Is Infertility A Disability ?

Sunshine, Angel, Rainbow

This morning has been a learning experience for me. Infertility is a leading cause of adoption. One adoptee wrote – I find it hard to sympathize with infertility and I’m aware it’s because that was the only reason I was adopted by my adoptive parents. I’m angry because of the abuse I’ve suffered because of that issue. In the adoption community, women are counseled that they must deal with their mental and emotional issues related to infertility before choosing to adopt a child. An adopted child will never be a replacement for a baby you lost or failed to conceive. An adopted child was conceived and birthed by another woman who will always be that child’s first mother.

Is infertility a disability ? – turns out that legally it is.

In 1998, the US Supreme Court found in Bragdon v Abbott that reproduction is a “major life activity.” And the Court held that the risks of passing the disease to offspring constituted a “substantial limitation” on reproduction. Consequently, infertility met the ADA’s criteria as a disability.

According to the World Health Organization – Infertility has significant negative social impacts on the lives of infertile couples and particularly women, who frequently experience violence, divorce, social stigma, emotional stress, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. A diagnosis of infertility is determined as the inability to get pregnant after a year or more of trying. Infertility can trigger feelings of shame and a sense of failing to live up to traditional gender expectations. Infertility can strain romantic relationships that included the expectation of shared parenthood. (We watched the 2020 movie Ammonite last night which dramatizes that strain.)

The National Institutes of Health notes that – infertility could be a source of social and psychological suffering for women in particular. In some communities, the childbearing inability is only attributed to women, hence there is a gender related bias when it comes to a couple’s infertility.

Psychologists also must understand that infertility is a kind of trauma, often a complex trauma. Anxiety, depression, grief and loss are part of the psychological impact of infertility. There may even be more to the experience when defined by the individual. At the extreme, the process can be so stressful that a woman who undergoes fertility treatments may develop a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While defining infertility as a disability may have legal and medical applications, most women do not see their infertility as a disability. When I experienced secondary infertility, I never thought of myself as disabled. I simply had reached an age where my own fertility (I gave birth to a daughter at 19 and had a pregnancy aborted at age 22 or 23) naturally had ended. While it did make me sad that my husband now desired fatherhood after I was too old to gift him with that, I still did not think of myself as disabled. Women in my adoption community who have experienced infertility do not consider themselves disabled either.

Part of my learning experience today was learning about all the “baby” symbolic concepts that I didn’t know before. Angel baby always was understood by my heart. I find it interesting that a mom’s group that I have been part of for over 18 years initially gave our group the name Sunshine Babies because our babies were all born between April and August. Later, we simply changed that to Sunshine Moms. We knew nothing of the use of such words when we chose that concept as our group symbol. We never knew that word “sunshine” had a larger meaning outside of our group.. We all conceived via assisted reproduction. Therefore, a sunshine baby can have different meanings for different families.

My own daughter experienced a still birth prior to giving birth to my grandson and later my granddaughter. It was a sad and traumatic event to be certain. The terms acknowledge the complexity of pregnancy and infant loss as well as any pregnancies that follow such a loss. For those as clueless as I was before this morning – here are some commonly used phrases related to pregnancy outcomes.

The term rainbow baby refers to a baby born to a family after a miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. The concept of a rainbow baby relates to the concept of a beautiful rainbow appearing after a turbulent storm. The concept symbolizes hope and healing. I always have loved rainbows. After every storm there is a rainbow. A rainbow baby brings an unimaginable amount of joy and a sense of peace, knowing that you now have a beautiful, precious little baby.

The sunshine symbol is often used to refer to calm moments before a storm. Therefore, a sunshine baby is the child who was born before you encountered a loss. Your loss could be the result of a miscarriage which is defined as the loss of a pregnancy in the first 20 to 24 weeks. A sunshine baby represents hope. Their presence allows you to believe that you can conceive a baby successfully. Your sunshine baby is a reminder that you are fully capable of maintaining a pregnancy and delivering a healthy baby.

There are even more terms as well – a Golden baby: a baby born after a rainbow baby, a Sunset baby: a twin who dies in the womb (I did experience a “vanishing” twin in my first son’s pregnancy), a Sunrise baby: the surviving twin of a baby who dies in the womb.

If you have a biological child, you are simply lucky. Some people will never have that chance or will have had the opportunity to parent taken away from them by miscarriage or infant death. When an intractable infertility may become an awareness after a first pregnancy results in a loss. Some women will mourn that loss all the more, realizing that they will never, ever experience having a child of their own genetic biology. This can be extended as well to a birth mother who loses her child to adoption for whatever reason, especially if that mother never experiences a reunion with her child (as happened to both my maternal and paternal original grandmothers).

