This blog addresses various emotional aspects of experiencing infertility. It is written by a clinical psychologist who specializes in infertility counseling. Thank you for reading, and best of luck with your journey!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Infertility and third party reproduction in the public spotlight: psychological implications

I think it's safe to say that infertility and third party reproduction is in the public eye now more than ever. For instance, the reality show Guilana & Bill has followed the celebrity couple Guilana and Bill Rancic through 2 IVFs, one ending in miscarriage and another ending in a BFN. Numerous celebrities have announced the births of their children created through some form of third party reproduction. News reports, articles, and documentaries about the growing practice of international egg donation and surrogacy have been published and aired. It seems that when it comes to infertility treatment and third party reproduction, almost everyone has a strong, if perhaps not well-informed, opinion.

In her blog, Dawn Davenport at Creating a Family wrote a really wonderful post, found here, about the media coverage of and public response to Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban's daughter's birth via a gestational carrier. In it, she excerpts some of the many negative comments that can be found on the internet about their use of a gestational carrier. As you can imagine, some folks out there in cyberspace are not supportive of Kidman's and Urban's decision, suggesting that Kidman didn't want to ruin her figure with a pregnancy, or decrying the use of a gestational carrier/surrogate as dehumanizing or morally wrong.

As the spotlight shines on our little corner of the world, I find myself wondering about what all this attention, both positive and negative, means psychologically for individuals experiencing infertility in their own, less public lives. On the one hand, I think that increased public awareness of the issues involved in infertility could be beneficial to those currently experiencing it. Perhaps seeing a couple on television deal with a miscarriage and failed treatment cycle could help watchers become more empathic to their friends, family members, and neighbors who are in the same situation. Also, if the public increasingly understands infertility as a medical condition, there may be more public support for increased health insurance coverage.

However, I think that the negative commentary now floating around out there adds a new wrinkle of difficulty to the already complicated psychological terrain of infertility. The negative comments people feel compelled to make about the family building choices of celebrities seem to fall into two categories. The first is that somehow the celebrity him or herself is personally to blame for their situation, rather than having a medical condition. She waited too long, she is too selfish and vain, etc. The second category has to do with the idea that the celebrity is somehow circumventing God's will or fate--e.g., if it's meant to be it will happen, so using IVF, or a surrogate, or whatever, is therefore wrong.

Although I always suspected that some people felt this way about infertility treatment and the choices it involved, in my own personal and professional life I've never had anyone express these criticisms to my face. Perhaps they were thinking it, but I didn't have to deal with it explicitly. Not so anymore. Yesterday, I read an interview in which Guiliana Rancic repeatedly defends herself against public commentary (presumably from people she has never met) that she has caused her infertility by being too thin. This struck me--I mean, it's bad enough to figure out what to say to your insensitive Aunt Maisy who always suggests you just need to relax, or maybe it's just "not meant to be", but to have to start arguing with people you've never met? Although Ms. Rancic is the star of a reality television show and thus has opened up her life to public opinion, it is hard not to take the negative comments made about her situation, or those of other celebrities, and apply it to ourselves, however obliquely.

Of course, it is perhaps only a minority of people out there in the world who have such intense negative feelings about infertility treatment. But with the cloak of anonymity and the ability to publicly express themselves instantaneously at the touch of a button, they can make a big difference in the psychological climate surrounding infertility--and I would argue it's not a good difference. If people person are already inclined, albeit unfairly, to blame themselves for their infertility (and most infertile individuals struggle with this from time to time) negative comments such as these can be used to support this erroneous belief. Fodder for self-criticism is, after all, only a short internet search away.

Although it is possible to avoid reading negative opinions and comments about infertility, it does take effort. And I feel that even if we ourselves never read a word of this stuff, other people do--and this changes the emotional landscape in which we find ourselves.

I am very curious about others' experiences in this regard. I would love to hear your thoughts and stories about how the increase in news coverage around infertility has (or hasn't) affected you. Please leave a comment if you can! And as always, if you have any questions you think I can answer, or any topics you think it would be helpful for me to address in my blog, I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading, and have a great ICLW!


  1. There was a really long and interesting debate on this in a blog called mamamia.com.au over the whole thing. it started off as a congratulations but invited people to comment. What shocked me was that even though I knew people felt this way about IVF / surrogacy actually having people verbalise that some people are not supposed to be parents and we should just deal with it really hurt me. I also got hurt by the repeated comments that we should just adopt, as if that was so easy. I am about to embark on IVF # 2 after having one failed fresh and two failed frozen. We have unexplained infertility and the whole journey has been incredibly stressful but this time we are telling nobody (apart from our internet friends!) because we don't want to have the added pressures of everyone's opinion on IVF affecting us. The increased coverage has made everyone mini experts in their eyes and it is their uninformed opinions that hurt the most! Anyway lets hope after this next round I will be the one having the last laugh :)

  2. Adoption as we all know is not a cure for infetility.My personal views on the ART industry are not appropriately repeated here.For the record our Nic has had long standing infertility problems.
    Time for more empathy and compassion.

