The Social Stigma of Infertility: Is It Beginning to Fade?

The Stigma of Infertility: Less Shame and More Sharing?

Throughout history people have viewed infertility as shameful and demeaning.  Usually the woman was thought to be at fault if a couple had problems trying to conceive.  Women were usually blamed—or blame themselves—for miscarriages.  People didn’t tell others they were undergoing fertility treatment, or only told their closest family members.  Not being able to have a baby made both women and men feel inadequate, like they were failing.  Losing a pregnancy meant you had to mourn in silence.

Some ethnic groups feel the shame and stigma more strongly than others.  In a study both African-American and Hispanic women felt a higher degree of stigma due to infertility than other ethnic groups.   But recent events point toward a change in how infertility is perceived.  Are we moving toward more acceptance and less stigma?

Michelle Obama Speaks Out

Recently Michelle Obama has gone public about her struggles with miscarriage, in her new memoir, Becoming, and in a prime-time TV special on ABC, she told Good Morning America, “I felt like I failed because I didn’t know how common miscarriages were, because we don’t talk about them.”  As so many women do, she perceived herself as “broken.”  Michelle and former President Barack Obama were able to have their daughters, Sasha and Malia, through IVF treatment, when Michelle was in her mid-30s.  They moved relatively quickly to IVF because Michelle knew her “biological clock was ticking,” she said.

Twenty years ago when Mrs. Obama was struggling with infertility, no one talked about it.  Now she’s speaking out so other women will not feel alone in their fertility journey.   “I think it’s the worst thing we do to each other as women, not [to]share the truth about our bodies and how they work and how they don’t work,” Mrs. Obama told Robin Roberts.

Social Media Sharing

Social media has profoundly changed the rules of what we tell and what we feel comfortable sharing.  Each person has their own standards about what to share and what not to share, but it’s clear that usage of social media has made it more acceptable to speak publicly (or at least with friends, or interested groups) about infertility.  Young people live their lives in social media, and they seem to see infertility as another life event to share online.

A preliminary report from Fertility and Sterility, a respected industry journal, found that infertility patients may be more likely to use internet resources, such as chat rooms, websites, blogs, and Facebook, to communicate with their doctors and other patients than are patients with other diagnoses.  When patients support each other through Facebook groups and other resources they find an online community that can take away the stigma and loneliness of infertility.

Millennials Planning Ahead for Infertility

Many high-tech companies offer egg freezing as a fertility benefit so their employees can concentrate on their careers and not worry about starting a family until they’re ready.  But some millennial women are taking charge of their future fertility on their own, even if the company doesn’t pay.  Some consult fertility specialists to learn about their ovarian reserve and see if they have good quality eggs.  Some pursue egg freezing to ensure they have young, healthy eggs of their own down the road, in case they haven’t met a life partner before their fertility starts drawing to a close.  Apps and at-home fertility tests are increasingly making knowledge of your fertility a common wellness practice.

Is the Stigma Fading?

For many people the stigma of infertility is still strong.  Infertility has only recently begun to be discussed publicly.  Even in the recent past, celebrities often denied using assisted reproductive technology, even when it’s apparent that they did.  How many 50 year old women can get pregnant without donor eggs?  But several celebrities recently have opened up about their use of IVF and in some cases surrogacy to have a biological child.  Chrissy Teigen and her husband John Legend, Kim Kardashian, Courtney Cox, Brooke Shields, Celine Dion, and Jimmy Fallon have all shared their stories of fertility treatment and their joy in having a child.

Do you think the social stigma of infertility is fading?  How are people who are TTC and having trouble treated in your community? Does the younger generation see infertility as something that doesn’t need to be hidden?

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