The truth is, when you lose a baby from any cause, you develop a permanent psychological scar. In some women, it is difficult to imagine that they will ever have another baby. Losing a baby can change a person’s dreams and hopes of any future that includes being a parent. Some people will tell you that you should just “get over it.” This is not helpful advice to extend to a bereaved parent. The overwhelming feelings experienced following a loss are normal. Usually with grief and sorrow, the intensity does lessen as time passes.

Both Genders Drive Adoption

For some time now, my husband has been making use of old photos to create slide shows as a screen saver. I enjoy looking at these . . . memories. One of my current favorites is of my husband lying on his chest looking at our oldest son as a 3 month old infant lying on the bed. They are both smiling at one another. Clearly, there is a real connection between them, an energy. And it is true, while my husband does honestly love both of his sons, he does a lot of work around our farm with the older boy. They seem to be in-sync so well. Of course, the older one, now 21 years old, is more mature but over the last several years, they have replaced roofs, planted trees and both worked for the 2020 Census and could share stories each night when they got home. Just as I saw with my in-laws respect for my husband’s opinions, there is a respect on my husband’s part for each of his sons’ perspectives. It is a beautiful thing to see. For my part, I am inspired by both of them and who and how they are developing into maturity.

Becoming a father came at the right time for my husband in his own maturity. When we first married (my second marriage), he was not interested in having children. He was glad I had been there and done that – so no pressure on him. And it is also true that because I gave birth to my daughter at the age of 19, I had already known motherhood. Indeed, she has made me a grandmother twice. She was there for me each time one of my parents died (only 4 months apart) and through the challenges of being the executor of their estate, including giving me the benefit of her expertise in real estate selling and negotiating the final contract with a buyer.

Even though my early motherhood was a good experience for me, I was totally blown away when after 10 years of marriage, my husband did a 180 on me and wanted to become a father. Unfortunately, it turned out that age had produced in me secondary infertility and we had to turn to assisted reproduction and an egg donor to have our sons. 20 years ago, no one saw inexpensive DNA testing and the matching sites 23 and Me as well as Ancestry becoming so popular in use. Fortunately, we have handled the situation of having two donor conceived sons as well as any ignorant parents could (both had the same genetic sources and so, are true genetic and biological siblings). By handling the situation, I mean we have always been honest about their conceptions with our sons. They really did need to become older to understand the details. Getting their DNA tested at 23 and Me (where their egg donor also had her DNA tested) gave us the opening to fully describe the details, which does not seem to have troubled them at all. Before we had theirs tested, I also gifted my husband with a kit from 23 and Me.

For me, having lost the privilege of actually raising my daughter when she was 3 years old due to my own poverty and her father’s unwillingness to pay child support (and even so, he ended up paying for her support by raising her himself) – these second chance opportunities to prove I could mother children throughout their growing up years has been a true blessing for me. Experiencing motherhood now has healed much – including a decision to have an abortion after my daughter’s birth and the subsequent discovery that I carried the hep C virus – thanks to pre-treatment testing related to my oldest son’s conception. (BTW, this week I will finally complete, after living with this virus for over 20 years, a very expensive treatment regime which required a grant for the co-pay as well as Medicare Part D because otherwise, I still could not have afforded to have that virus treated).

All this just to share that this morning, I was reading an accusation about infertile women driving adoptions. One woman noted this – “we seem to be letting the guys off scot-free. The dudes who want a Daddy’s Little Girl or to play football with their own Mini-Me. I am not saying that childless woman are not a huge factor in the adoption industry, but I am saying that we live in a patriarchy and men also have a macho thing going on from birth … carrying on the family name, the stereotypical being the breadwinner for their very own brood instead of watching other guys’ families from the sidelines as a failure. And sometimes it isn’t the woman’s inability but the guys’ faulty minnows and that is definitely a macho & emasculating situation that they can rectify by sheer force (IVF or adoption are ways no one else will really be the wiser if they keep these secrets). They can be saviors and still be Daddy Dearest at the same time win-win.”

I know that in the case of infertility, the “blame” is statistically equal – one-third of infertility cases are caused by male reproductive issues, one-third by female reproductive issues, and one-third by both male and female reproductive issues or by unknown factors according to the National Institutes of Health. Clearly in our case, because 50% of each of our son’s DNA clearly establishes that their father’s sperm did the deed, the problem was my age. We didn’t start our efforts until I was already 46 years old.