That year, my own fertility problems were becoming apparent. I was 32, the same age that Obama began trying, and failing, to conceive. Like her, I felt lost and alone—more so as months, then years, passed without a baby. I thought I was too young to have fertility problems—wasn’t IVF something undertaken by women in their late 30s? In their early 40s?
It wasn’t until I began researching a book about fertility and assisted reproduction that I learned the truth: Infertility is not only common, affecting one in eight American couples, but also often looks different from the narratives offered by media and popular culture.
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Film and television portrayals of infertile women, like Tamara Jenkins’s widely praised Private Life, again and again show women from the same demographic: older, heterosexual, upper-middle-class, educated, white. This image is so common that many doctors have internalized the stereotype, assuming that white women are most at risk for infertility. This misperception can affect research, referrals to reproductive endocrinologists, and outreach to potential patients. The law professor Jim Hawkins’s 2012 study of fertility-clinic advertising found that 97 percent of clinics included photographs of white babies on their website, and 62 percent featured only photographs of white babies. Hawkins speculated that this skewed advertising risked driving away minority patients, and warned of the possibility that treatments themselves “entrench racist norms.”
In fact, infertility is not only just as likely to be a male problem as a female one; it is more likely to affect minorities, the poor, and those with less formal education. African American women, who have higher rates of uterine fibroids, are almost twice as likely as white women to suffer from infertility. A recent study concludes that African American women wait twice as long as white women to see a doctor for infertility, and are less likely to seek treatment. This makes the news of Michelle Obama’s miscarriage and IVF treatment especially significant.
For Regina Townsend, the founder of the Broken Brown Egg, a blog devoted to infertility awareness for women of color, Obama’s disclosure last week was “such a good moment. Liberating.” Townsend began her blog not only to document her own experience with infertility—like Obama, she became a mom through IVF—but also because she knew many other African American women were struggling in silence. “I was seeing all these stereotypes of super-fertility and oversexualization in the black community, when I was also hearing personal stories of women and families who were struggling to become parents and who felt like they were anomalies,” Townsend told me. “There needed to be some balance.”
“For [Obama] to say, ‘No, this is a thing, and it’s a thing that affected me, and I’m not going to be silent about it’ is not only going to give some women the permission to speak up that they feel they need, but it will also help to normalize the conversation,” Townsend said.