Unintended Consequences of Michelle Obama’s IVF

Expanding the conversation spurred by our beloved former first lady's IVF Story

By on January 7, 2019

Michelle Obama is for me, as for millions of women around the world, the embodiment of  just about every laudable human attribute. Becoming, Obama’s generous memoir only deepened my appreciation of our former first lady.

“What would that look like? What would be a most useful path to taking the conversation further?”

Since fertility matters have been at the center of my life for more than two decades, the pages that spoke about the Obamas’ struggle to birth a family, were the ones that engaged me most and I silently cheered the arrival of their two incredible daughters as I have not-so-silently cheered the birth of many IVF-conceived children.

If I’m to speak the whole truth and nothing but, I must also add that—having  witnessed women with far more challenging diagnoses and several years older than Obama conceive spontaneously—and listening to the buzz around the book, I’ve  become painfully aware that the narrative of Michelle Obama’s journey to motherhood has served to endorse a trend toward a reductive, mechanistic approach to healing in an area of women’s health stained with misogyny and racial bias; an approach that has influenced patient care and treatment outcome.

From the few pages that address the fertility topic in Becoming, we learn that when Michelle’s miscarriage and subsequent testing revealed no identifiable barriers to a full term pregnancy, she followed the common unexplained infertility treatment protocol of Clomid-stimulated cycles and then moved on to a successful first IVF conceiving Malia. A couple of years later, another in-vitro led to the birth of Sasha.

This is a quote from the  Good Morning America interview repeated in countless online sources:”I realized that as I was 34 and 35, we had to do IVF.” 

I’m grateful to Michelle Obama for sharing her story and I agree that “…Her status as a role model for many women across the racial and social spectrum makes her ideally positioned to take the conversation further. “

What would that look like? What would be a most useful path to “taking the conversation further?

How can we engage in a public dialogue about this emotionally charged life crisis that would lessen the heartache and the risks to mother and child? Could our conversation point us toward a path that would seize the singular opportunity that comes with this life crisis; a path that would minimize the need for medical technology? Could a deeper conversation guide us toward a far more humane, more earth-friendly approach to bringing children into the world?

Having spent the last twenty plus years in intimate dialogue with hundreds of wounded veterans of the infertility techno-wars, for me, taking the “conversation further” would mean hearing the voices of women who, like Michelle, voted for IVF at 34, blasted their ovaries with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of stimulants and walked away with compromised ovarian function, empty arms and a potentially higher risk of disease.

Taking the conversation further would mean a deeper look at research, such as the study presented at the meeting of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine in 2014, showing that black women undergoing in vitro fertilization are only half as likely as white women to become pregnant even when donor eggs are used.

Taking the conversation further would mean looking at case histories of women who followed the logic of statistical probabilities, entered the world of assisted reproduction even younger than Michelle Obama, only to endure as many as 15 failed treatments. Then giving their bodies and hearts a level of attention no medical protocol would provide, they conceived their statistically unlikely babies without medical intervention.

Or women who have received multiple free IVF’s and only after such treatments failed, chose to follow a far more expansive path that led to spontaneous pregnancies in their forties.

Learning from their experiences we could really take the conversation further lobbying  for insurance coverage not only for IVF but for whatever the patient deems necessary—to best prepare for successful treatment outcome; insurance coverage that would minimize the need for repeated IVF’s, or coverage for resources that might make statistically unlikely spontaneous pregnancy possible.

Similarly, we could take the conversation further by learning from the journeys of women whose successful IVF and Egg Donation treatments after years of failed cycles attest to the value of being fully engaged in our own healing.

Taking the conversation further would mean stopping to refer to such case histories as anecdotal evidence, instead of research opportunities that validate the need for a far more expansive view of the human organism.

Perhaps offering a counter-narrative to the tired old tropes of our racing biological clock, and the notion of “infertility” as a disease to be cured by the next high-end product of the baby-making technopoly—rather than a potentially life-saving symptom–we could indeed take the conversation further.

Malia and Sasha, my daughters, the children already here and the ones on the way, are begging us to do that, to take the conversation further.

2019 would be a great year to start listening to them, wouldn’t it?

