They’re talking a lot, but is what they’re saying helpful?
Celebrities are scoring major public opinion points by opening up about infertility and IVF. Popular media applauds them for sharing their private struggles with the world. IVF advocates believe that their “star power will help demystify this medical process.”1 And since certain public figures carry tremendous social influence, revealing their IVF use could “prompt some women and men to reconsider whether [IVF] could be a solution for them.”2
Unfortunately, celebrities are often just as uninformed as the rest of us when it comes to IVF (and early human development – see “Mrs. Obama on miscarriage,” below). A closer look at what they share reveals many omissions and inaccuracies about IVF. And what’s left out is pretty significant.
“Michelle Obama’s IVF journey could help more women.“3 “IVF is so hard to talk about. Thank you, Michelle Obama, for speaking out.”4
In Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama writes about infertility, miscarriage, and how both of her daughters were conceived using IVF,5 a disclosure which experts say has “led to a ‘Michelle Obama effect’ on the number of black women exploring fertility treatment.”6
I dug into the book to see what Mrs. Obama actually says, and found the account of her IVF experience to be underwhelmingly superficial.
In her book, Mrs. Obama writes about the injections, anxiety, and apparent frustration at the minor role that her husband had in generating their children (“his only actual duty was to show up at the doctor’s office and provide some sperm”).7
Is such minimal information really sufficient to inform another woman’s decision about whether or not to pursue IVF? Granted, the purpose of Mrs. Obama’s book was not to provide an in-depth discussion of IVF. However, if her readers are willing to promote or pursue IVF based simply on the fact that Mrs. Obama did it, they would be wise to reconsider in light of
the many weighty issues that can accompany IVF, issues on which Mrs. Obama is silent:
• What caused their infertility?
• Were other people’s gametes (i.e., sperm, eggs) purchased? If they are not the biological parents, how and when will they tell their children?
• Did they pay for surrogacy?
• How many embryos were created?
• Were embryos tested and destroyed due to genetic traits, chromosomes or sex?
• Was there selective reduction?
• Are frozen embryos still in storage?
• Can they define “embryo”?
Mrs. Obama shares a tiny sliver of what IVF entails, but leaves readers of her book with more questions than answers.
*Mrs. Obama, on miscarriage:
What I’d been through was no more than a normal biological hiccup, a fertilized egg that, for what was probably a very good reason, had needed to bail out.5
Her miscarriage occurred at approximately four weeks gestation, making her child substantially more developed than a “fertilized egg” (e.g., zygote, single-celled embryo). At the time of her miscarriage, the embryonic child was about 3 mm long, had limb buds, and possibly a beating heart.
“Amy Schumer shares ‘grueling’ IVF journey, says she’s ‘lucky’ to get ‘1 normal embryo.’“
“I just wanted to share and send love and strength to all of the warrior women who go through this process.”8
Comedian Amy Schumer gave her Instagram followers a photographic play-by-play of her IVF experience, and while her bruised abdomen and pre-procedure wooziness garner sympathy and camaraderie, her words reveal the dehumanizing effect of IVF:
“They retrieved 35 eggs from me. Not bad for the old gal right? Then 26 fertilized! Whoah right? For all those we got 1 normal embryo from that and 2 low level mosaic…So we feel lucky we got 1! But what a drop off right?”9
Could Ms. Schumer explain what an embryo is? That the 26 fertilized eggs are in fact her embryonic children? For someone who wants to have a child, the early death in utero of even one child is achingly painful. But with IVF, 23 children can die or be discarded and it is described as a “drop off.” IVF dangerously desensitizes people who long to be parents to the death of their own children.
1.https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/13/opinions/michelle-obama-book-ivf-fertility-beers/index.html. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid. 4.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/10/ivf-hard-talk-michelle-obama-speaking-out. 5. Becoming. Michelle Obama.. 2018. Crown Publishing Group 6.https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/wellness/story/michelle-obama-effect-sees-black-women-seeking-fertility-67685029. 7. Becoming. 8.https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2020/02/17/amy-schumer-ivf-update-lucky-get-1-normal-embryo/4784936002/. 9. Ibid.