‘My fertility is worth more than my health’: Women And Misinformation In The Age of Covid

A significant number of women are concerned about the effects of Covid vaccines on fertility. But with no scientific evidence linking the two, what else is driving their fear? Zoe Beaty investigates

By Zoe Beaty

25 February 2024

Our bodies are just that: our bodies,” Amy is saying. She is a 36-year-old media consultant, living in Newcastle, just north of the city in a safe little borough. In her spare time she writes – “things that I really care about”, she says – and has a particular interest in mental health. She’s eloquent; you can tell that, when she’s speaking, words are exact. “I will not be having the vaccine,” Amy repeats, softly.

In south London, Hollie, 23, is echoing the same sentiment. “It’s just not for me,” she tells me over the phone. “I know others will disagree, but I’ve read about it and thought about it and that’s just what I think. It’s not for me.”

Hollie and Amy are part of a number of young women being defined as “vaccine-hesitant” in the UK. Over the last few months, following the announcement of the vaccine – and speedy implementation of a system to administer it efficiently – a clamour for information naturally ensued. When will we get it? Who will get it first? Why wasn’t it sooner? What are the side-effects? Reports trickled in: confirmation from health regulators that the first safety data was “reassuring”, for instance, along with the first batch of vaccination selfies and tweets assuring followers that “mum is safe <3”. For many – millions, in fact: at the time of writing almost 24 million people in the UK have had their Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca jab – hope was finally present. For others, it was just another thing to fight.

‘People who haven’t had the vaccine will be called dirty, or unclean. The societal change already has been the most shocking thing for me’

It makes sense, really, that conspiracy became a factor of Covid-19. Locked down for months, friends have told me in worried voices that their mates have become increasingly racked with frantic doubt, or convinced that “something else is going on”. Doubt seeped in and began to show up in data: one survey published in December, by Find Out Now, concluded that young women aged 18-34 were the group most likely not to take the vaccine (more than a quarter said they would refuse). An earlier study by King’s College London found that those aged 16-34 in the UK would be twice as likely to refuse the vaccine as those aged 55-75. A similar pattern could be seen in the US, where Pew Research showed that only 55 per cent of those aged 18-29 surveyed would definitely get a vaccine.

While some pushback from established conspiracists – or stereotypical “anti-vaxxers” – was expected, this began to feel different, more widespread. And, similarly to other health conspiracies (the entirely fabricated blue waffle STI hoax back in 2010 springs to mind), it predominantly played on women’s vulnerabilities. Because, let’s face it, that’s an easy target. A large group who are universally taught that their most valuable assets are their bodies and their fertility are primed for fear when that is threatened. So when rumours circulated on social media that the vaccine could interfere with fertility in women, questions began to spring up online: could it prevent me from trying for a baby? Or having one, ever? Is it safe for women? Significantly, how do they know?

Months on from the beginnings of these rumours, experts have begun to shed a little light on why and how they spread. Reports suggest that chunks of misinformation spread quickly, predominantly via Facebook where engagement with anti-vaccine posts trebled between July and August last year. And last week the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) revealed that they now believe just 12 anti-vaxxers are responsible for “almost two-thirds of anti-vaccine content currently circulating on social media platforms”. The so-called Disinformation Dozen were identified by recent analysis of content “posted or shared to social media over 812,000 times between February and March”. Facebook – along with Twitter and Google – are now facing calls to remove these 12 individuals from their platforms. So far three of the 12 have been removed from at least one platform.

‘Last week the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) revealed that they now believe just 12 anti-vaxxers are responsible for “almost two-thirds of anti-vaccine content currently circulating on social media platforms”’

Misinformation is often spread via smaller, trusted networks like friendship groups or family – which is perhaps why it thrives in social media bubbles filled with peers. False information might be shared for a number of reasons: because it aligns with an already established personal belief or bias, for shock factor, fear, or because it speaks to a personal event in an individual’s life. When there’s an emotional connection with the individual sharing misinformation, false claims can start to gain undeserved credence.

At this point, the fertility myth has been thoroughly debunked. Searching the terms “vaccine” and “fertility” on Facebook now prompts a call-to-action warning urging users to visit the NHS website for information, and the same happens on Twitter, where a targeted video starts following me around. In it, Dr Gayatri Amirthanlingam, a consultant in the National Immunisation Team at Public Health England, explicitly explains how there is no truth to the claims. “There is no mechanism by which this vaccine can affect your current, or future fertility,” she says.

