With increasing rates of infertility and higher average rates of maternal age, people are turning to assisted reproductive technologies (ART) like in vitro fertilization (IVF) more than ever. More than 8 million babies have been born since the first IVF pregnancy in 1978. Recognizing the emotional agony of dealing with trouble conceiving, it makes sense why IVF is becoming so widely used. IVF provides a glimmer of hope for couples who have faced numerous cycles of negative pregnancy tests. But recently, some light has been shed on less positive aspects of the ART industry, revealing inflated success rates, maternal and fetal health risks, and high-profit margins.
Overinflated Rates of Success
While couples trying to conceive with IVF are hoping for the birth of a healthy baby, and many fertility clinics advertise positive success rates, the fact is that most couples using IVF will not experience a live birth. According to the CDC’s latest data on IVF, only about a quarter of those who attempt IVF experience pregnancy, and even fewer lead to a live birth. To quote the CDC report, “about 27% of cycles using fresh embryos from fresh nondonor eggs that were started in 2016 resulted in clinical pregnancy… approximately 81% of the pregnancies resulting from ART cycles using fresh embryos from fresh nondonor eggs in 2016 produced a live birth… [and] about 18% of pregnancies resulted in miscarriage, stillbirth, induced abortion, or maternal death prior to birth.”
Unfortunately, many couples trying to conceive with IVF hear different figures in clinic advertising. In a 2017 analysis of IVF advertising language, the National Institute for Health Research in the UK found “that success rates are advertised on 67% of IVF clinic websites, and many of these may be highly misleading, because clinics can cherry-pick their results from a dizzying array of options.” The researchers concluded that “even if clinics are acting in good faith, the current system does not produce clear or reliable information for the people that need it.”
It is worth noting that the intentions behind patients seeking IVF are often well placed. Infertility is an extremely painful and difficult experience. But if the ART industry provides patients with overstated stats of success and makes promises they may not be able to keep, they are doing a disservice to couples. Perhaps worst of all, in overstating success rates, IVF clinics often gloss over the risks of the procedures.
Health Risks and Birth Defects from IVF
One of the factors often touted to couples using IVF is that you can choose the “healthiest and hardiest” embryo from a selection of options. You can even choose the biological sex. While most couples going through IVF merely want a healthy baby, period, more research is revealing fetal risks in IVF, suggesting that assisted reproductive technology is still refining its original purpose—that is, to help produce healthy babies for families.
To preface, there is no such thing as a defective child; but parents of IVF-conceived children deserve to know this data so they can be informed of health issues their children may have now or in the future, so they may best care for them.
Infants conceived via IVF have an increased risk of birth defects, chromosomal abnormalities, and even hypertension later on in life. It’s worth noting that these defects may not be a direct result of the IVF itself but rather the sub-optimal fertility conditions the mother experienced to begin with.
There are also very real maternal risks associated with IVF. The process for the female is quite invasive, involving at home shot administration of hormone treatments, stimulative ovarian drugs called gonadotropins, catheter process for harvesting eggs and another one for transferring them. Exposure to hormonal therapy artificially raises estrogen levels which is tied to thicker breast tissue density which raises the risk of breast cancer. If the woman took hormonal contraceptives at any point prior, their risk is even higher. Due to the stimulative ovarian drugs, IVF patients are a third more likely to develop ovarian cancer. IVF pregnancies themselves have higher risks of preterm labor, maternal hemorrhage, and gestational diabetes.
The physical health risks for women trying IVF are only part of the picture. Trying to conceive without IVF is an emotional roller coaster; add in steroid hormone injections, and you end up on a long (and expensive) journey exposing women to a higher risk for depression and anxiety. If the process fails, which it does for most, women are left emotionally and financially depleted.
Misinformation in the IVF Industry
Dr. Naomi Whittaker shared with Natural Womanhood last year how IVF differs from other medical procedures. For most conditions, doctors ask patients about the symptoms that brought them in to seek care. But in the infertility industry, Dr. Whittaker says, providers focus instead “on which cash-pay procedure the patient can afford.”
