Ann Bell ( assistant professor of the department of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware and author of Misconception: Social Class and Infertility in America ) was one of the many people who presented findings at the American Sociological Association ( ASA ) annual meeting at the Hilton Chicago Aug. 23.
Bell's talk, "Medicalization's marginalization: The role of gender, class & sexuality in the medicalization" was one of four talks featured at the thematic sessionNo Sex, Just a Baby: Birth Without Sexwhich focused on the medicalization of reproduction, specifically infertility.
The study was an outgrowth of Bell's book which focused on 41 women of low socioeconomic status and 17 women of high socioeconomic status and the ways in which both groups were treated by doctors in terms of their infertility status. In her findings, she discovered that the low socioeconomic status women were the focus of inaccurate stereotypes in which doctors assumed that infertility wasn't a problem for them.
Bell expanded her research to include men and same-sex couples with this new study. She interviewed 95 people41 heterosexual women of low socioeconomic status, 30 men who were part of an infertile couple and 24 women in same-sex relationships. These individuals were accessing medical treatment in order to conceive a child.
"The people [in my study] are on the margins of our understandings of infertility, as it is generally viewed as a white, wealthy, heterosexual women's issue," said Bell. "Yet, half of all infertility cases can be attributed at least in part to men, poor women of color have slightly higher rates of impaired fecundity, and over seven percent of women in same-sex relationships are receiving fertility treatment."
Her findings indicated that there are infertility treatment disparity between opposite and same-sex couples whereby same-sex couples encounter more obstacles than opposite=sex couples.
"The heteronormative underpinnings of medical and insurance institutions initially prevent lesbian women from accessing treatment to assist in pregnancy," said Bell. "For example, same-sex couples often must undergo psychological evaluations before being treated for infertility, a process that isn't normally required for opposite sex couples."
Bell explained that women in same-sex relationships oftentimes have negative interactions with physicians because the doctors frame their questions through a heteronormative lens. One of the participants, Bell noted, was told by her doctor that she should go home and have sex in order to have a baby. Another participant told Bell that her doctor only wanted her to try fertility treatments three times and if it didn't work then her partner could try the treatments. Both of these encounters, Bell explained, discounted the couple's identity as lesbians due to the types of questions and comments the doctors made to them.
"The heteronormative and standardization of medicalized infertility caused doctors to overlook and miscommunicate with same-sex couples receiving treatment, resulting in negative feelings or failed pursuit of a child," said Bell.
"It's important to remember that while research, including this study, often highlights the negative aspects of medicalization, the process also has its advantages," said Bell. "Medical treatment for infertility has allowed millions of individuals to attain parenthood. Moreover, although still unconsciously deterring and discouraging alternative family forms, medicalization has allowed same-sex couples and single individuals to become biological parents, a previously unattainable and unimaginable prospect."
A Q&A session followed the thematic session.