Still, doubts persist. “They’ve tested the short-term effects, but long-term effects aren’t known and can’t be known,” says Amy when we speak about these claims. As a single mum of two, she adds that her own fertility is not a concern at this point. Hollie remains anxious about it: “I don’t want to take the risk that it could affect my chances of having a family later down the line,” she says.

Both women come back to the same fears: that it’s all been so quick, that they’re worried about putting something in their body just because they’ve been told to. When I ask about the unfathomable numbers of deaths – half a million in the US, more than 120,000 people in the UK – they’re sympathetic. “My parents had the vaccine and I’m happy for them,” Amy says. “But for me there’s so much going on that isn’t being addressed. It’s what we’ve been taught to think now – this messaging, ‘act as if you’ve got it’. There are people who are perfectly healthy, who go to the gym and eat well and look after themselves. And they’re being told to act like they’re diseased.”

Of course, the reason people are being told to act as if they have Covid is because up to one in three people who have it don’t show symptoms, and could easily pass it, down a chain of transmission they can't follow, to someone more vulnerable. And the more the virus circulates, the more it has a chance to mutate into new variants that the current vaccines haven’t been tested against. The necessity of the vaccine and the chaos that the coronavirus has wreaked on societies – physically, economically, personally – does not need spelling out. But the fact that, despite bearing witness to this like the rest of us for the last 12 months, despite not having predisposed anti-vaxx mentalities and despite wanting, desperately, to live and to live freely again, these women remain fervently against vaccination, cannot be ignored. There is a sense that this fear has been building, especially among groups already rendered vulnerable by historic systems that dictate all too clearly who is first in line, who is deemed safe by society and who is consistently told: you’re on your own.

‘“Look at the statistics for Black women in childbirth,” says Olivia Birch, a councillor for Bilston North ward in Wolverhampton… “Black women see that data, but do not see anything active being done about it – and think: ‘Why should I trust this?’”

“Bear with me: look at the statistics for Black women in childbirth,” says Olivia Birch, a councillor for Bilston North ward in Wolverhampton. “They are four or five times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. And Black women see that data, but do not see anything active being done about it – and think: ‘Why should I trust this?’” After speaking extensively with constituents in recent weeks, she concluded that almost 80 per cent of Black Afro-Caribbean people in the area could refuse the vaccine. Huge ethnicity vaccine gaps have shown up in research – Public Health England, for example, found that just 57 per cent of respondents out of 199 from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds were likely to accept the vaccine, compared to 79 per cent of white respondents. “In the 1970s, in the States, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment” – a reprehensible “study” that abused Black men for decades – “was still ongoing. That wasn’t that long ago. It’s still in people’s mindsets,” says Olivia Birch.

Against the backdrop of 2020, with thousands still rallied round a President of the United States who weaponised division and fake information, vaccine hesitancy makes more sense. Another factor that appears to contribute to the existence of pockets of vaccine-hesitant people, according to recent research, is deprivation. Birch says that young people in her constituency in the west Midlands seem “fed by misinformation from the States” and, more widely, people seem unsure about where to find information they can rely on. “It’s about trust – or mistrust,” Birch says. And that has been a long time in the making.

The idea that women’s bodies are commodities is not new. Furthermore, history tells us that time and time again, the state has valued our fertility over our health. More than 50 years after the 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion on specific grounds, the procedure has still not been fully decriminalised in England and Wales; women in Northern Ireland were still denied autonomy over their bodies until as recently as 2019.

“It is morally and ethically wrong,” Amy argues, “for individual choice to be limited.” As our conversation continues, she comes back to not only her concerns about the unknowns of long-term physical health effects of the vaccine, but the impact on society. She is adamant that the vaccine is important, but also worried that: “People who haven’t had the vaccine will be called dirty, or unclean. The societal change already has been the most shocking thing for me.” One of Amy’s daughters, who is 12, has autism. “I won’t vaccinate her. But I do worry about what her life will look like because of that.”

“The thing is, it is the right thing to get vaccinated,” Birch says. “I was vaccinated last week and I am grateful. But members of my community don’t feel heard and they don’t know who to turn to. Some said they would listen to GPs, but they are overstretched. There are too few people who the community feel they can trust.”

The Short Stack

There’s no evidence that the Covid-19 vaccine has any effect on fertility. But women with fears should be listened to.

By Zoe Beaty

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