The fact that Michelle Obama revealed her two daughters – Malia and Sasha – were conceived through IVF made headline news last Friday says a lot about fertility, reproductive science and the world.
Over six million babies are estimated to have been born from IVF since the procedure was first pioneered by Professor Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe forty years ago. It isn’t rare, it’s a ubiquitous method of making babies in the modern world. But it remains a subject shrouded in secrecy, shame and often a lot of sadness. That Michelle Obama was prepared to say she’d been there – taken the shots, had her legs in the air, been through the dreaded ‘two week wait’ – says a lot about the sort of woman she is.
There are myriad of reasons for the culture of silence that still surrounds it. For both women, and men, it’s hard to admit that you’re not able to do what other humans find so easy to do. The inability to conceive naturally can make you feel like a failure. And whilst IVF is a miracle science, it doesn’t work every time, for everyone. On average around 75% of all IVF cycles fail. A statistic that is simply not publicly understood enough. It means that many people remain on the IVF rollercoaster for years – paralysed by the fear that they don’t know how their fertility story will end.
But perhaps one of the things that is least discussed is that the pain of infertility can sometimes feel like a betrayal of the triumph of feminism. Having fought for so long to be seen as more than wives and mothers, to admit that a brilliant career is simply not enough without having a child can be a difficult thing to acknowledge.
We believe that these are conversations that need to be had, more often and far louder. That’s why after going through 15 rounds of IVF between us (14 of which were unsuccessful. Can you do the maths? It means that one of us wasn’t) we founded a festival to talk about fertility. It brings together artists with fertility professionals, patients and the public to discuss all aspects of fertility, infertility, reproductive science and modern family-making. Our aim is to break the stigma, to improve fertility education for the next generation as well as mental health care of IVF patients today. We also want more public awareness about this imperfect science which fails more than it succeeds but is still developing faster than we can have the ethical conversations about what it might achieve.
So when we read Michelle Obama’s news on Friday, we gave her a high five. As an African-American her openness is even more important. Infertility is often considered a “female, white, middle-class problem” whereas actually it doesn’t discriminate.
In fact, a recent survey led by WomensHealthMag.com and OprahMag.com with the Black Women’s Health Imperative and Celmatix, found that black women were almost twice as likely to experience infertility as white women due to factors such as a higher propensity to suffer from uterine fibroids. The study also showed that black women were more than twice as likely to say that they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about their fertility issues with friends, family, a partner, their doctor, or even a support group.
Maybe one of the reasons for this that for women of colour, especially those who come from communities where their value is still often dependent on their ability to conceive, the negative experience of infertility and IVF can be even more intensified. It can profoundly affect a woman’s status within the family, threaten her marriage and decimate any sense of self worth. There are stories about the social isolation that infertility brings within certain ethnic minority communities that will make you shudder.
It’s another taboo within this multi-faceted subject that needs to be opened up. So on Wednesday 14 November at the UK’s National Theatre, we’ll be leading a discussion on ‘Race and Reproduction’ with playwright Satinder Chohan whose award-winning play ‘Made in India’ put commercial surrogacy in Asia under the spotlight; and author Monica Douglas Clark (aka the Rebel Reverend) who is spearheading an initiative supporting childless Black and African Caribbean women.
The event has been programmed to accompany the National’s production of Nina Raine’s Stories about a single woman in her thirties who desperately wants a child - a story that reflects the exponential rise we’re seeing in solo motherhood with sperm donation and mid thirties egg freezing. Yet another topic on our agenda. In fact, there are so many and that’s one of the complexities of this issue – IVF is no longer just for heterosexual couples struggling to conceive, it’s also for same sex couples and single people with no known fertility problems at all (but note to the world, it doesn’t work for them every time either!)
Michelle Obama once famously said about the political opposition: ‘When they go low, we go high’. Well Michelle, you’ve just gone very high amongst everyone who has experienced the pain of infertility and IVF. You’ve opened the door a little wider to talk about fertility more. Now we just need to push it further.
Race and Reproduction, 6pm – 7pm, 14 November 2018, National Theatre. For more information, visit the National Theatre website
Gabby Vautier and Jessica Hepburn are joint founders and directors of Fertility Fest – the world’s first arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility, modern families and the science of making babies