about the unintended consequences. And here I think I might hark back to the discussion of adoption/donor conception from a little while back. What I’d suggest is that whatever deterrent effects it might have, stigmatizing use of third-party gametes will have collateral consequences parallel to those we saw in adoption.
People will continue to use third-party gametes (which is to say I’m skeptical about deterrence here), but their actions will be shaped by shame and fear–including fear that their donor-conceived children will be stigmatized. Thus they will not be honest and they will be threatened by the prospect that the gamete provider might have a role to play in a child’s life or in the life of the adult the child becomes.
By contrast, if the use of third-party gametes is normalized–as adoption has been normalized–I think you’d find people more open to all sorts of possible constructions of family and relationships. I think counselling that it is important that children be told the truth from the earliest moments would fall on much more willing ears.
I know, of course, that many will disagree with me. But I’m wondering what the core points of disagreement come down to. Is it my assertion that people will use third-party gametes even if they are stigmatized for doing so? Or something else?