Infertility, Adoption and Stigma

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.




5 responses to “Infertility, Adoption and Stigma

  1. I can’t disagree with much of what you have said regarding infertility and adoption (something like 80% are due to infertility) – simply because whatever negative impacts the parents bring – ultimately impacts the child and that is of course my concern.

    I am not in favor though of publicizing celebrity adoptions, ART etc simply because the privacy is forever destroyed for the child for one. The second concern of normalizing something that already has ethical concerns – like surrogates from developing countries and the unknown risks and costs to them – etc. It’s a touchy subject how to get it right.

    • I do hesitate over the publicity given celebrity adoptions/surrogacy. There is stuff in some of the stories that worries me. Child as fashion accessory? Surrogacy and exploitation?

      But maybe it is the particular circumstances of specific cases that bother me rather than the general topic. I must say that I do not pay enough attention to the celebrity news feed to know. I think celebrity culture in general is pretty weird. For better or for worse, though, when popular figures do things I think it tends to make those things a little more acceptable, a little less stigmatized.

      The problem is that it is the oddest cases that tend to get the most press and stick in the public mind. Like Michael Jackson and his children, say. The celebrities who try to live most like the rest of us probably make less news in the first place.

      Complicated, as you say. And your comment has reminded me of how much there is here that makes me downright uneasy.

  2. Adoption is a not solution to infertility.

    • I’m inclined to want to say yes and no. If you want to raise a child and you cannot produce one via your own gametes you might choose either ART or adoption. Either can be a path to parenthood. It doesn’t cure the infertility, but it might get you where you want to be. The degree to which you are comfortable with either or both routes is going to vary but is doubtless critical in terms of what kind of a parent you’ll be. If what you mean to suggest is that in either case you have to come to terms with infertility, then of course you are right. You didn’t make it go away.

  3. Approximately 2 million American women undergo some type of fertility treatment every year. Contrary to the intensive media coverage of fertility issues, infertility has not reached epidemic proportions. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of infertile married couples was actually lower in 1995 2.1 million than in 1982 2.4 million.;Infertility rates have not increased in the past three decades, but treatment protocols were forever changed the moment Louise Brown entered the world in 1978…

    View all of the helpful blog post at our own web blog

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