As we celebrate Black History Month, we commemorate people who have had an impact on society and made a positive change for black communities around the globe. Fertility as a subject is widely covered in the media, but infertility for the black community is still a subject that needs greater awareness. There is a lingering stigma and discrimination, which leaves many black couples struggling with infertility in silence and alone.
Part of the reason for this seems to be rooted in two elements. Firstly, the casual perpetuation of the racist breeding myth that propagates a stereotype that black women don’t have problems conceiving. And secondly, studies have shown that infertility treatment for black married women is harder than it is for white women.
Struggle for black women undergoing IVF
In fact, a 2014 study showed that black women undergoing IVF are only about half as likely as white women to become pregnant. The reasons are unclear but may relate to a mix of genetic/medical, environmental and cultural factors. However, what is known is that black women have a higher incidence of certain conditions relating to infertility than white women. For instance, in terms of medical issues:
- Fibroids: Black women are up to three times more likely to have fibroids than white women. Not only was it noted that black women were more likely to have larger and more fibroids, but also that their symptoms were also likely to be greater
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): While PCOS affects all ethnicities, some symptoms are more notable and unique in how they affect black women
- Tubal issues: Some STIs related to fallopian tube damage are more prevalent in black women.
Stigma for male infertility
In terms of cultural factors, one of the main problems is male factor. Within the black community there is a high level of stigma and lack of communication around the issue of male infertility. This means that males are less likely to seek a diagnosis and treatment. This creates a real unspoken hurdle for some infertile black couples. This often leaves the woman with the stigma of bearing the burden of blame.
Other cultural barriers include fertility awareness, which has been found to be lower in the black community. This situation isn’t helped by the media portrayal of news, research and public discussion around white heterosexual couples.
One woman commenting in the UK’s Independent newspaper said, “When we don’t see anyone who looks like us in pamphlets, posters, brochures, in waiting rooms and hospitals, it is easy to believe that we are alone.”
Bias and discrimination
Discrimination might be thought to be becoming a thing of the past, but this isn’t always the case. For instance, in the US, around 55.5% of black people have private health insurance, this compares to 75.4% of white people.
In the UK, couples ineligible for NHS treatment must fund themselves. Obviously, for communities in a lower income strata, this becomes a problem in itself.
So, what can be done?
Here are some measures that could help:
- Advocacy: celebrities and public figures within the black community can help to end stigma by sharing their experiences of paths to parenthood
- Some celebrities such as Beyoncé & Jay-Z, as well as Gabrielle Union, Dwayne Wade, Michelle Obama and Chris Tiegen are starting to shed light on the issue of infertility within the black community by sharing their struggles with conception, surrogacy and miscarriage
- Doctors and practitioners: health professionals need to focus more on the unique factors that affect different ethnicities, so that they can properly educate their patients on how infertility and its treatment may affect them personally
- Media: Coverage should take into consideration the fact that infertility affects all ethnicities, not just white heterosexual women.
Bearing all this in mind, it is clear that there is still a long journey until equal attention and support is reached in terms of management of infertility within the black community. The challenge for society as a whole will be to support this community to find ways to break the silence, shatter the stigma and support each other.