Stigma as a Framework for Women’s Infertility

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In the United States, 6.7 million or 10.9% of women, between the ages of 15 and 44 have difficulty becoming or staying pregnant and of these women 6% are infertile (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2012). Infertility is defined as twelve months of regular, unprotected intercourse yielding no pregnancy (Tierney, McPhee, & Papadakis, 1999). For those struggling with infertility there can be numerous negative psychological problems, including depression and anxiety (Jordan & Revenson, 1999). Given the widespread and negative impact of infertility, it is important to further understand and explain the experiences of infertile women. The present work contributes to the literature by qualitatively examining women’s infertility as a stigmatizing experience. Goffman (1963) defines stigma as an attribute that society deems as deeply discrediting and reduces an “individual from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (p. 3). Moreover, individuals who possess a stigmatizing condition are likely viewed as a less or inferior person. Because women struggling with infertility are unable to fulfill societal norms that mandate motherhood (e.g., Gonzalez, 2000; Whiteford & Gonzalez, 1995), women experiencing infertility may perceive stigma. The aim of the current study is to explore infertility as stigmatizing in order to provide a more complete framework for understanding negative psychological outcomes among women with infertility. To this end, we conducted qualitative interviews with nine women who had been trying to conceive without success for at least one year. Participants were recruited by newspaper advertisements, campus emails, flyers in local nurse practitioner clinics and local infertility clinics in Johnson City, TN. Interviews were conducted one-on-one and were guided by general questions about the most difficult aspects of infertility and how women’s lives, including social relationships and beliefs about themselves, had been impacted by the experience. Audio-recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded for themes. Five reoccurring themes were identified: culture and norms, feelings of failure and loss of 2013 Appalachian Student Research Forum Page 115 womanhood, infertility as stigmatizing condition, change of world view, and social support. Each of these themes can be discussed in relation to the public and self aspects of stigma. For example, the expectation that females progressing into adulthood will eventually have children influenced infertile women’s interactions with the world around them causing them to feel inadequate and question their purpose in life. Moreover, women in our study reported being constantly reminded of their infertility struggles through everyday social interactions with strangers, family, and friends, some of which included differential treatment due to infertility. These continual reminders led women to internalize the negative beliefs regarding not living up to societal gender expectations or stereotypes. Furthermore, women’s reports of alienation and self-isolation, as well as anger and frustration map onto previous models of stigma-related processes (e.g., Hatzenbuehler, 2009; Richman & Leary, 2009. Thus, stigma theory may provide a framework with which to more fully understand the negative psychosocial outcomes commonly reported among women encountering infertility.


Johnson City, TN

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