Although 1 in 6 U.S. couples faces problems conceiving, many still feel funny telling others that they are undergoing treatment. In fact, infertility is one of the last great cultural taboos. One survey of infertile couples conducted for the pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough, which later merged with Merck, found that 61% hid their infertility from family and friends, and half didn’t share it with their mothers. Why the secrecy? The study also found that 7 in 10 women admitted that being infertile made them feel “flawed” and half of men reported feeling “inadequate.”
It’s no wonder then that talk-show host Jimmy Fallon waited two weeks after the birth of his daughter Winnie Rose to reveal that she was carried by a surrogate. “My wife and I had been trying for a while to have a baby,” Fallon told Today’s Savannah Guthrie on Friday morning. “We tried a bunch of things. So we had a surrogate.”
Fallon’s openness came as a surprise, considering that most celebrities have been notoriously mum on the subject. Who can blame them? Remember all the rampant speculating about whether Kate Middleton had infertility problems? And — gasp! — was Baby George conceived via IVF?
To date, Hollywood stars having baby-making troubles haven’t received much public sympathy, amid criticism of being able to “buy” their way out of fertility problems with expensive medical help that many Americans can’t afford.
But the narrative turns extra nasty when other people’s reproductive parts, such as rented wombs or donor eggs, are involved. When actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicole Kidman revealed they had used surrogates, they were accused of hiring these other women in order to spare their own bodies from the ravages of pregnancy — as if these women chose this route for cosmetic reasons, when both had publicly shared their battles with infertility.
And woe to the woman who becomes pregnant using eggs donated by another woman because her own eggs were too old or poor quality. She’s frequently called “selfish” and accused of pushing the boundaries of older motherhood. Instead of praising the third parties and doctors who make such miracles possible, we attack women for putting their careers first and waiting too long to have babies.
We should applaud Fallon — along with his wife and other high-profile women willing to share their stories — for going public with facts so many would prefer to keep hidden.
While celebrities take a lot of flak for exposing their private lives, these are important gestures of support to all the families who are suffering in silence. Such honesty is also welcomed by fertility doctors who struggle to educate patients about the challenges of getting pregnant in your 40s, when popular culture makes it look so easy. Many Hollywood actresses, they explain, became pregnant using donor eggs. Hopefully, one day, the stars will feel comfortable telling us that fact themselves.
What’s more, these announcements go a long way in changing the public perception that infertility is a source of shame. In 2011, Redbook magazine and RESOLVE, a national infertility-education group, launched an online video campaign called “The Truth About Trying” to chip away at the stigma. “It’s crazy to me that this topic is still taboo,” Rosie Pope, star of Bravo’s Pregnant in Heels said in her video. “In Hollywood, you can talk about your drug addiction or divorce, but not infertility.” Perhaps that’s starting to change.
Richards is a health-and-science journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It.