Fertility Clinics Draw New Scrutiny

Fertility clinics have operated with impunity for 40 years. New reporting, though, raises issues about their business motives and commitment to patient well-being.

Fertility ClinicsIf you’d asked me 12 years ago, will the headline “Fertility Clinics Under Fire” ever run on the cover of an international women’s magazine, my answer would likely have been: What, Why?

I was new, then, and actively grieving my IVF ‘alpha pregnancy’ losses. Wobbly, I didn’t know how exactly to let go of a long-held dream of creating a child with the man I loved most. I was hardly in a position to think about the motives of increasingly entrepreneurial fertility clinics.

My battered heart cried out for compassion and answers. Fertility clinics, I realized, wanted only obedient supplicants with ready access to cash. Abandoned and ignored, my once rose-colored view of fertility clinics changed. What they sold versus what they delivered took on new shades of gray.

Anyone Else Out There?

I took a fresh look at the trauma inflicted by fertility clinics eager to sell another cycle.

On my best days, I had the presence of mind to analyze the direct mail pieces fertility clinics sent to my mailbox. I clipped ads with seductive headlines: Are you ready to create your family? I looked with newfound curiosity on the billboards of swaddled babies surfacing along the highway.

My blog chronicled my move away from IVF. My posts reached around the world. As my readership grew, women came forward with their own tales of how fertility clinics prioritized profit and ‘throughput’ over patient care.

More time passed. My sorrowful fog began to lift.

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Face to Face with Pharma Sales Rep

Eight years ago, in what ranks as one of the weirdest nights of my life, I came face to face with a pharmaceutical rep who sold mega amounts of powerful hormones to fertility clinics. He positively crowed with delight about how he beat his sales quotas each month as more and more women turned to fertility clinics.

This toad of a man sat next to my husband at an awards dinner. Aghast, my husband turned away in disgust when he heard the sales rep boast that his northeast region was full of affluent couples, which meant he could “sell lots of cycles.”

The rep soon learned I was there to receive an award for my book, Silent Sorority, about life in the wake of failed IVF. It was a ‘people’s choice’ selection. As I looked around at the mostly industry audience, I wondered if his customers or anyone on the sponsor-recruiting committee had actually read it.

So, what if you’d asked me in 2010 about that magazine headline? My jaded reaction would have been: Doubtful. Fertility clinics and fertility drug advertising budgets are too rich to risk alienating.

Tackling Taboos

Then, five years ago, the tide turned. Miriam Zoll and I wrote a blistering op-ed published in The New York Times. It highlighted the questionable methods fertility clinics employ to recruit new customers. It was the first of several pieces to call attention to IVF failure rates. We also participated in a first-of-its-kind forum to discuss how fertility clinics and society at large stigmatized couples who don’t succeed with IVF.

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The objective of our forum in New York City was to tackle and take down taboos, to demand better patient care, and to call attention to the lack of language, etiquette and support for those grieving IVF losses.

As a result, it seemed we might actually see more critical stories and less saccharine reporting on the industry. Those articles are few and far between. I know. I have hundreds of story pitches to magazine and newspaper editors that went unanswered or declined.

Fertility Clinics Under Fire

Nearly two years ago, a Marie Claire editor reached out to me. She once worked at FORTUNE and published a cautionary piece I wrote about how fertility clinics hawked egg freezing as empowerment.

fertility clinicsShe asked me to work with her team to research and report on women’s experiences with IVF. On and off for 22 months I interviewed former patients and experts in medicine, bioethics, cancer research and mental health. My original piece was more than 3,000 words and left little doubt that reproductive medicine is in need of significant reform. The piece overall, however, was deemed too heavy and too critical of the industry.

A much smaller version of my original reporting, “The Wild World of IVF, Explained,” ended up in a package of stories. It is now live on Marie Claire‘s website. I am grateful to Sarah Chamberlin for her willingness to stick with me these past 22 months. (She is a featured contributor in the latest ReproTechTruths post.)

