What Do We Celebrate?
A 49 year old woman gave birth last month to a baby conceived with the help of IVF using her own egg, at the New Hope Fertility Center, a Park Avenue fertility clinic founded by Dr. John Zhang. She becomes the oldest first-time-in-vitro-mom on record. Undeniably, this is a cause for celebration for the happy parents, for the world of reproductive technology, and for the millions of women in their forties who long to experience pregnancy and motherhood.
Dr. Zhang’s “less is more” approach to IVF and hormone stimulants, the idea of retrieving one or two eggs in a cycle, rather than blasting the ovaries to hike up egg production to thirty times the number a woman’s body was designed to release – is clearly a step in the right direction But before you rush to reserve your place in line at New Hope, or shelve all your eggs in a freezer of the closest IVF clinic, consider another reading of this story.
To me, this pregnancy has proved what many of us have witnessed: Yes, even in our late forties some of us still have healthy strong viable eggs. And yes, we can take action that might bolster these survivors in their valiant effort to morph into healthy babies.
The majority of pregnancies in women in their forties and even a handful over-forty–five pregnancies that I’ve seen in my practice as a fertility educator in the last decade and a half – began in the privacy of bedrooms. I myself conceived the old-fashioned way and gave birth to a feisty little girl six months short of my 45th birthday.
On the wall of the Fertile Heart Studio in Woodstock hangs a collage of cards, pictures and birth announcements from former workshop attendants and people I’ve worked with privately. Some of those babies were conceived with the help of IVF. And their moms and dads did all they could to give those babies the healthiest, strongest physical, emotional, spiritual foundation for their human journeys
IVF is a tool that helps or harms depending on how we use it.
When it comes to New Hope, and the promise of a biological pregnancy for women over forty-five, Dr. Zhang tells us his clinic treats 60 to 80 women over 45 each year. Five to eight of them give birth. What about the remaining 72 women who go home to an empty nursery?
What is left out of the celebratory rhetoric of this latest medical miracle, is the level of desperation that draws forty-five-plus wannabe-moms into a staggering series of invasive tests, egg retrievals, and changing IVF treatment protocols — in spite of the known and not-yet-known health risks and scrimpy chances of success. Might they be better off investing their emotional energy and funds in less self-punishing attempts to beat the odds?
What is far too often omitted from public fertility debates are the widely known side-effects such as — cysts, hot flashes, disruption of menstrual cycles following extended use of birth control, and an increased risk of ovarian cancer — with patients undergoing repeated cycles of Clomiphene Citrate. Clomid is a commonly prescribed drug at New Hope and clinics worldwide. The FDA requires manufacturers to include warnings about prolonged use, yet such guidelines are routinely ignored. As one of my clients put it, “After 11 cycles, my doctor said, he’ll keep going until I tell him to stop.”
If technology is the route you choose to take – my hope is that you do so by listening closely to the impulses and promptings of your inner fertility-authority. It might serve you as well as it served the young woman who insisted that her doctor perform an intra-uterine-insemination in the cycle between retrievals. Or the woman who refused the protocol of birth control pills and asked her doctor to stop quoting statistics during embryo transfer. Or you might be as fortunate as the couple who after a consultation at one of the top IVF clinics and after being told they could never conceive without technology, chose to raise the bar of love-making-gusto and gave birth two weeks before the wife’s 46ths birthday.
To paraphrase Wendell Berry, one of the sanest voices of our time: What makes us human is not the “human genius” but the intelligence of the heart. It’s an intelligence that created our holy-human-loaves as infinitely mysterious organisms. It’s an intelligence that remains invisible to those who choose not to see it. For those of us who seek it, it becomes the one force that makes a fully human experience bearable, even thrilling. It is without a doubt a force to heed when it comes to making babies.