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It’s 2019, and infertility stereotypes are still pervasive

1 in 5 infertile women have directly experienced discrimination or prejudice tied to their infertility

This week, we’re at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) conference hearing from the leaders in reproductive health and fertility research, soaking in the newest scientific findings, and presenting our latest research to help advance women’s health. We originally published a summary of this data in our Modern State of Fertility.

About 1 in 6 heterosexual US-based couples are infertile (defined as the inability to conceive after trying for 12 months or more). Despite the fact that infertility is relatively common, wanting to have and having kids is seen as a societal norm—which means people who don’t conform to this norm are potentially at risk of experiencing stigma.

Unfortunately, stigma comes in many forms. There is societal level stigma (how society views people with a stigmatized characteristic), individual-level felt stigma (how people with a stigmatized characteristic feel), and enacted stigma (actual instances of discrimination or prejudice because of a stigmatized characteristic).

There’s reason to believe that, when it comes to infertility, all three of these types of stigma are present in the US. But previous studies about this have been based on small sample sizes, in very specific geographic areas, and reliant on infertility clinic-based participants rather than on random samples of women.

Earlier this year, we conducted a study to better understand how women feel about male and female infertility stigma, and the prevalence of discrimination or prejudice due to infertility. Here’s a summary of what we found, and what we’re presenting this week at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine conference.

Women believe female infertility is more stigmatized than male infertility

Despite the fact that roughly the same proportion of infertility cases can be attributed to female factors and to male factors, women believe that female infertility is more stigmatized than male infertility.

For example, 59% of women agreed with the statement that “women who are infertile are unfairly treated,” while only 21% agreed with the statement that “men who are infertile are unfairly treated.”

Similarly, more respondents agreed that people will think less of a woman who is infertile (41% agreed) as compared to a man who is infertile (24% agreed).

Almost half (45%) of women who struggle with infertility believe that stereotypes about infertility have affected them personally. And 28% of infertile women believe that their infertility has affected the way people interact with them.

Experienced discrimination and prejudice are associated with higher guilt and shame

Almost 1 in 5 infertile women have directly experienced discrimination or prejudice solely because of their infertility status.

When we asked women which emotions they felt when they think about their fertility, infertile women who reported they’d experienced actual instances of discrimination and prejudice because of their infertility reported feeling more guilt and more shame relative to infertile women who hadn’t experienced discrimination or prejudice.

The bottom line: infertility stigma is too high, and that’s not okay

Respondents believed that infertility stigma was higher for women than for men, making women the primary target of stigma for something that is equally as likely to be caused by men and by women.

An all-too-high percent of infertile women felt like stereotypes about infertility had affected them personally, and almost 1 in 5 infertile women reported an act of discrimination or prejudice tied to their infertility.

Infertility-based discrimination and prejudice may also have psychological impacts on women (i.e., being associated with higher guilt and shame). Just like in other stigmatized conditions, infertility stigma may contribute to people hiding information about their diagnosis from friends or family, and delaying or avoiding treatments. This stigma may also strain relationships, and take a psychological toll on individuals.

Healthcare providers and the medical community can help chip away at infertility stigma by creating nonjudgmental environments for patients to discuss what they are going through, providing patients with information about treatments, and normalizing the experience of infertility more generally.

More broadly, people and companies in the reproductive health space can make high-quality information about infertility more accessible and readily available.

Taken together, these actions would reduce the negative impact of infertility on women’s lives, and enable them to move from stigma to empowerment.

Note on the methodology of our study

See the full findings from the Modern State of Fertility. Women were recruited through an e-mail newsletter (thanks, Glamour mag!). All web-based survey responses were anonymous, and participation was 100% voluntary. We asked women questions about how they think society thinks of and treats infertile men and women, how infertile women feel like their infertility has affected them, and women’s feelings towards their fertility. This study was IRB-approved.

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Talia Shirazi

Talia is a biological anthropology PhD candidate at Penn State, passionate about women's reproductive health and behavioral neuroendocrinology.

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