Hoping for a fruitful, healthy, fulfilling year for all of us!

couple embracing and dancing under umbrella

The overall ethos of the media coverage presents in-vitro-fertilization as pretty much a slam-dunk; a sure fix for the illness of infertility: If you hit your thirties and the child is not showing up when summoned, the best course of action is to move on to IVF as quickly as possible. Following that logic, the only barrier that keeps women and couples from motherhood is the high cost of ART.

Laura Beer in a piece titled Michelle Obama’s IVF Journey Could Help More Women writes:

Obama’s disclosure that their children were the product of IVF… will hopefully prompt some women and men to reconsider whether it could be a solution for them.

And a few lines further, we read: While an ever-growing number of professional women are finding the resources to conquer infertility through IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies, the treatment’s high price tag means that many are effectively priced out of motherhood.

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11 Responses to “Unintended Consequences of Michelle Obama’s IVF”

  1. Mountaineer says:

    Thank you Julia, for another eye opening piece. Thank you, Blooming Rose. Your comment especially resonated with me. We were likely born in the same year.

    I sometimes question my choices – were they driven by pressure from various quarters and from within myself? Why do the doctors put fears in us? I bought Inconceivable before we got our first and only positive pregnancy test and miscarried immediately. My first appointment with a Pelvic floor dysfunction specialist came on the day of and after we had conceived the first and the only time so far, and we didn’t know this then. That all we needed was perhaps the dilators that another specialist recommended and some faith. But then I let one miscarriage let me get sucked into the world of ivf after trying naturally for almost 1.5 years and 6 IUIs. I knew taking methotrexate for an ectopic pregnancy that was disappearing almost on its own wasn’t right for my body, but I still took it, twice, as the doctors told me to. If I had these tools then, I would have probably acted differently.

    Looking back so many choices I made seem fear driven. After last 3 years of going to 2 fertility clinics and 15, yes 15 egg retrievals and 1 failed transfer. I am at a crossroad. And it wasn’t too long ago that my husband brought up the possibility of us (means I) going back to doing some egg retrievals if I was not ready for another transfer. I told him I can’t. It’s hard to believe that my partner doesn’t understand why I don’t want to do another round of egg retrieval. My Os want to suck me into the land of not haves. But it’s time I turn yet again to the tools I have been learning for the past 3 years. For the same amount of time that I have been on this journey of ivf. I have learned how to take injections myself. This is something I had once thought impossible. I can’t believe I am sharing all this. But I can’t hold it in myself any longer. I am sharing in hopes that one day I will come across this comment and realize how far I have come. And also in the hopes that someone who like I, once thought, will not assume that ivf is after all a shortcut to our babies. There are no shortcuts. For some it works like a magic pill, but there are countless others who go home empty handed. We are not open to the option of donor eggs, nor to adoption, and I am not open to surrogacy. So that is where we are now. Having my mother around was a welcome change, but I have let it get in the way of my FH practice at times. She goes back end of next week, and that is when I can be back on track, so working my way to getting my visionary stronger again.

    Look forward to connecting with all on Tuesday,

  2. BlueFlower says:

    I too recently read the Michelle Obama memoir & agree with what Julia (& others here) have written about her own & the general rush towards IVF as the apparent ‘saviour’. I am one of the ones for whom IVF (with an egg donor in my case) was the right path. But what enabled me to know it was, and what, I believe, enabled me to have first time round success with my donor cycle/embryo transfer (followed by a smooth & beautiful pregnancy in the 2nd half of my 40s) was the ‘inner work’ I did under the guiding hands & heart of Julia.

    I also wanted to add, having read hwe123’s post below, that I too really do feel that I have the perfect child I was meant to have. I simply can’t imagine him being any different & he really does feel like my own. I say this because I know that when the idea of using an egg donor was first mentioned to me by a doctor, while I wasn’t 100% closed to the idea, I was far from thrilled. But thanks to the work I did, by the time we got to collaborating with a donor, it did feel right for us. So if there’s even a small a part of you that’s open to this route, please do explore it & see where it takes you. I am so grateful I did.