In short, there’s been progress. However, there’s still a desire amid mainstream media (and the Marie Claire editorial team) to accentuate the positive. You can imagine my horror when I saw my piece contained in a package of stories with a wrapper called “How to Have a Baby.”

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That said, if there’s reader interest, I’ll be happy to share the reporting that ended up on the cutting room floor. There were many brave women who, like Sarah, shared their stories with me. I believe they deserve to be heard. Thoughts?

Pamela Tsigdinos

Writer, blogger and, oh, yeah, infertility survivor. My memoir, Silent Sorority, tells the whole story. There's a movie in there somewhere. Given the quirkiness needed to relate it all I'm thinking Jennifer Lawrence would be a good fit.

  1. Cristy

    I want to read all 3000 words of that original piece. Given there’s next to no regulation for the fertility industry in the US, I think this is something that NEEDS to be out there. It’s only been recent that some truths have been coming to light (the high tail rates of IVF, the juking of clinic statistics, the lack of bedside manner and emotional/mental health support and finally the push of add-on treatments that have little scientific data to back up their need). If we want people to be able to advocate, they need information.

    And I’m disgusted with this pharma rep. What a creep!

  2. Sarah

    I second putting your original piece out there!! Although there is much more that I wish the editorial team at Marie Claire would have entertained in this piece (including my actual outcome, mental health ramifications and life long emotional toll, all accompanied by NO palliative care), this piece is a step in the right direction. It’s a lot more clear information than was imparted to my generation. It is also good to see the facts – the cost, the deciphered “success” rates, that IVF does not help each medical case equally – presented without any baby gooeyness.

    The “How to have a baby” emblem that happened to land beside my story (and elsewhere) is unfortunate, and rather morbidly hilarious if you’re seeing it through the experience of coming out of treatments without one. But not surprising. There is still so much more hard truth about the fertility industry that needs to be revealed – we really do have a long way to go. In the meantime, hats off Pamela to your deftness and dilligence!

    • Pamela Tsigdinos

      Seriously! Sarah, I groaned loudly when I saw the placement of that emblem next to the paragraphs summarizing your experience. Wow. Just wow. Thank you again for being willing to provide your story as means to educate. Appreciate your essay on ReproTechTruths, too. It speaks volumes…

  3. loribeth

    Share away, Pamela!! — I am sure I am not the only one who would love to read the unedited piece. Although, as Sarah said above, what survived to run in Marie Claire is certainly a step in the right direction. Slowly but surely, we are making our voices & stories heard…

  4. Nelly

    I still remember the doctor’s words after my third failed IVF: “Yes, i know is difficult to win bingo, but you will never have a chance if you don’t buy the ticket “… Those “tickets” were a hugh economical, physical and psycologycal trauma. And when they remain without options for me i only had a: “i’m sorry about your case” for answer…

    • Pamela Tsigdinos

      I feel for you, Nelly. Thank you for sharing your experience. The cliches and minimizing platitudes can cut deep, can’t they? So inappropriate for the doctor to act as though he’s running a casino.

  5. Léa

    Dear Pamela,
    congratulations on this contribution! It’s a pity that the content was watered-down, but it is sometimes unavoidable to make it through mainstream media… I would also love to read your original article!
    But the good news is that step by step, things are moving forward :) In France too, there were recently 2 articles on the burden and the failure of infertility treatments, one in the daily newspaper “Le Figaro” (http://www.parentaise.parchemine.fr/article-figaro-echec-pma/) and one in the magazine “Elle”.
    I’m very grateful for you work. Thank you for the energy you put into it!

    • Pamela Tsigdinos

      Thank you, Lea! xx Glad to hear that France is also providing some new space and discussion opportunities around the full range of outcomes. I am equally grateful for your work. Always good to see our nternational community supporting each other. Note to readers: be sure to visit Lea’s blog if you speak or understand French.

  6. Cathy

    That op ed came out a year after my last and final attempt.
    I went through a military hospital and there was no counseling available whatsoever. Just horrible. I was persona non grata.

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