Black women are almost twice as likely to experience infertility as their white counterparts, but only 8% of Black women seek fertility treatment, compared to 15% of white women. Statistics like these, compounded by the fact that Black women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, highlight inequalities in reproductive healthcare that the medical community must address.
The higher incidence of infertility among Black women is due in part to a higher prevalence of uterine fibroids, ovulatory dysfunction, and tubal disease. Studies show that Black women also have higher rates of pregnancy loss, including miscarriages and stillbirths when compared to white women. This is likely because Black women have higher rates of risk factors that are associated with pregnancy loss, such as obesity, diabetes, and low socioeconomic status.
For Black women, the isolation of infertility is compounded by various factors (for example, cultural stigma, socioeconomic barriers, and racial bias) that prevent them from getting the care they need. Those who do end up seeking care often find themselves feeling deeply uncomfortable in the medical space, which is still predominantly white.
Diversity in Healthcare Providers
People of color need to have access to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) healthcare providers because it provides a sense of comfort and familiarity. This can encourage patients to access available fertility care and can even improve treatment outcomes. BIPOC healthcare providers possess culturally specific knowledge, skills, and experiences that help with communication and health management processes involving people of color.
Diversity in providers also helps reduce barriers to the patient-physician relationship for racial/ethnic and linguistic minority patients. In many situations, seeing someone who looks like you and understands your cultural background offers reassurance.
Many studies have demonstrated better health outcomes when BIPOC providers see patients of color. A result of this is increased trust and communication developed between the patient and provider. The patient may feel more comfortable sharing sensitive information with someone who has an unspoken understanding of what the patient might be going through. Research has shown that Black women who have a provider with a similar cultural history may feel more comfortable speaking up and advocating for themselves.
Many people of color have a (warranted) sense of mistrust when it comes to our healthcare system due to historical practices based on racist ideals. As healthcare providers, we must remain dedicated to bridging the gap to improve outcomes for patients of color.
What Factors Most Impact Black Patients?
Long-held beliefs, stereotypes, cultural stigma, and other issues continue to uphold these racial disparities around fertility and family-building. Here are some examples of the various factors that contribute to widening the gap in care for Black women:
- Structural racism: This heavily contributes to racial disparities in fertility and maternal healthcare in various ways, as structural racism goes beyond the individual. It refers to inherently racist laws, rules, economic practices, and cultural and societal norms that are embedded in the system itself.
- Implicit or unconscious bias: This occurs automatically and unintentionally, affecting our judgments, decisions, and behaviors. For example, a white doctor might downplay complaints of pain after surgery from a patient of color due to engrained, inaccurate stereotypes about the strength or pain tolerance of BIPOC people, only to discover the patient is genuinely experiencing discomfort.
- Accessibility: Many people of color encounter barriers to accessing the healthcare they need due to a lack of insurance or insurance coverage that excludes fertility treatment. Financial roadblocks and accessibility to quality reproductive care are often limited by location (rural or underserved areas may not have fertility clinics nearby) and employment (not everyone can take time off of work to go in for morning monitoring appointments, which are often required during fertility treatment).
- The myth of hyperfertility: The long-held myth that Black women (and men) are “hyper-fertile” causes considerable harm, leading to a resulting cascade of issues.
- Religious beliefs: Many people in the Black community are taught to “pray your way” through difficult situations. And while it’s wonderful to have faith, sometimes it’s necessary to seek professional help. Trusting that a higher power will correct infertility leads some people to delay or avoid treatment altogether.
- Harmful stereotypes: Black women are thought of as being incredibly strong ― and we are ― but when we are elevated to “Superwoman” status and need to take off our proverbial capes to ask for help, we are often judged harshly or perceived as weak.
- Mental health: Shame, guilt, or anxiety about how people in our community may react prevents or delays many women of color from seeking infertility treatment. The stigma of mental illness is also a concern when addressing infertility. Many people coping with infertility experience depression, anxiety, and grief, and cultural norms can discourage people from sharing that they are struggling with their mental health.
- Isolation: Many people hesitate to talk about their personal experiences with infertility, which often leaves Black women with the impression that they are alone in their struggles or that infertility is a reflection of their character or a personal failing. That’s why sharing fertility stories is so important, especially in communities of color.
Black Maternal Mortality Rates
Many women of color might lack insurance coverage for maternal health or be afraid to advocate for themselves with their doctor. But the starkest evidence of the healthcare system failing people of color is Black maternal mortality rates in the United States, which are alarmingly high.
Studies have shown that Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Worse yet, even though multiple factors contribute to this disparity, most are preventable. These factors include access to quality healthcare, underlying chronic illnesses, and two of the most easily preventable: implicit bias and structural racism. As a healthcare system, we need to focus on listening to the concerns of patients of color without allowing unconscious bias to play a role in our treatment decisions.
Responsibility to Patients
In vitro fertilization (IVF) and other fertility treatment options can be very expensive, which makes it exponentially more challenging for individuals with lower median household incomes to afford this path to parenthood. With lower incomes in comparison to white and Asian couples, Black and Hispanic couples may have a hard time affording fertility care if they have to pay out-of-pocket.
Knocking down the roadblock of affordability often goes beyond the scope of the medical community’s responsibility. However, bridging the gap of distrust with people of color and providing culturally competent care does not. One important step hospitals and health systems can take is to increase the diversity of providers within reproductive health specialties. Collectively, we must work to dismantle structural racism, educate ourselves, and listen to people of color. Only then will we start to make progress toward lessening racial disparities in fertility and maternal healthcare.