Why Has Infertility Been Such a Source of Stigma for Females?

Photograph showing peach background and wooden figure representing infertility – a wooden block of a human figure with a smaller human figure cut out of it's center.

The Stigma of Infertility 

Infertility can carry many feelings, including frustration, fear, and isolation due to the social stigma surrounding it. This experience may feel incredibly lonely as it is often an arduous, confusing, and expensive process to identify the root cause of one’s infertility – let alone begin to treat the problem. 

It can feel as if you are entirely alone in dealing with this grief and frustration; however, according to the World Health Organization, there are one hundred and eighty-six million individuals living with the ongoing effects of infertility.

In heterosexual couples trying to get pregnant, both partners may experience infertility stigma. Even amongst more progressive circles, infertility may be discussed as being one or the other partner’s “fault” without much thought given to the word’s connotation. Though males often experience stigma relating to infertility, this article seeks to understand why, on average, females experiencing infertility have often experienced a greater sense of stigma than their male counterparts. PubMed estimates that infertility affects roughly ten percent of the global population of females. 

The Root of the Stigma

Historically conservative societies, especially those with laws preventing females from having any political standing or property outside their connections to male family members, have been fading out of more progressive regions of the western world. However, the evolutionary baggage still exists in many cultures around the globe today, including the too-often misogynistic system in the United States.

A female’s societal status has historically been tied to their ability to produce viable heirs to inherit property and maintain their family’s social status for generations. Dating back centuries to the Bible is the figure of Sarah, who is often remembered as a “barren” wife, unable to provide a family for her husband Abraham until the age of 90. Although religion takes a less prominent role in many Americans today, and religious text is interpreted far less literally than in centuries past, religious ideology is at the root of many American values. With that often comes the association of females with family.

For example, a large faction of females in the United States primarily associate their purpose with being a mother to their children and a wife to their spouse – as opposed to their individual characteristics or interests. Even Hilary Clinton, the former US Secretary of State, has the following Instagram bio: 

“Doting grandmother, among other things.” Young females often grow up in the United States with role models who consistently define themselves with others instead of by their passions and careers.

Quips about biological clocks ticking and terms like “spinster” carry far more shame than the equivalent “bachelor” used for male counterparts. As male infertility is not as broadly associated with age, men are not shamed in the same way that females may be for causing their infertility issues by not settling down soon enough or not being a desirable enough partner to find the right match. It is no wonder that there is so much social stigma placed on females unable to produce a family.

The Stigma of Miscarriage 

In addition to females experiencing infertility in the form of an inability to get pregnant, millions of females globally hold the grief and loss of their pregnancies that terminated in a miscarriage.  Healthline estimates that ten to fifteen percent of pregnancies result in a miscarriage. 

Those who have not experienced a loss like this can often underestimate the social stigma of treating this pregnancy loss as the death of a child, which, to many females, is how it feels. One such person is Amy Pittman, who beautifully described her loss experience with humor and grace in her Modern Love piece The Internet Still Thinks I’m Pregnant. If you are grieving your miscarriage and feel alone, we hope this resource may be of help. 

The Impact of Stigma

Many females are reluctant to reach out for support or even share the details of their infertility with their broader circle of supporters due to the social stigma associated with it. These feelings of shame in the face of repeated inquiries about when they might start building a family can lead to social isolation and withdrawal, which may result in depression and anxiety. 

According to research conducted by the Isfahan Fertility and Infertility Center in Iran, this social stigma led to lower self-esteem and feelings of inferiority compared to participants’ broader social network of females who did have children. The inability to have children heightened fears about the potential of divorce and further social exclusion. 

Though we often underestimate the physical toll that these more emotional or social influences can have on us, Professor Canli at Stony Brook University discusses the direct correlation between loneliness and the long-term risk of cognitive decline and eventual risk of Alzheimer’s and other serious health concerns in his research on How Loneliness Can Make you Sick. These physical impacts of social isolation can even exacerbate pre-existing infertility issues as they negatively impact the health of patients undergoing fertility treatment.

How to Combat the Stigma

Arizona Center for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility has previously addressed three major forms of stigma ranging from societal to personalized to enacted. It has provided seven recommendations on how to help overcome them. In this article, you will find suggestions ranging from seeking out support groups to empowering yourself through education on the topic of infertility. If you are investigating the right place to begin your journey with fertility treatments, we hope that you will consider contacting our clinic to see how we can help you.

If your loved one is experiencing infertility and you are looking to support them through this experience, we hope that you will find this article helpful as you aid them through their journey.

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