Precious progeny of a Petri dish
This is the true story of IVF, writes Antonella Gambotto- Burke
EUROPEAN Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology data reveals that more than three million in- vitro fertilisation babies have been born across the world since the first in 1978. Last year, about 4 per cent of Australian births ( 10,000 babies) were conceived in Petri dishes. And it is predicted that within 25 years — and partly because of the established global trend for delayed motherhood — one in three Australian births will involve IVF.
Nichola Bedos, the widely published psychotherapist and infant mental health specialist, has written IVF & Ever After: The Emotional Needs of Families , a superb examination of, and guide through, the intense emotional impact of IVF on parents and their miracle children.
We learn that one in six Australian couples is infertile. More than 41,000 IVF cycles begin in Australia each year and the overall 21 per cent success rate vaults to 35 per cent of all processes begun by those under 40.
For those considering treatment, skilled psychological support is critical: emotional complexities must be explored before IVF is attempted. Bedos observes: ‘‘ Arriving at the door of an infertility clinic without having reflected on the feelings evoked by a diagnosis of infertility can be disastrous.’’
The aftermath of successful and unsuccessful IVF cycles not only affects the immediate family but a wider circle of relatives and, ultimately, the community at large. Because of the increasingly effective technology, infertile and older couples, carriers of genetic abnormalities and same- sex couples can become biological families. The problem? Funnelled through prejudice, IVF has the potential to hurt humanity.
‘‘ If IVF could produce the gender requested by parents for cultural reasons, it could also lead to serious shifts in the make- up of a society,’’ Bedos writes. ‘‘ In this instance, we ( would be) able to achieve scientific change that may not necessarily benefit us as a species.’’
IVF, she reminds us, presents challenges on many levels — medico- legal, ethical, religious, emotional and physical — for parents and their children, who may later contend with issues about their genetic heritage and sense of identity. The issues are anything but minor. Last year, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare found the IVF baby death rate is twice that of the naturally conceived: one in 50 is stillborn or dies within a month. And there are greater risks of early labor, premature birth, lower birth weight and chronic conditions such as cerebral palsy.
Women who pursue the process are saddled with such unnerving possibilities. Bedos notes that parents undergoing IVF are nine times likelier than non- IVF parents to produce twins. More than 50 per cent of women using IVF struggle to care for their newborns after Caesareans. More than half of all IVF mothers switch to bottle feeding in the first three months, citing failure to establish a good milk supply. IVF parents experience what Bedos calls ‘‘ a pervasive fear of loss’’, kindled before the IVF process.
She writes that IVF parents often suffer a lack of confidence in their parenting skills and are three times likelier to seek help from parenting centres. Invasive IVF procedures can create a sense of loss of ownership of the body, and sexual intimacy can be corroded or distressingly defused. Because of the high level of scientific interference, IVF mothers can also feel unrelated to their babies, which is a serious threat to the self- esteem of parents and children.
The stress hormone levels of women undergoing IVF treatment have been shown to be similar to those with a life- threatening illness and this becomes an obstacle to effective living. Maternal stress hormones cross the placenta, infiltrating the fetal bloodstream. Studies have shown that this affects the baby and leads to a more sensitive, or difficult, newborn. There is also evidence that anxiety causes premature birth. Bedos deals intelligently with all these issues and her counsel is never patronising.
Bedos knows from experience that whatever concerns surround infertility, couples face tensions that can derail the strongest relationships. Grieving couples are irritable and likely to react strongly to even the slightest negative comment, and anger, too, may quickly compound so that evenings become wars between partners needing to vent. The solution? Counselling before, during and after IVF treatment. In some cases, psychotherapeutic help is seen as a critical component of the IVF process.
Arguably a world first, IVF & Ever After is destined to become a parenting classic. Bedos’s lucidity and talent for simplifying complex philosophical issues all contribute to her psychotherapeutic impact, but ultimately it is her generosity that reels in readers.
Her receptivity to emotional reactions so subtle that they escaped the attention of international experts for more than 20 years qualifies her as an authority in the field. Importantly, she believes in the wider significance of the family unit and in preserving it as a locus of comfort and nurturing for all its members. Antonella Gambotto- Burke’s website is www. antonellagambotto. com.