The Messy Intersection of Hope, Pain, and Advertising

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 However, in the course of reading the article, I found out that the photo was originally made public by a fertility clinic*.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. 

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6 thoughts on “The Messy Intersection of Hope, Pain, and Advertising

  1. I feel the same way about this. I actually thought it was rather repulsive. Having had a successful IVF pregnancy and healthy twins as a result, I don’t want myself or my babies to be the poster children for IVF promotion and therefore, have not made it public knowledge that my babies are from IVF (my blog is private). After everything else failed (all other fertility treatments we could find to try prior to IVF), we basically hit the IVF jackpot and got two babies out of our first single embryo transfer. Those aren’t reasonable expectations for another couple to absorb. And every couple’s history, diagnosis, age, emotional health, etc is such a complex and personal thing – I don’t even know if I’d recommend IVF to someone unless they really wanted to do it. Anyway, I found this post to be an interesting and relate-able perspective on the subject.

  2. Aaah, I didn’t know a fertility clinic was behind it (or pushing it into the spotlight). That changes it for me, too. When I first saw the photo, I saw the grim reality: if you want to do fertility treatments, this is what it means to do fertility treatments. It was a message to all the people touting IVF out there: IVF is not nearly as easy as they make it seem.

    But to hear that it’s a fertility clinic pushing it forward feels irresponsible and manipulative.

  3. I’ve been wanting to write thoughtful comments to all of your beautiful posts, but haven’t had time to do any of them justice. But this one is easy: speaking as someone who is trained in what is typically considered the hardest of the hard sciences, and as someone who has a lot of doctor friends….Most doctors aren’t scientists. The majority can’t reason their way out of a paper bag, much less understand what the flaws and weaknesses are in a research study. And from reading the research papers from the head RE at the clinic that posted the photo, I know for certain he’s either clueless or deliberately manipulative, or both. (He’s also creative, but that’s neither here nor there.) Something similar can be said about what many people consider to be the best clinic in the country–a lot of people quote the unusually high CCS success rates posted on the clinic website, but they have no idea of how unusual the underlying population in that study was. Fundamentally, in IVF, it’s caveat emptor, and unfortunately most people don’t have the training to understand what they should be looking for. (What disturbs me even more is the fact that most REs don’t seem to understand how incompetent they are. So they make terrible judgement calls, but have no idea that they’re doing something wrong.)

    IVF is a beautiful & wonderful tool in the right hands, but in the wrong ones–ugh.

  4. You make some very good arguements here. 🙂 How are you by the way? How’s the healing going? How’s life as a mother treating you?

  5. I enjoyed this post. I wouldn’t take back our IVF journey for anything, since it gave us our little boy. However, those syringes don’t really represent beauty to me. They represent anxiety, stress, pain, and wicked hormonal rollercoasters. One of the drugs I took caused me permanent health damage; looking it up later, I realized, “Duh. This drug wasn’t created for this. No wonder it caused me so many issues.” 😁

  6. I had conflicted feelings about that picture, too, and you have put a lot of the issues I struggled with out there in this superbly well-written post. I saw it in my Facebook feed, and the “hang in there” was a bitter pill to swallow. I “hung in there” well beyond what was reasonable and have lingering guilt that if I hadn’t felt that I needed to “never give up” and if I hadn’t felt like “if you just hang in you will get your happily ever after” I could have been a parent at least a year, maybe two years ago, through adoption. I felt intense pressure to try every possible treatment, to go down every possible avenue. I could probably make that sharps heart myself, but it would be empty. After seeing it shared by more than one friend of mine who were ultimately successful in bringing babies home through the sharps container (without preterm complications), I felt a little more bitter, just because some people don’t get to bring their baby home despite all those injections and vials. It doesn’t work for everyone, and I felt like that picture perpetuated the feeling that IVF is a miracle cure that will ultimately work for everyone if you just…”hang in there.” So on the last post I saw on my wall, I added the comment, “I might one day do this, but I’d put the syringes on the outside and the adoption paperwork on the inside, and it would probably be equal billing.” I felt kind of badly, like I was raining on the parade a bit, but it put a dose of reality (not sponsored by a clinic, which I did realize from reading the HuffPost article it linked to) that for some people the needles do not a baby make. I love your insightfulness in this post, I love your well-researched facts about success rates, and I love that you spoke your truth about this photo that is too easy to see and think, “oh how wonderful, IVF all works and creates healthy complication-free babies” which is true in many cases but not in all.

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