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My Ire Over the Coverage of Dr. Robert G. Edwards’s Death Continues

It is all Magpie’s fault.  She posted Dr. Robert G. Edwards’s obit from the New York Times on Facebook. As a practice, I tend to avoid all infertility coverage in the New York Times (as well as all other coverage of all other topics due to their piss-poor coverage of infertility topics).  And they didn’t let me down in discussing the physiologist.

Did you know that his hard work “has enabled infertile couples to bring millions of children into the world and women to have babies even after menopause.”

Seriously?  That’s where you’re going to start with this?

He also apparently had SUPER POWERS with embryos that you didn’t know about because he was capable of “implanting it in a woman’s uterus to produce a baby.”

I once wrote Stephanie Saul of the New York Times to point out her misuse of the term implant when discussing IVF.  She wrote back: “I hear you, but knowing this beforehand we made the conscious decision to use the word implant. The average reader doesn’t understand what a ‘transfer’ is.”

After I pieced back together my head after it exploded, I wrote her back:

But all due respect–how does it help the reader to hear the wrong terminology? This isn’t a matter of simplifying the process or not using jargon. There are plenty of verbs (“he placed too many embryos in the uterus”) that can be used if you’re worried that the reader will not understand the idea of “transfer.”

But the term implant doesn’t convey the limitations of the procedure. I think the general public has a very skewed vision of the success rates of IVF–I know I did before I actually had to enter treatments. Implant implies that much more of the process is under the control of the doctor rather than left to chance. And I think that plays into the notion of doctors “playing G-d” as well as the belief that people enter IVF simply because it’s more of a “done deal” than intercourse.

Words matter, mainstream media.  How you choose to record someone’s life in an obit matters, as you probably should have noticed with your obit of Yvonne Brill last week. How you choose to present a scientific development in a newspaper matters.  And you really really really really failed here. Four reallys for the four times you used implant incorrectly in a single obit.


1 a { 04.10.13 at 2:46 pm }

Ugh. I thought the New York Times was supposed to be a reputable publication.

2 manymanymoons { 04.10.13 at 2:48 pm }

Please tell me you are sending this post to Stephanie Saul!

3 Pepper { 04.10.13 at 2:53 pm }

Possibly my biggest pet peeve. ever. is using “implantation” incorrectly in this context. Words matter so much more than the value our society assigns them.

4 Katie { 04.10.13 at 3:08 pm }

Don’t even get me started on Saul. I’ve never been so disgusted with a journalist. I have words for her that aren’t appropriate to put down in public writing.

5 Another Dreamer { 04.10.13 at 3:15 pm }

I hear ya. There is so much miscommunication and incorrect word usage. Today alone, the amount of headlines I’ve seen with “test tube baby” in them makes me cringe.

6 YeahScience! { 04.10.13 at 3:33 pm }

Oh, that obit for Yvonne was HORRENDOUS! I actually really like the NYT, and was stunned that’s what they chose to run. I’m also pretty surprised that a journalist at such a respectable publication wouldn’t be able to grasp the importance of diction — the word “implant”, when used in the context of fertility treatments, very specifically means that the embryo has IMPLANTED into the uterine lining. The number of embryos that are inserted/transferred/tossed back/whatever into the uterus and then do NOT implant into the lining itself are plenty… oy. Such a shame that nobody seems to be listening to your feedback.

7 nh { 04.10.13 at 3:33 pm }

I give you

‘His work led to the birth of Ms Brown at Oldham General Hospital in 1978. She said he had brought “happiness and joy” to millions of people.’


although don’t read the rest too carefully, because that is the only time hope and joy is mentioned!

8 jjiraffe { 04.10.13 at 3:44 pm }

UGH!!!!! That obit is a disgrace. But not a surprise, as you said.

Here’s my small recap of the NYT’s strange infertility coverage, for anyone who’s interested. I’ll be adding this one. http://jjiraffe.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/are-you-infertile-the-new-york-times-thinks-you-are-rich-and-whimsical/

9 Siochana { 04.10.13 at 10:13 pm }

Ha. Wouldn’t it be nice if a doctor could just implant an embryo in the uterus.

However, I was unable to find that sentence about implanting. I think they must have changed the wording after all. See paragraph 8: “It was there that he and Dr. Steptoe finally succeeded in fertilizing an egg, growing it briefly in a petri dish and transferring it to a woman’s uterus to produce a baby.”

10 Anon { 04.10.13 at 11:00 pm }

All this time I thought the Gray Lady sought to raise people to its level.

But this obit and Stephanie Saul’s response to you show that it’s just another lowest common denominator rag.

11 a { 04.11.13 at 8:13 am }

Well, I Fucking Love Science got it right:
“Sadly, Nobel prize winner Sir Robert Edwards, a pioneer of in vitro fertilization, has died at age 87. IVF has resulted in over 5 million births.”

But then she links to a CNN story that is only halfway decent:

Seems like no one can resist “implant” or “controversial.”

12 Pepper { 04.11.13 at 9:16 am }

CNN’s coverage was more respectable, although still minimizing. Focus on the man, not the controversy, people. Or the millions of families he helped to create. That’s how I like to think of him – the man who created the technology that created my family. Because no matter how much I “just relaxed,” my daughter wouldn’t be here were it not for a lot of amazing people in the medical scientific community.

13 Denver Laura { 04.11.13 at 9:44 am }

Joseph Brill, Yvonne’s son, defended the Times obit.


14 magpie { 04.11.13 at 10:20 am }

I like it when I get you riled up. 🙂

15 Alicia { 04.11.13 at 12:18 pm }

Totally. What a load of horse crap… What’s the point in continuing to use the wrong terminology to an uneducated public? Misinform the uneducated? Good idea. So annoying!

16 Kathy { 04.11.13 at 4:56 pm }

I echo magpie and was laughing with you when I read this:

“After I pieced back together my head after it exploded, I wrote her back…”

Yes, words matter and I am grateful to you and others for taking this/the NYT on/for calling them out.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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