A US$4 billion industry is selling its products to desperate and vulnerable women.
On Sunday in New York City, a trade show called Fertility Planit will showcase the latest inventions in the world of reproductive medicine under a banner that reads: “Everything You Need to Create Your Family.” Two dozen sessions will feature many of the sponsors’ products and therapies, with an emphasis on hopeful breakthroughs ranging from genetic testing to embryo thawing techniques to genome sequencing.
But the fair’s most powerful strategy is the suggestion that all your answers can be found within the event hall — and that the power to overcome infertility can be found within yourself.
As former fertility patients who endured failed treatments, we understand how seductive that idea is.
Americans love an uphill battle. “Don’t give up the fight” is our mantra. But the refusal to accept physical limitations, when applied to infertility, can have disturbing consequences.
Medical science has achieved great feats, improved and saved the lives of many. But when it comes to assisted reproductive technologies, science fails far more often than is generally believed.
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.
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.
Thirty-five years after British scientists brought the world’s first “test-tube baby” to life, assisted reproduction is a $4 billion-a-year industry. It’s hard to miss the marketing and advertisements associated with fertility clinics and service providers that are understandably eager to do what any business does best: sell to prospective customers.
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.
As a result, both of us pursued increasingly invasive and often experimental interventions, many of whose long-term health risks are still largely unknown.
Now we know better. Ending our treatments was one of the bravest decisions we ever made, and we did it to preserve what little remained of our shattered selves, our strained relationships and our depleted bank accounts. No longer under the spell of the industry’s seductive powers, we study its marketing tactics with eagle eyes, and understand how, like McDonald’s, the fertility industry works to keep people coming back for more.
Some people do, of course, become parents through this technology. But we rarely hear from the other side, former patients who, in refusing to give up, endured addictive, debilitating and traumatizing cycles. 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.
Miriam Zoll is the author of the memoir “Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies.” Pamela Tsigdinos is the author of the memoir “Silent Sorority: A Barren Woman Gets Busy, Angry, Lost and Found.” This article was first published in the New York Times and is republished with permission.