Stacey Edwards-Dunn on African American Infertility and the Church’s Response
People experiencing infertility often suffer in silence. African Americans experience more infertility than other racial groups. But churches can offer healing when they open the door for conversations and include these sorrows in worship.
Stacey L. Edwards-Dunn is an ordained minister, fertility coach, counselor, and writer. She is the church administrator and executive minister of community engagement and transformation at Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC) in Chicago, Illinois, and directs the Center for African American Ministries and Black Church Studies at McCormick Theological Seminary. Edwards-Dunn, who also has a master's degree in public health, founded Fertility for Colored Girls, the national organization for black women and couples who struggle with infertility. In this edited conversation, she explores themes from her book Hold Onto Hope: Stories of Black Women’s Fertility, Faith, and Fight to Become Mothers.
What do you wish more people knew about infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death among African Americans?
I wish people knew it is a real issue among African Americans. In spite of the myths about hyperfertility among African Americans, we struggle with infertility at two times the rate of our white brothers and sisters. This miseducation about black people having so many babies goes back to breeding myths during slavery and stereotypes about black women and couples. These persistent myths and stereotypes have been created throughout the years.
What encourages or prevents black women and men from talking about these issues with family or church members?
Myths, lack of education, miseducation, and shame prevent black people from talking about infertility. It’s a taboo conversation among us because, if we believe that we as a people are hyperfertile, then we as individuals or couples feel like something’s wrong with us.
We feel even worse when people use God language from a theological perspective that is antithetical to who God is. People glibly say, “God will make a way” or “Maybe it's a curse” or “Maybe God doesn’t want you to have a baby.” These statements don’t acknowledge our sovereign God as an inclusive God of love. These statements are also simply bad theology.
Fertility for Colored Girls (FFCG) has support groups across the U.S. Do most members feel free to talk about infertility with healthcare providers?
In 2019, I did a ten-state speaking tour to break the silence about infertility. We gleaned that many (not all) African Americans don’t trust medical providers because of how we’ve been treated in the past. African Americans told me, “Doctors and nurses don’t take us seriously.” I’ve had the same experience. In 2007, when I was first diagnosed with infertility, I went through all the standard tests. Not till 2011, when my husband and I were $60,000 in the red and on our fourth doctor, did someone do exploratory surgery and told me that I have only one fallopian tube and a unicornuate uterus. The first technician and doctor had told me that everything was there.
Also, black women have the highest rate of uterine fibroids. On my speaking tour, many women with uterine fibroids told me that doctors immediately recommended a hysterectomy, which of course destroys any chance of pregnancy. But some doctors recommended a holistic diet to reduce fibroids, or they can be extracted through a myomectomy or robotic surgery.
Did African Americans struggling with infertility mention any other healthcare issues?
Yes. Because there’s such a widespread perception that black women are supposed to be stronger and more resilient, we often find that providers are not sensitive to us. A study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that “only 16% of the responding physicians correctly identified African Americans as the racial group most at risk for infertility.” And there’s the financial challenge. Many people can’t afford in vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogate pregnancy, or even adoption.
How does Trinity UCC include infertility and pregnancy loss in worship and congregational life?
Otis Moss III, our senior pastor, is very supportive of Fertility for Colored Girls. Every April, Trinity UCC participates in National Infertility Awareness Week. We mention it in bulletin announcements, prayers, and a special litany during worship. Trinity also refers individuals to a monthly FFCG support group, which includes men. For example, on a weekday near Father’s Day, we hosted a doctor-led panel of men who discussed infertility from a male perspective and how to support their wives through the infertility journey.
Our senior pastor and other ministers preach texts in compassionate and inclusive ways. We are always lamenting some way, but even in the midst of tragedy we look for the good news. So on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we mention not only the joys of parenthood but the sorrows of struggling to have children, pregnancy loss, or losing children to violence. Sermons on other Sundays often include such sorrows among the plethora of conditions that God’s people experience.
How does FFCG work with churches?
Our nonprofit organization is built on the love of Jesus. We provide resources to churches that don’t have fertility ministries, such as support groups, information on reproductive help, and annual awards to help with the cost of fertility treatment and adoption. We also recommend helpful books and other groups.
What practices help congregations bring all their feelings—including sorrow, anger, fear, and lament—to God in worship?
It’s a condition of our being at Trinity UCC that we allow and understand that praise and worship is inclusive of sorrow, anger, fear, and lament. People feel free to cry in worship. It’s who we are as African American people. We lament and celebrate. We sing the blues, but we also sing praise. It helps when you have pastors who get it, who honor and acknowledge the need to bring all emotions to God in worship. Our worship services include community prayer and time to come up to the altar for prayer. We’re a multistaff church, so people can also come for pastoral care.
What first steps might a congregation take to open up conversations about pregnancy-related losses?
"When a congregation hears the pastor name conditions such as infertility, miscarriage, and pregnancy loss with sensitivity and compassion, then they know they have a door to walk through when they’re ready to talk about it."
—Stacey L. Edwards-Dunn
The first step is to get the pastor on board. With the pastor’s support, you can begin finding other staff or lay people to educate and support the congregation. This could be through podcasts, notes in the bulletin, speaking from the pulpit, starting a support group, adding relevant books about infertility to the church library, and more.
When a congregation hears the pastor name conditions such as infertility, miscarriage, and pregnancy loss with sensitivity and compassion, then they know they have a door to walk through when they’re ready to talk about it.
How does the COVID-19 situation change the advice you’ve given?
COVID-19 adds an extra layer to dealing with infertility. We have to be extra-compassionate with people going through this. People who’d finally been able to afford and schedule IVF, treatments, and adoptions are having their appointments canceled till their state or nation flattens the new coronavirus curve. The virus has implications for women who are pregnant. And, just as job loss impacts so many people now, putting them in a standstill, those experiencing infertility now have a whole other level of waiting.
Trinity UCC uses this Infertility Awareness Litany (scroll to page 4). Read Hold Onto Hope: Stories of Black Women's Fertility, Faith, and Fight to Become Mothers, by Stacey L. Edwards-Dunn. Fertility for Colored Girls offers support groups, information on reproductive help, and annual awards to help with the cost of IVF and adoption. It also recommends helpful books and other groups.
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