  3. Blooming Rose says:

    Thank you for this post, Julia! And thanks everyone for your comments. Yes, I think it is very important to take the conversation further. I appreciate what Chanale wrote and what Julia responded. It much resonates with me. Here is why. We were trying with my husband only for a year and a half (when I was 31) when the IVF business “took us on board”. Basically making us feel that without them we can forget having our own baby (the natural way). So I, full of anxiety and fear and tension and panic, “joined in”: my first cycle was stopped in the middle as I was told my body was reacting “unpredictably” and my hormone levels were up and down (no wonder, I was not actually accepting the procedure at all). Then, after some tests (low AMH) and a biopsy doctors said they would try with me once more: two oocytes were retrieved, but none matured so there was no embryo. After that I decided I have to stop this. I took “a break” for more then 4 years by now and I went through various alternative options (homeopathy, acupuncturist, herbs, constellation, healers of all sorts) and I am actually grateful to all of them. I really am. But, I think I went from one extreme to the other. First, I fully trusted the doctors (or did I?) and then I fully trusted the healers (it did not work either, so far). Meanwhile, however, I found and discovered many things about myself and my life style etc. Then, I found Julia. And then I started to find myself. I do not have my child YET. But I know that I am a very different person now (thanks to working with OVUM practice) then I was before. I know that no one can guarantee me a child. I know it is me to decide which road to take and when. It is still very difficult, challenging and often painful. Sometimes I blame myself for “waiting so long” for trying IVF again (I am now 39 and planning to try the IVF again) and in between feeling that I am doing something “wrong” not being able to conceive naturally. But then again, I KNOW that if I went for more and more cycles back then (even if I was much younger), it would not work. I first needed to work with myself. I know now that I have tools to work with which will show me the way. I know I have the Fertile Heart community to support me, even if we do not know each other; it is very inspiring and useful (and healing) to read all your stories. And even more so to hear you over the phone! I guess this is a long post (for a blog purposes:-), but I just wanted to explain my journey and thus perhaps somehow support some other women who have their journey before them. As I see it, there is nothing wrong with going either way, but the way how we do it can really change the outcome. Thank you, Julia, for all you do in this respect! It is priceless. And thank you Chanele, it really was helpful for me to realize few things. Happy New Year everyone. May our wishes be fulfilled!

  4. Chanale says:

    As someone who waited years due to the pressure to “not use a medicalised approach” and did loads of inner work and tried every possible alternative route first, until finally going for IVF and conceiving with ease, I find myself on the other side of this debate. I still feel that I’m made to feel guilty and less than when I used a medical approach to having a baby when I “should have been able to” conceive naturally with diet etc. But I just wasn’t. Despite being young and healthy and happy and in a good place in life. Despite years of working on my “internal blockages” and positive thinking. I don’t regret my IVF one bit, just wish I’d gone for it straight away. What is wrong with doing both, the medical route with the inner work? Why to put so my pressure on women suffering from infertility that they should conceive naturally? And what if you wanted many children and wasted the years where IVF works the best on approaches that don’t alone work for you? Just something to think about. It’s not all black and white.

    • Chanale, Thank you for visiting and reading and engaging. I so appreciate your input.

      As I said in the piece “we could really take the conversation further lobbying for insurance coverage not only for IVF but for whatever the patient deems necessary—to best prepare for successful treatment outcome; insurance coverage that would minimize the need for repeated IVF’s…

      You speak of regretting the years you spent on “alternatives” and inner work. Could it be that those years might have contributed to the success of your first IVF? Can you be sure that your first IVF would’ve been successful if you had gone in that direction immediately? (BTW my work is not about alternative treatments or positive thinking.)

      And this too is much in line with your suggestion to do both the inner and the treatment: “women whose successful IVF and Egg Donation treatments after years of failed cycles attest to the value of being fully engaged in our own healing.”

      If you were to click on the IVF Success Stories link on our site, you’d find that the very first testimonial reads: “Thank you very much for your tools that were so helpful during the whole in vitro process, and are even more useful now…”

      As for shame around your IVF, I hear you and hope that we all can keep talking about the shame-piece and keep healing. I didn’t do IVF but I do remember initially feeling ashamed about the diagnosis.

      It took some work for me to realize that shame, like any other judgment that makes us suffer, is ultimately an inside job. I’ve written and talked about it quite a bit. No one can make us feel ashamed about anything unless they echo our own inner judgment
      There is of course, nothing shameful about our fertility challenges, or IVF, or Egg Donation or any other roads to healing we choose.. The clearer we ourselves become about what this “scenic road to motherhood” is really about for each of us, the less inclined we’ll be to get sucked into the black hole of shame about ANY part of it.