  3. There seems to be a growing trend toward nosing into famous people's lives: it has become a sport! Of course, how these famous people create families is also subject to public scrutiny. I think that it's too bad that celebrity has been elevated to the status of godliness, and as a result, people get fixated on finding flaws in celebrities to restore the sense that these people might be human. It's not just ART, it's anything. Everyone's on a witch hunt about the stars. Have you looked at tabloid magazines lately? Insanity.

    I am sometimes tempted to make a facile criticism about a celebrity's life choices (and sometimes give into that temptation), so I can see why it happens. People find a chink in the glitzy armor and go for it. It's just too bad that ART has to be dragged into it. Not good for our cause, here. It further disseminates misinformation about infertility and ART.

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  5. I applaude some celebrities for being open about their infertility, treatments and miracle endings. Although others expose themselves to the world and expect acclaim and fortune yet when it comes to being honest about their IF journey they hide in their mansions. I experienced 6 years of IF and I know that during that time I picked up a dark stranger to remind me of it. However what saved me from that dark hole was my open honesty of my issues and treatments. A relative of mine whose husband had male factor infertility and they underwent IVF/ICSI and were successful with thier fresh transfer were never open about their situation because of the stigma and gossip associated with our cultural background (Greek-Australian) Maybe your next topic - does culture dictate ART?

    ICLW #126

  6. @field of dreams--thanks for the suggestion. I think that cultural considerations definitely come into play in ART, and I will have to work on that.

    Thanks to all for your insightful comments!

  7. I would be interested in your point of view about whether we are hypocritical to expect celebrities to be open about any IF/ART experiences when so many of us aren't?

    ICLW #59

  8. ICLW-this is a really interesting post! I have been reading a discussion on this issue all week at another blog. Personally I hate the camp that says "she's being selfish/wants to keep her figure/ surrogacy is just wrong." The majority of these people, but not all, haven't been through IF but choose to hold these extremely strong views regardless and don't like to try and consider the other side, i.e, Nicole has already tried IVF and it failed after Sunday, the chances of it working were likely low, she may not have wanted Sunday to be without a sibling.
    That said I am only half "out" IRL. Some know, others don't. When people who know me well enough make a crack about how I got pregnant/my sex life, I always explain this is an IVF pregnancy, which shuts them up!!
    Thanks for the discussion on this issue. take care :)

  9. In terms of how celebrities using ART or adoption affects the rest of us, in my experience even families that are supportive of the celebrities' decisions don't seem to realize how "unreal" reality TV/celebrity life is. Guiliana and Bill excepted, we don't see the struggle, just the outcome. Look at how easy Angelina Jolie makes it seem to just go to Africa and pick up a baby. We don't know how many failed cycles Kidman and Urban had or how many surrogates they met with. Not to mention how much easier the process is when you have the financial resources of celebrities.

  10. Thanks for all of the wonderful comments! I think I will try to address the issue of disclosure in general...coming soon!

  11. Dropping by for ICLW week.
    My first time to your blog.
    I have found that celebrities dealing w/IF have opened the communication with my parents, such as Giuliana and Bill, and Celine Dion. Then it has also brought negative comments or insensitive "joking" from others, such as saying, "I hope you don't end up like Octomom" when they first hear of my IF journey.
    I think that if a celebrity wants to disclose their journey we should welcome it. For example, when it involves 3rd party parenting, it's hoped that they don't think we are so naive to think that a 40+ year old women can have twins so easily all the time without assistance.
    I agree with you the more open it is, the more public we make it, the closer it gets to being addressed, especially as far as insurance coverage goes. It's not taboo to discuss so many other health conditions that get funding, research and are covered so it's time for IF too!
    Look forward to following your blog.
    The C's
    ICLW #161

  12. Here from ICLW, and thanks for this thought-provoking essay. Part of me thinks that the Internet has made it so much easier to criticize people in the spotlight (if you ever read the comments on eon line about any celebrity, you'll see SOME kind of nasty comment. I don't know how celebrities deal with it.) that our culture is becoming more toxically judgmental. But I also think that by shining a light on IVF, surrogacy and ART in general, maybe celebrities will widen acceptance among some segments of the public. I admire Nicole Kidman, Guiliana and Bill and Celine Dion for going there.

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