I’d seen the viral photo of the baby surrounded by IVF syringes show up in my Facebook feed a couple of times. I’d paused to consider it, but had never read the caption or anything about it. I thought it was a powerful visual, a pointed reminder of the realities of IVF. The photo itself, with no caption, I identified with in its portrayal of struggle.
Then I read an article about the photo, and to say it conjured up mixed emotions is an understatement. In particular, a couple of items stood out.
Before I go on, let’s get this part out of the way: I’m not angry with my current RE, who has always been ethical and careful about explaining the known risks to me. I’m not angry with my IVF clinic. I don’t think IVF should be banned. Nobody has made any medical mistakes that I’m aware of throughout any of my treatments or pregnancies. I’m truly glad for the mother who took the photo, identified as Angela, that her daughter is “absolutely healthy and perfect” and that she is happy. I’m aware that pregnancy is a roll of the dice in so many ways, and perhaps, that’s my biggest issue here.
I’m frustrated at being shown an “absolutely healthy and perfect” baby and told to “…just hang in there” as though anyone who perseveres long enough, pays enough, and suffers enough will have that healthy baby. I understand that Angela shared it as an encouragement. I disagree with the “…just hang in there” message strongly, but I also recognize she’s a private citizen who wanted to help, never expected this to go viral and excited to share her hard-fought-for daughter. However, in the course of reading the article, I found out that the photo was originally made public by a fertility clinic*.
This struck me as far more problematic.
There is, of course, the fact that IVF cycles fail to produce a live birth more than half the time even under optimal circumstances when using the patient’s own eggs. There is also this: IVF, according to a Danish study from 2010, is linked to a 53% greater chance of preterm birth and doubles the risk of an extremely preterm birth (prior to 32 weeks) in singleton pregnancies. 8% of IVF/ICSI babies in the study were born prematurely, and 1.5% were born very prematurely, compared with 5% and 0.6% respectively for women who did not use IVF/ICSI. This is not taking twins or higher multiples which automatically have a higher risk of prematurity into account.
I understand that, for better or worse, fertility treatment is a business. Of course this clinic is showcasing such a fine outcome. I have no doubt they have all sorts of social media experts, including whoever added the caption with the subtle knife twist about the photo showing “the true definition of love that went into making this gorgeous new baby girl.”
It’s not revolutionary or surprising that infertility involves a lot of emotions, often strong ones. I know I personally felt terrible that because of my PCOS, my husband might never be a father. It’s something I’ve known he wanted since I met him when he was sixteen. I told him repeatedly that he should have married someone else, someone who could give him children. I’ve heard similar statements from other infertile people who have fertile partners. We wanted a child badly and paid with enormous amounts of money, a couple of losses, a very high risk pregnancy, and the near death of our daughter. How much does captioning such a photo as “the true definition of love” put pressure on already hurting and desperate people?
Angela and her partner were lucky in the end. They had the finances to continue cycling, a problem that IVF could fix, and apparently a healthy pregnancy. Not everyone has these resources or conditions. “…just hang in there” can mean marital problems or prematurity or severe financial issues among other things for plenty of people. I don’t say any of what I listed above to complain or look for sympathy or pity. We were also lucky and took our daughter home. We had a good outcome. Was it worth it? In the end, yes, because it worked. But it very nearly didn’t work in a terrible way, and then what about that price?
The people who promoted this line of thinking are doctors. They are scientists. They are highly educated, intelligent people. Because of this, I struggle giving the clinic a pass, even in our advertising saturated, self-promoting business climate. They know the numbers and ought to understand what hanging in there actually demands.
It’s a manipulative message to send to a hugely vulnerable population.
*I have deliberately not linked to the fertility clinic Facebook account where the photo was originally posted or their web page. The name of it is in the Today article I linked to in the initial paragraph if you wish to explore further.