The Morality of IVF, the Will to Live, and the Empathy We’re Waiting For
I recently read Megan Garber’s piece in the Atlantic about the history of IVF, how people perceived it back when Louise Brown was born vs. today. While I was alive when Louise was born, I certainly wasn’t cognizant of the general public’s perception of IVF. I don’t really remember the first time I heard the term, but I do recall being in late elementary school or early middle school and having someone tell me that a child I had met was a “test tube baby.” I imagined a baby squished up in a test tube — one of those long skinny ones — with her chubby face pressed up against the glass. I thought they grew the whole baby in there and then… transferred the somewhat full-grown baby to the woman’s belly. Much in the same way you transfer a tiny potted plant into the garden outside once it outgrows its container.
The article explores the famous James Watson (as in the man who discovered the structure of DNA) quote about IVF: “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.” The public was horrified. The science community was horrified. The religious world was horrified. And then in the middle of that storm, you have Lesley Brown who just wanted to be a mother after nine years of trying. Who wanted to be a mother and experience pregnancy badly enough that she would volunteer to be the guinea pig for IVF.
I know there are complicated ethical issues with ART. I know that we can’t just plow ahead with possibilities just because they’re possibilities. There are consequences to our actions, and ethics always needs to be at the forefront in science.
But I can’t help but think about the emotional side of infertility; the emotions Lesley Brown must have gone through in those nine years. How they fueled her decision to put herself not only in a risky situation, but to do it in the limelight. To know that nothing would be private; the protocol made public, debated, discussed, condemned. Can you imagine being Lesley Brown and reading these articles in the newspaper, knowing full well that those people writing the articles have never felt the suffocation that comes from not being able to conceive on your own?
This is coded in our biology, much like our will to live. And we can understand the strength of the will to live, that people will go to extreme measures to live, will gain superhuman strength in the face of danger due to the hormones that are released in our bodies. But for some reason, until people are faced with not being able to reproduce, they can’t really fathom the same intensity exists, the same type of measures will be taken, that we’ll become superhuman in our reaction — possibly due to hormonal reactions. We applaud people for their will to live. We condemn people for their will to procreate.
There are some people with a fairly weak will to live (just as there are people with a weaker will to reproduce — not everyone wants children — and some with a stronger will to reproduce), but for people with a strong will to live, you know what it feels like when you jump into water and fall too deep below the surface and fight your way to the top, your lungs feeling as if they’ll burst. Your brain can’t slow down; it is racing trying to find a Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D because you. have. to. live. And sometimes your body goes on autopilot and guides you to safety. Thrashing and buckling, you break the surface and gasp in air. We can understand that, no?
Well, imagine all of that in the emotional sense and you have infertility.
Infertility feels like someone has their fingers around your neck and they’re strangling you. And you wonder how the hell you got yourself in this situation and how the hell you’re going to get yourself out.
So while I know the rest of the world looked at the morality of IVF back when Lesley Brown volunteered herself for that first, fateful transfer, and I understand the importance of ethical guidelines which are there to protect every member of society, I also looked at the Atlantic article through the lens of a woman who was willing to do whatever it took to be a parent. Which is why this quote moved me to tears:
While on bed rest, in a public hospital, during her pregnancy, Brown had to be moved from her room in response to a bomb threat (later proved a hoax). Later, she, John, and Louise had to move to a new home — one with a private backyard — so that she could take Louise outside without encountering camped-out reporters. As Louise, now 34 and a mother to her own son, put it: “Mum was a very quiet and private person who ended up in the world spotlight because she wanted a family so much.”
Because so many of us could have been Lesley Brown if we had been born years earlier. So many of us would have been the millions of women who simply couldn’t conceive and needed to live with that fact. And yes, while IVF has become normalized in a way, infertility is still something whispered rather than spoken about in matter-of-fact tones. Hurtful assumptions still exist — peruse the comment section of any New York Times article on infertility to see that. I don’t know how far we’ve come since I wasn’t cognizant of IVF when I was a preschooler, but I couldn’t disagree more with the hopeful ending of the article of how accepted IVF is now in 2012:
In the broader culture, though, IVF has won the best thing that a controversial technology can: widespread acceptance. Just a year after Lesley Brown gave birth to her first daughter, cultural normalization seemed a foregone conclusion.
THAT is what I’m still waiting for. Widespread acceptance. Cultural normalization. Empathy. Understanding. Open-mindedness.