      You inspired me to make some of those lines more prominent and perhaps add another clearer quote/image.

      Congratulations on your family and thank you again for taking the time to comment.


  5. Gdechouette says:

    Thanks for this Julia. It really is such an important question that should be addressed. I feel like I was really rushed into my last 2 IVF’s as well as IUI’s. I blindly assumed one would work since I was lucky enough to have had success with my very first ivf four years ago.
    I am so new to the fertile heart practice but have felt some very serious changes taking place within me since I started last month. I really want to commit to this practice and go even deeper.
    There was a side of me that felt great relief when Michelle Obama’s fertility struggles came out. Perhaps it’s an orphan, but I think I harbor a deep shame for the fact that I needed any fertility assistance at all. I still struggle with who to tell and who not to tell. Just yesterday it was announced that four more women are pregnant at my workplace (in addition to the already 7), and I am told/asked daily that’s it’s “time for another”. It’s always a secret relief to hear that’s it’s not just my body messing up but others that have had problems. As I continue to shift my ideas around this with the practice, I trust that some of that shame can worked through and hopefully alleviated.
    Thank you again.

  6. Ranj84 says:

    Thanks for this insightful post, Julia. I was struck by the book as well, that Michelle was very quickly escalated to IVF, which worked the first time with both her girls. It does beg the question of whether it was necessary at all.
    Have you read Gabrielle Union’s book? I was even more struck by her words: “For three years, my body has been a prisoner of trying to get pregnant.” I felt deep sadness when I read her book, because I knew that pain as well. It was part of my turning point when I turned to you because I did not want my body to be a prisoner anymore. I wanted to feel more confident in myself and my body, and I thank you for giving me the tools to do that!

  7. hwe123 says:

    Thank you for saying this, Julia.

    This really hit me in a similar way when I read the original statement, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

    It’s a sad and ridiculous notion to say that one “HAS” to do IVF because they’ve reached the ripe old age of 34. Stained with misogyny, fear and panic, and the good old notion that someone out there in a lab coat knows better than we do about our bodies/holy human loaf. I feel so much sadness and anger for the many women trying to birth their babies through any means; what we need is community, sharing and listening, real stories of pain and healing and — these are the things that have inspired me in the past few months.

    I’ve been talking to a lot of adoptive moms lately, and also to some DE recipients. One common theme is that these parents almost always say that the child they have is the exact perfect child they were meant to have (as Julia has also said), which is always so mind-boggling to me. I seek out these stories because they are REAL and so inspiring…I don’t doubt these moms for a minute! I’m not there yet as for knowing where my second or third child will come from (although I feel closer now), but I know that by connecting to other parents who have faced this “emotionally charged life crisis”, I will find my own way through.

    More to say, but hoping to join the call tomorrow.
    Happy New Year everyone!


  8. RachelSF says:

    This is so spot on!!! I wish this could be the OpED in NYT. This conversation is so important to be having and I feel that it is lost. And even though my story has a “successful” ending bc of IVF, I still want every parent to know about alternatives, the potential consequences, the psychological experience etc.

  9. Mariamom says:

    Wow Julia, it’s amazing to hear you make these points so beautifully and clearly. I’m just reading Becoming and my acupuncturist was telling me how she read it and she was making the point that it sounds like Michelle didn’t even do the usual 3 cycles of Clomid. Why was her doctor was so anxious to move on to IVF. I also think it’s great that you were able to express your love for the Obamas and also speak up about something so many infertility professionals or just women who went through failed IVF’s must be thinking but afraid to actually say. Thank you, thank you for everything you taught me to have my babies and for all the heart you put into everything you do. Forever grateful!!!

  10. Gravid Sans Doute says:

    Thank you for this blog, Julia. For me the big picture is how do we honor ourselves and our bodies. How do we honor one another so we can all be our best and our children and other people’s children can be loved? One of the amazing things about the Fertile Heart work is constantly asking the question how do we love ourselves when the world often tries to give the impression we are not worthy?

    I have been working with meeting the Bestower of Babies imagery as explained in the teleconference and Rock the Baby Fertile Heart body truth.I have been trying to work with the orphans who prevent me from being my own best friend. That is again where the Fertile Heart work is so helpful. How can I love and parent these orphans and be my own best self?

    Blessings to all.

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