Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Community Constructs of Involuntary Childlessness: Sympathy, Stigma, and Social Support

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Community Constructs of Involuntary Childlessness: Sympathy, Stigma, and Social Support

Article excerpt


In recent years, infertility and reproductive impairments have been transformed from invisible phenomena or 'private' problems into social concerns (Scritchfield, 1989: 99). Personal reproductive difficulties have become '... "public problems" -- social problems that become controversies in arenas of public action' (Addelson, 1990: 1). The emergence of controversy can be linked to the social construction of infertility as a problem requiring high technology medical treatments. This social construction is relatively new, arising from the rapid development of and access to technologies which deal with reproductive impairment (Scritchfield, 1989: 111).

These developments in human reproductive technology have given rise to serious social and ethical questioning of the nature of biological parenthood, the rights and responsibilities of donors, and the legal ownership of embryos and children produced through technological means. Public problems of reproduction have been transformed into a battlefield on which experts in social theory, social policy, medicine, law, and ethics fight for ownership and the right to define (Addelson, 1990). Set against these experts and their agendas are the involuntarily childless and their advocates who seek access to reproductive technologies as the solution to their 'private problems'. Although Pfeffer (1987) has argued that little information is available on what infertile couples want, sufficient numbers are seeking access to reproductive technologies ranging from artificial insemination donor to surrogacy to generate pressure for their continued availability (Miall, 1989: 46-47).

Within the social problems literature, Spector and Kitsuse (1977) have theorized that social problems are produced or constructed through social activities rather than on the basis of some objective condition. Social problems are social constructions wherein various claims-makers assert grievances about particular social conditions. Strict constructionists examine what claims-makers say about conditions, not the objective status of the conditions themselves (cf. Best, 1989: xviii; Woolgar and Pawluch, 1985). Gusfield (1985: 17) has argued against this independence of the logic of theory from the substantive questions to which it is directed. Best (1993: 119) has characterized Gusfield's position as a form of 'contextual constructionism' wherein 'contextual constructionists study claims-making within its context of culture and social structure'. In her discussion of claims-making, Miller (1993: 157) argues that power and the struggle over meaning are displaced from the activities of politicians and interest groups by the routine encounters of everyday life.

Sociologists, writing about Canadian health and health care, have conceptualized both health and illness definitions and behaviour as social constructions. In a review of this research, Coburn and Eakin (1993: 91-93) have observed that both illness constructs and health and illness behaviour arise out of social and cultural contexts, through interaction, and at the level of the individual. In addition, the authors pinpoint the notions of social support as a buffer mechanism between stress and health, or as a determinant of health, as major concerns in Canadian research (Coburn and Eakin, 1993: 89). The influence of social relationships on the ways in which individuals cope with stressors in a variety of areas has also been examined (Abbey, Andrews and Halman, 1991).

This paper concerns itself with the claims-making surrounding reproductive impairments and the social construction of involuntary childlessness. Specifically, it explores the constructs of infertility held by community members, and considers the extent to which these constructs may influence their ability to act as social supports for childless couples. Generally, research on reproductive technology has reflected expert theoretical stances with an emphasis on the complexities of ethical, legal, and medical issues. …

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