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Is Egg Freezing Only for White Women?

Monday 23 May 2016

By RENIQUA ALLEN

MAY 21, 2016

IT all started with these little chocolate colored pink and blue ceramic babies. They were a strange Christmas gift from an older family friend who, I assumed, didn’t realize that baby figurines were better suited for a person with a nursery and not someone who uses her spare bedroom for dirty laundry.

But the friend, Ms. Rosalie, made it clear that these brown babies on rocking horses were not a mistake. They were a reminder that my childbearing years were slowly ticking away, and that I should try to have a child soon whether or not I was married. I nervously laughed and hid the gift in the basement of my mother’s house.

A few months later, after an unsurprising breakup, I looked at the fading surgery scar across my abdomen — the remnant of surgery I had eight years earlier to remove uterine fibroids and treat endometriosis — and realized it was time to heed Ms. Rosalie’s advice. I started thinking about freezing my eggs.

A lot of people are talking about egg freezing: It’s the latest perk for professional women at companies like Facebook and Apple; it’s being marketed as a welcome solution for millennial women who want more control over their reproductive lives. It’s moving more mainstream. But few of the women having these conversations are black, and few of the discussions are geared toward black women.

A survey conducted by researchers at the Fertility Center at New York University Langone Medical Center and New York University School of Medicine found that between 2005 and 2011, 80 percent of respondents who had frozen eggs at their center to preserve fertility were white. Four percent were black. In my own small anecdotal survey, none of my close-knit circle of black female friends in their 30s had considered the procedure.

Part of the problem is superficial — the photos of happy patients on fertility websites and brochures don’t look much like me, so it didn’t seem like egg freezing was targeted toward me, even though I am a professional woman in my 30s. It felt like my community had been left behind in this new path to maternal “empowerment” that centers on elite white women, who have long been thought of as the model of femininity and motherhood.

My concern went deeper than whitewashed brochures, and even beyond the price, though with costs starting around $10,000 in many cases, that is a factor. While assisted reproductive technology can help women delay motherhood, it can also help them eventually decide to do it on their own.

Considering this procedure opens up the possibility that I could become a single mom as a black woman. I worried about becoming a stereotype, a stigma, despite coming from a loving, stable, middle-class single-parent home myself.

Still, I wanted to know more about my options. I thought I might get some of my questions answered during an information session at a downtown New York City fertility clinic, where the room was lily-white, both in terms of attendees and aesthetics.

I was uncharacteristically quiet during the session, perhaps because I was only one of a handful of nonwhite women and one of only two black women in the crowded space. I wanted to ask the other black woman in the room, who happened to be sitting next to me, what she thought: Did she have concerns about stigma? Lingering worry about the history of black women and forced sterility treatments — was this a front for secret government tests? Fear that she would be seen, negatively, as a “baby mama” — a term that even the very much married Michelle Obama once had thrown in her face?

But racial solidarity today can be a tricky thing, valuable to some and a disdainful reminder of the past to others. So I stayed silent and imagined what it would feel like to tell someone I had a kid on my own.

Black women aren’t given the luxury of having their nontraditional choices appear to be new and radical. When we make “unconventional” decisions around reproduction, we’re stigmatized. Or labeled angry. Or lonely. Or difficult. We’re robbed of our agency to do and be anything that’s outside of the boundaries of whatever is perceived as normal.

Poor black women are criticized for having too many babies they “can’t afford” and professional middle-class black women are criticized for being too picky and not finding a man. But when professional white women follow these same patterns, it’s often labeled a trend or brave or empowering.

“There’s stigma on us if we decide to have an abortion,” said Monica Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization for minority women. “There’s stigma on us if we decide to have multiple children. There’s stigma on us if we decide to use in vitro or if we are in same-gender loving relationships or queer relationships and we are creating families outside the ‘normal’ context.”

Last year, the former model Tyra Banks admitted that she struggled with fertility treatments and recently announced that she and her partner had successfully had a baby via a surrogate. And BET’s “Being Mary Jane” had its lead character freeze her eggs on the fictional show. It is a step in the right direction, and I’m glad more black women are speaking up about these issues. But the more I continued to research egg freezing, the more I could not separate it from questions of race.

I called Dr. Desireé McCarthy-Keith, an obstetrician gynecologist and a fertility specialist in Atlanta, who is working to change the discussion around these technologies. She confirmed that it wasn’t just my imagination and said black women are left out of the conversation around egg freezing, though it’s “slowly changing.”

“Historically, fertility treatments have been mostly targeted to and used by white women, middle-class women, so the initial presentation of fertility treatments, they didn’t really include us in the conversation,” she said.

Ms. Simpson, of SisterSong, said there was a real divide between white and black women who consider this technology. “I have black women who decide to be single moms, but they know they can’t create a blog and say, ‘I’m getting ready to be a single mom.’ That’s nothing new for us, and it’s nothing we can wear as a badge of honor because we’ve been stigmatized for that, we’ve been demonized for that.”

Dr. McCarthy-Keith said within the black community there are still women who think “we” don’t do things like freeze our eggs, so support is sometimes lacking.

At her diverse practice in Atlanta, she said she’s encountered fewer black patients who undergo egg-freezing procedures for the sole purpose of delaying childbirth, but thinks that it could also be because black patients simply aren’t being advised about these procedures at the same rate as their white counterparts.

I WANT motherhood to be on my own terms instead of society defining what it should look like and how I should make it happen. But this is hard in a world that often believes that women who look like me are hypersexual, unfeminine and undesirable — anything but motherly.

Of course, there are many other concerns that I have about egg freezing: the medical worries, the costs, will it make me bloat (?!), but this small part of it, this anxiety about the stigma of single motherhood, exposes things about myself that I don’t like to admit. Me trying to assimilate. Me trying to overcompensate for all the other stereotypical behavior I do embrace. (I’m loud. I’m always late. I love Moscato.) Me wanting to have that traditional life that looks like Mayberry. I want to get married and have a kid someday, and I’m not ready to give up on that idea, but I also wonder why I’m so afraid of the prospect of single parenthood.

It’s my respectability politics gone amok.

Or maybe it’s just me trying to work out issues over my absentee father — my own lonely tears and youthful feelings of abandonment that make me ambivalent about putting a child through something similar.

I’m still considering freezing my eggs. I appreciate that women who are overwhelmed and overburdened by reproductive issues have more options. But I also hope that the fertility industry will realize the narrowness of the lens that it’s using to talk about this technology. I want black women to feel like egg freezing isn’t just for their rich, white peers and to know that we, too, can make unconventional decisions the norm.

Reniqua Allen is a freelance writer who is at work on a book about black millennials.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 22, 2016, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Is Egg Freezing Only for White Women?.

See online: Is Egg Freezing Only for White Women?