Last week, as part of his campaign in the Republican primary in Florida, Newt Gingrich stated that if he were president, he would appoint a commission to investigate IVF clinics, as embryos (and to his way of thinking, life) are created there. There are probably some political machinations and implications of this pledge that I don't fully understand. However, it did get me thinking--what exactly does Mr. Gingrich think that such an investigation is going to find? Somehow, Mr. Gingrich seems to believe that embryos are being developed for the wrong reasons or capriciously destroyed or mistreated. The irony here, I think, is that no one values the sanctity of human life more than those who are infertile. People going through the physical, emotional, and financial hardships of IVF value their embryos, and the children they might possibly create, above anything else in the world.
But Mr. Gingrich is not alone in his misperceptions of and mistrust in infertility treatment. A day after his announcement, I found myself explaining to a group of other mothers at a preschool fundraiser that the Octomom was not the norm in infertility treatment. One woman thought that in IVF, the patient was forced to transfer back all the embryos that had been produced in their cycle, and thus higher-order multiple births were the norm. A long discussion of embryo cryopreservation and medical ethics ensued. The mothers seem surprised to learn that the Octomom's doctor was investigated on ethics charges, that most reproductive endocrinologists try to avoid multiple births, and the field is moving towards single embryo transfer. All they knew about IVF came from sensationalist headlines describing the exception to the rule.
These views are often furthered by inaccurate portrayals of infertility treatment and IVF in movies and on television. I am often stunned by the countless examples of medical inaccuracy of television shows when it comes to reproductive issues. For instance, the show Private Practice, which frequently features themes of infertility and infertility treatment, has on multiple occasions depicted infertility treatment incorrectly. My favorite instance involved a doctor using a microscope in the room with a patient to fertilize an just-retrieved egg, only to immediately transfer it back and pronounce her successfully pregnant, much to the joy of all in the room. Anyone who has ever actually done IVF knows its just not that simple! It amazes me that television shows wouldn't hire a consultant to make sure they were getting their facts straight.
In addition to getting the facts wrong, television shows and the movies often portray infertility treatment in a more sinister light, pulling from the extreme situations in the news that get all the attention. Thus, the general public tends to develop a skewed sense of infertility treatment. For instance, a recent episode of CSI Miami focused on the murder of a sperm donor who fathered over 100 children, all of whom became suspects in the criminal investigation. Although there have been cases where one sperm donor has produced a high number of offspring, I suspect again this is much more the exception than the norm. However, if this is the major exposure that most people have to the idea of sperm donation, they will tend to look at it in a more negative light. I suppose stories about wholesome people with a medical struggle doing the best they can to have a family just don't get the ratings.
My concern about the negative portrayals of infertility treatment in politics and the media is that it perpetuates the already preexisting stigma surrounding infertility. For individuals undergoing infertility treatment, it is exhausting and demoralizing to continually have to fight stereotypes of their treatment. The effort involved in managing the reactions of others colors every social interaction involving treatment and infertility, and takes a lot of energy. When, as in infertility treatment, energy is in short supply, it seems a shame to have to use it to protect ourselves from judgements of others based on misinformation. Even though I've been around infertility for a long time, and have many opportunities to process my feelings regarding it, it still felt burdensome to set the preschool moms straight about the Octomom situation.
In addition, suggestions like Mr. Gingrich's that some secret evil is going on in infertility clinics can cause individuals in treatment to question themselves unnecessarily--although they can't see how they are doing something wrong. Almost all of the clients I work with have carefully considered, without any prompting from me, how their infertility treatment plan fits in with their sense of morality and ethics. IVF isn't the kind of thing that people enter into lightly. Thus, when someone in a prominent public position intimates that what they are doing is suspect, without specific information to back it up, they spend a lot of energy and time questioning themselves. If they are already feeling shame about being infertile, they may be especially sensitive about such suggestions. This adds to the pain of an already difficult situation, and is, as far as I can tell, completely unnecessary.