How are we okay with IVF contests? Vegas Baby

When I hear of documentaries relating to alternative ways of making a family, my heart beats a little faster. Could this be the time that someone actually shows the reality? That shows it with empathy? That makes a difference?

I saw “Vegas Baby” mentioned in a really supportive Facebook group I browse each week, it was out on Netflix and everyone instructed that we should have tissues handy.

However it turned out I didn’t need just tissues. I needed someone to hold me back from instagram stories (yep that emotional rant) and a hammer to take my anger out on a brick. Vegas Baby should be watched at the minimum with a supportive hand to hold, and a friendly ear to offload to afterwards. It’s was a pretty sickening watch to me and here’s why.

I’m not mad at the film maker. She has shown the human side of a complicated and inhumane story. Shown the reality for vulnerable patients caught up in the profit driven world of fertility.

The film documents a competition held each year by the Sher Fertility Institute to give away a free cycle of IVF. Sounds good right? What could be wrong with someone being given the chance at parenthood a world where so many people are priced out of their chance of pregnancy?

Well the big difference is that this wasn’t done with any altruism. The founder of the clinic admits in the film his priority is to use this to advertise the clinic. Desperate American couples (and if you thought I think the costs of IVF in the UK are high, that seems to be nothing compared to America if they can’t get it on their insurance) have to submit a video publicly on youtube, explaining why they need their IVF to enter. Knowing they are up against many other just as deserving patients, they pour their heart into it. Mr Patlan, who worked for the Catholic Institute, even puts his job on the line by talking publicly about their wish for a baby this way. Yes people don’t have to enter but the majority felt this was their only hope. They couldn’t afford it otherwise. 

The clinic then holds a judging panel to go through each video, judging on whether they have “a good story” and who the treatment is most likely to work for. A successful outcome is, after all, much better PR.

At one point we see Dr Sher trying to persuade his colleagues that the winner should be decided via a public internet vote. A popularity contest over someones dreams to become a family. For treatment for their medical condition. For some their last hope in desperate financial situations. Thankfully the infertility advocate present argues against this, but at least one of the competition rounds was apparently judged by popularity on facebook. It makes me sick to think this could happen. That people were okay with this? The clinics Director of Communications is reported to have said that making it a video contest would “create connectivity between people who are feeling alone and suffering from infertility”. I say people can share their stories publicly if they wish. I do. But making them do that for a competition and part of a marketing ploy? Taking advantage.

Have you ever watched Ellie and Jared on YouTube? They were successful in their fertility treatment and very sweetly saved up to be able to fund a cycle to someone else. Now I’ve no doubt their heart was in the right place BUT applicants had to submit their case via video to enter, there was a public vote. We all needed to give our favourite couple the “thumbs up” on YouTube. Something stuck with me though. If you really want to help someone to pay for their IVF, from the depth of your heart, then why make this a public vote? Why put people through that? Why not contact a local clinic and set up funding a cycle that way? Why not make it a lottery at worst where at least the chance is equal and not going to be judged on who had the best video skills, who looks like they could be a good parent, who is most likeable on camera. In the end they managed to fund all of the finalists, which is amazing, but if they couldn’t have. What effect could that have had on those people? And what of those people who didn’t make it to the finals? They’ve shared their intimate story and hopes publicly, which maybe they wouldn’t have done if they had known it wouldn’t come to anything.

People watched it, joined in, discussed who was more deserving from their living rooms. Clicked the like button for the one they felt deserved their chance at a family most. But what if this was turned around.

Infertility is caused by disease for many of us. There was no lifestyle choice. It’s a medical condition. If someone had a heart condition, would all of these people be comfortable voting for who should win a new heart? With making those patients, going through emotional and physical turmoil, share their innermost thoughts and private story with millions on the internet? To beg to a camera “please vote for me, its our only hope”? I wouldn’t be.

But this is part of the problem. Fertility has very much become an industry. There is huge money to be made. Not just from the profit on regular IUI’s and IVF’s but also on “add-on” treatments. Treatments with not enough research to be certain if they make a difference but for a few hundred or thousand pounds more could it be the thing that makes it work this time? Clinics who charge a different amount to private patients than it does to the NHS to win the repeat business.

Scans that take half an hour but cost us £200. Blood tests that involved 2 vials costing over £300. A biopsy I’m on my way to today costing me £540 compared to the £800 I was quoted for one blood test for the same test.

We have the HFEA regulator. Meant to ensure patients are treated fairly but putting out the barest guidance. A government who ignores the need to pass laws to regulate this issue and hides away because it knows part of the answer could be for the NHS to step up for these patients. I’m not against anyone who is skilled in their job being paid for that. What I find difficult is that people are being allowed to make money from vulnerable people, at a critical and desperate time in their life, when they feel they have no other option. When their only route is to go private because depending on your county in the UK, you probably won’t get NHS funding for it. Human Rights Courts have even ruled that not allowing IVF violated the rights to private and family life, to personal integrity, to sexual health, to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress, and the principle of non-discrimination*.

Thankfully the contest is no longer held but it will only be a matter of time before a new contest pops up over someones fertility. How is it that society has been okay with a panel of strangers deciding who can have a baby and who cannot? It’s what happens every day  in the UK when women seek NHS funding for their fertility diseases. Will you speak out against it?

I’m a big supporter of Fertility Network UK, please go and show them a little support as a non-profit charity trying to support and make a change for us all. You can also find videos from TTC-ers over on Fertility Network UK

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