I’ve been thinking quite a bit about stigma recently, for a while variety of reasons. You can see some of this on the blog. It’s always interesting how once you start thinking about something you begin to see it as relevant in lots of different places. Anyway, once again I found an interesting post on Beyond Blood, the new blog by Abbie Goldberg I mentioned recently and it brings me back to this topic.
Goldberg’s post is about increasing public openess around infertility. The taking off point is the number of celebrities who have gone public about their struggles with infertility. The idea here is that the increasingly publicness of infertility makes it less shameful to be infertile. I think you could say that this diminishes the stigma associated with infertility. (It’s hard not to see the parallels to coming out as lesbian or gay in this process of publicly acknowledging infertility issues, but that’s another story.)
In the past I’ve written a little about the relationship of stigma and adoption. To the extent adoption is stigmatized, adoptive parents are more likely to feel shame, which can hardly be a good thing. And they’re more likely to be secretive. This is how stigma works. People do not rush to embrace stigmatized identities. After all, Erving Goffman, who wrote the ground-breaking work called Stigma, subtitled his work “Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identities.” Goffman’s whole point is that stigma operates in certain predictable ways no matter what the source of stigma.
What struck me reading Goldberg’s recent post is that the shame/stigma around infertility can have a spill-over effect when people turn to adoption. Goldberg observes:
Individuals who had tried unsuccessfully to conceive (both men and women, and both lesbians and heterosexuals) sometimes reported feelings of being “damaged,” as well as feeling “guilty” and a sense of “failure.”
Now not everyone who adopts a child has experience with infertility and not everyone who is infertile turns to adoption, but surely many people who experience infertility do turn to adoption. And it’s hard to imagine that beginning the adoption process feeling a sense of failure or shame is really best for those involved. Thus it seems to me that the shame (generated in part by stigma) around infertility can, in a sense, infect adoption.
I’m quite sure there’s a more professional way of talking about this and I’m wary of getting out of my depth here. Still, it seems to me that there are important connections here.
Now it is a little bit complicated. I think the most common story of celebrity infertility is probably one that features surrogacy. And frankly, I’ve felt rather alienated from the repeated stories of celebrities using surrogates (does Mitt Romney’s son Tagg count?) Goldberg’s post has made me think about this somewhat differently.
Publicity has the effect of normalizing these practices, which can only diminish the shame and stigma around them, and which makes them more acceptable. Generally that’s a good thing, but perhaps my uneasiness with surrogacy that leads me to resist this normalization, and thus explains my alienation. And it does seem to me that it is surrogacy that claims the limelight. Is there a story of a celebrity using third-party eggs or sperm (except for the occasional lesbians)?
Still, in general when celebrities acknowledge infertility it can enhance the well-being of regular people who are infertile, some of whom may turn to adoption. Indeed, to the extent people become more accepting of their own infertility (because it is less of a marked failure) it could enable them to turn to adoption sooner, which might mean the whole process carries less baggage.