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.
Infertility is a source of much grief, and our culture still doesn’t have a clue what to do about that.