Human Exceptionalism

Big Fertility’s Dark Side

The IVF industry–Big Fertility–is no different than Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Biotech, and Big Defense. It provides a product–in this case, a baby–for big bucks. It expands markets and technologies–egg buying, commercial surrogacy, selling extra embryos, etc.–advertises, and fights the political wars with high paid lobbyists in Washington DC and state and foreign capitals like any other industry.

Big Fertility has a very dark side often not explored in the media. Women have had their health and fertility destroyed selling eggs. Poor surrogate mothers–now dehumanized as “gestational carriers–rent their maternal capacities to nurture a child in the womb and then have it taken regardless of attachments that might have been formed. Excess embryos are treated as no more meaningful than caviar. Big Fertility has also helped create a destructive view that people not only have a right to a child, but to the child they want.

Most clients of Big Fertility don’t actually achieve their dream. This is the subject of an op/ed in the NYT by two women with painful experience in the field. From, ”Selling the Fantasy of Fertility” by Miriam Zoll and Pamela Tsigdinos:

The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology reports that, on average, of the 1.5 million assisted reproductive cycles performed worldwide, only 350,000 resulted in the birth of a child. That is a 77 percent global failure rate. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the overall failure rate at almost 70 percent.

Yet, there is little discussion of the impact or consequences of this aspect of the quest to have a baby through artificial means:

Behind those failed cycles are millions of women and men who have engaged in a debilitating, Sisyphus-like battle with themselves and their infertility, involving daily injections, drugs, hormones, countless blood tests and other procedures. Big Fertility uses the desperation of want-to-be parents to gain market share: But what they’re selling is packaged in hope and sold to customers who are at their wits’ end, desperate and vulnerable. Once inside the surreal world of reproductive medicine, there is no obvious off-ramp; you keep at it as long as your bank account, health insurance or sanity holds out.

It’s no wonder that, fueled by magical thinking, the glorification of parenthood and a cultural narrative that relentlessly endorses assisted reproductive technology, those of us going through treatments often turn into “fertility junkies.” Even among the patient-led infertility community, the prevailing belief is that those who walk away from treatments without a baby are simply not strong enough to run the gantlet of artificial conception. Those who quit are, in a word, weak.

This leads to real world consequences:

Those contemplating treatments have a right to know about the health risks, ethical concerns, broken marriages and, for many, deep depression often associated with failed treatments. They need objective, independent advice from health care and mental health professionals focused on the person’s well-being instead of the profit. Being unable to bear children is a painful enough burden to carry, without society’s shaming and condemning those who recognize that their fertility fantasy is over. It is time to rein in the hype and take a more realistic look at the taboos and myths surrounding infertility and science’s ability to “cure” it.

Sigh. Yes, there is joy. but also so much pain–and not only for want-to-be parents who can’t conceive. Think of the yearning of parentless children desperate to be adopted and loved.  


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