How women’s magazines misrepresent fertility in older women

June 18, 2019
Judith M. Orvos, ELS
Judith M. Orvos, ELS

a BELS-certified medical writer and editor, and an editorial consultant for Contemporary OB/GYN

A new study indicates that millions of women may not realize the impact age has on fertility due to coverage of celebrity pregnancies in consumer magazines.

Coverage of celebrity pregnancies in consumer magazines distributed to millions of women downplays the impact of age on fertility, according to a new study published in The Journal of Women’s Health. More than half the fertility-related depictions in the magazines reviewed were of women of advanced reproductive age, yet obstetrical risks associated with the pregnancies were mentioned only twice.

For the study, researchers from New York University and Northwestern University performed a quantitative and qualitative analysis of 416 issues of US Weekly and People magazines. The titles were chosen because according to demographic data from the Alliance for Audited Media, more than 50% of their readers are aged 16 to 45 and more than 50% identify as female. The readers of Cosmopolitan also fit that demographic but the authors did not include that title because of insufficient fertility and obstetrical content.

The authors assessed all issues of US Weekly and People magazine published between January 2010 and January 2014 using the archived collections at the New York Public Library. One reviewer used microfilm and an electronic scanning system to systematically review and 10% of the issues were also selected at random for analysis by a second blinded reviewer. Between the reviewers, agreement was 80.2%.

The reviewers searched for depictions of pregnancy, infertility, use of assisted reproductive technology (ART), donor gametes, gestational carrier, and adoption in photos or text and depictions of mothers with children under age 24 months at time of publication. They also recorded obstetrical risks to assess representation of pregnancy risks at advanced reproductive age.

One-third of all magazine covers highlighted fertility, and in the issues, 240 celebrities received at least one fertility-related depiction. Although 56% of the celebrities were of advanced reproductive age, only two mentions of the associated risks were found. One-third of the women were age 40 or older at the time of mention and seven women older than age 44 were depicted as pregnant or having delivered a healthy infant, without mention of ART. Donor gametes were not mentioned but every issue had at least one reference to contraception, usually in full-page advertising.

The authors said that their study “highlights an opportunity, or perhaps even a responsibility, for magazines and other media outlets to include facts and statistics alongside the many anecdotal stories related to fertility.” They also underscored the “opportunity for public figures to use their platform to promote accurate portrayals of fertility-related issues” while acknowledging that both celebrities and private citizens are entitled privacy. The bottom line, the researchers said, was that “magazine content reflects a continued stigma surrounding the use of ART and may further the public’s misconceptions about age-related fertility decline. This depiction has the potential to perpetuate the general notion that fertility is flexible, exposing them to a risk of unintended childlessness.”