2018 marked the year former First Lady, Michelle Obama, opened up about her own infertility struggles in her personal memoir that, after 15 days, became the best-selling book of 2018 in the United States.
In the book, described by Obama as her “deeply personal experience,” Obama shared of feeling “lost and alone” after suffering a miscarriage 20 years ago and eventually undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment to have her daughters, Malia and Sasha. At the time, Obama was in her mid-30s and expressed how “the biological clock is real” and “egg production is limited.”
Obama continued, “I think it’s the worst thing that we do to each other as women … not share the truth about our bodies and how they work and how they don’t work,” a statement that has since struck a very real cord with many women.
“I’m so thankful to our former First Lady for elevating the conversation of miscarriage, loss, and infertility to the level of importance it deserves. It’s encouraging to see the increasing rate of black women now seeking infertility care,” says Dr. Desireé McCarthy-Keith, a board certified reproductive endocrinologist who sees patients in SGF Atlanta’s Atlanta-Northside and Alpharetta locations.
“Too often black women don’t seek care at the same rate as white women, but infertility can impact anyone, regardless of their race,” added McCarthy-Keith. “And while we are still a long way away from equality when it comes to the number of black women who seek care compared to white women, Michelle Obama shedding an important light, and igniting more women to take action, is definitely a step in the right direction.”
SGF is now reporting a larger share of women self-reporting as black, African, or African-American, that are going through IVF treatment—a previously underserved population when it comes to electing fertility treatment.
“I cannot encourage my sisters of color enough to reach out, make the call, heed the warning signs, and get help. You do not have to suffer in silence. Infertility is a real medical condition, and there are outstanding treatments available that can help almost any woman conceive who seeks appropriate help early,” added McCarthy-Keith.
When comparing treatment data from SGF’s mid-Atlantic fertility centers from January 1 to June 30, 2018, to the same time period in 2019, the share of black women starting treatment grew 50 percent faster compared to treatment rates as a whole.
“Michelle Obama’s openness along with other prominent celebrities such as Gabrielle Union, sparked a national conversation about equity in women’s healthcare for black women along with a need to break the taboos in the black community about infertility, something we should all be grateful for,” added McCarthy-Keith.
In a survey of over 1,000 women published by Women’s Health Magazine and Oprah Magazine in 2018, black women were less likely to talk with their friends, family, or doctors, compared to their white counterparts. The lack of conversation doesn’t impact the support of black women on their path to parenthood, but the likelihood that they will seek the needed medical care to grow their families.
McCarthy-Keith continues, “Many black women are seeking to end the silence around infertility in their communities, creating groups for women of color having access to resources, inspiration, and encouragement.” She further states that this type of sisterhood is invaluable. “For Michelle Obama to speak about that in her book was so refreshing and empowering for all of us.”
“I think that black women just have to understand that we’re here and we’re part of this conversation,” said McCarthy-Keith in a recent Good Morning America interview. “We deserve to be here. We’re worthy of all the technology and advancement that everyone is taking advantage of.”
Ten percent of women in the United States, ages 15 to 44, have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And for women of color, the numbers are even higher.
When asked to describe the reasons behind the fertility gap as it relates to race, McCarthy-Keith added, “Well, we know that black women have a higher incidence of uterine fibroids and by the time a black woman is 50 years old, about 80 percent of us will be diagnosed with fibroids. Depending on the size and location of the fibroid, that can definitely impact a woman’s fertility as well as increase her risk of miscarriage and pregnancy complications.”
McCarthy-Keith added, “There’s also a higher incidence of obesity and being overweight in the African-American community and for black women, when you look at the statistics of obesity in our community, they are truly alarming. The most recent statistics show that about 55 percent of black women are obese in this country, and if you combine that with obese and overweight, it’s almost two-thirds of us. Overweight and obesity can increase the risk for chronic diseases and can also lower a woman’s fertility and increase her risk of pregnancy complications. When we look at studies of women who go through fertility treatments, we see that African-American women are more likely to wait longer or have longer durations of infertility before they even seek evaluation, and so by the time they come in for treatment, often they are older, which is also a factor that can lower their chance of success once they get to the fertility treatments.”
McCarthy-Keith also attributes the discrepancy to cultural differences, as women of color appear to have more difficulty speaking about infertility, “The initial campaigns promoting IVF just did not include us,” she told Good Morning America. “They usually contained images of middle-class white women so if you didn’t see yourself in those images, you didn’t feel like they were targeting the treatments for you.”
“In studies that have been done, doctors picked a middle-class white woman as the most likely to be infertile,” she said. “So, if physicians also do not have the understanding of what a fertility patient looks like, then it changes how we counsel our patients. Doctors may be more likely to tell a black woman to just keep trying.”
“[Obama] was so genuine and it shows that infertility touches everyone –- you can be black, white, high-income, low-income or First Lady, none of that matters.” added McCarthy-Keith. “Women brave enough to speak on their own situations, it’s empowering for all of us to hear that.”
To learn more about how SGF or to schedule a consult with a physician to discuss options for overcoming infertility, call our New Patient Center at 888-971-7755 or fill out this brief online form.