Infertility and psychological distress: a critical review of the literature

Soc Sci Med. 1997 Dec;45(11):1679-704. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(97)00102-0.


This essay reviews the literature on the social psychological impact of infertility, paying special attention to the relationship between gender and the infertility experience. It is convenient to divide the literature into articles which explore the possibility that infertility may have psychological causes (Psychogenic Hypothesis) and those which examine the psychological consequences of infertility (Psychological Consequences Hypothesis). The psychogenic hypothesis is now rejected by most researchers, but a related hypothesis, which states that stress may be a causal factor in infertility, is worthy of exploration. The descriptive literature on the psychological consequences of infertility presents infertility as a devastating experience, especially for women. Attempts to test the psychological consequences hypothesis have produced more equivocal results. In general, studies which look for psychopathology have not found significant differences between the infertile and others. Studies which employ measures of stress and self-esteem have found significant differences. The psychological consequences literature is characterized by a number of flaws, including over sampling of women, small sample size, non-representative samples, failure to study those who have not sought treatment, primitive statistical techniques, and an over-reliance on self-reports. Studies on infertility and psychological distress need to take into consideration both the duration of infertility and the duration of treatment. Finding an appropriate set of "controls" is a particularly intractable problem for this area of research. In general, the psychological distress literature shows little regard for the social construction of infertility. By taking what should be understood as a characteristic of a social situation and transforming it into an individual trait, the literature presents what is essentially a medical model of the psycho-social impact of infertility. Most researchers conclude that infertility is a more stressful experience for women than it is for men. Most studies have found that the relationship between gender and infertility distress is not affected by which partner has the reproductive impairment. Future research needs to be better informed by theoretical considerations. Scholars need to pay more attention to the way the experience of infertility is conditioned by social structural realities. New ways need to be developed for better taking into account the processual nature of the infertility experience. Efforts need to be make to include under-studied portions of the infertile population. Finally, more effort needs to be made to better integrate the empirical study of the experience of infertility with important social policy questions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infertility / etiology
  • Infertility / psychology*
  • Male
  • Psychology, Social
  • Self Concept
  • Sex Factors
  • Stress, Psychological*