Dr. Whittaker explains:
Here are the words many couples hear when they walk into an REI clinic (Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Specialist): “You haven’t been able to get pregnant. Well, we could go straight to IVF or you could try IUI (intrauterine insemination) first to get a discounted rate on IVF.” “Look at this chart of how your egg number is drastically declining with age.” Urgency, fear of one’s inadequacy and need for a quick solution rush over the woman who has held one negative pregnancy test after another.
An anonymous woman echoed this concern in sharing her personal IVF experience, “When couples struggling to conceive approach an infertility clinic for help, they’re not just patients seeing a doctor: they’re also healthcare consumers navigating a billion-dollar industry. All too often, they’re also sucked onto a moving sidewalk designed to effortlessly take them from one intervention to another, without stopping to heal their spirits, discern their options, or possibly close their wallets.”
Effective, Healthy Alternatives to IVF
As mentioned earlier, the health defects children conceived with IVF are exposed to may not be a direct result of the IVF itself but rather the sub-optimal fertility conditions in the mother’s body. To cover up the root fertility issue with artificial hormones to induce a pregnancy reminds me of how the modern medical world treats other reproductive women’s health issues like PCOS or irregular periods—covering up the root fertility issue with artificial hormones to simulate a normal cycle.
It turns out the infertility industry isn’t much different in strategy. They can work around the symptoms but when it comes to getting to the root? Well, that’s a much more trying journey. Admittedly, science doesn’t always have an answer for things, and infertility is one of them. Medical practitioners certified in NaProTECHNOLOGY and Fertility Education & Medical Management (FEMM) are starting to ask the right questions, and they can identify some root causes like endometriosis, PCOS, and progesterone deficiency. But answers aren’t always easy and can take a long time to identify and treat. In contrast, IVF gives an easy workaround to the mysterious question—why aren’t I getting pregnant?
While still not perfect, medical organizations that use health data provided by Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABM) together with medical interventions are working hard to provide alternative options to IVF. Such organizations include NaProTECHNOLOGY (based on the Creighton Method) and FEMM, which work to get to the root of why conception isn’t happening naturally. For instance, many women struggle to conceive due to a progesterone deficiency. An evaluation that measures progesterone at different times of the cycle can identify the deficit and lead to a treatment plan with bioidentical hormones that will reduce the chance of miscarriages and provide what the woman’s body needs to carry the baby to term.
IVF was originally created to aid couples in conceiving in the case of fallopian tube disorders and male subfertility. Between 1978 and 2003, one million babies were born via IVF. In the short span between 2003 and 2005, a second million were born. It is likely that IVF is being applied in unnecessary medical situations—that is, when other medical interventions could possibly treat an underlying cause of infertility. While unexplained infertility is still all too prevalent, at least FABM organizations are starting to ask the right questions.
Charting your cycles and their biomarkers is only the beginning of the process. The right medical practitioner is able to utilize your FABM charts along with lab work, a basic hormonal profile, and sometimes ultrasound images to see what could be hindering the conception process. Some diagnostic and treatment plans involve pharmacological interventions, while others require minor tweaks to your daily routine and adding in supplemental remedies—both on the female and male side. But what all of the fertility-awareness solutions share in common is that they always start from the question why—why isn’t conception happening.
That is the beauty of using a Fertility Awareness-Based Method to diagnose and treat health issues: why is it always the first and foremost question. It may not always be easy—or in some cases even possible—to find a concise answer. But we’re starting to find answers—life-changing answers for couples—and we wouldn’t find any answers if we didn’t try. We are grateful that the tides are turning a little bit and women are demanding better care for better results.
While the pain and challenges of infertility are incalculable, we owe it to couples to seek the best medical results, not just quickly attempted results. To pursue better results, medical professionals must always begin with a basis of informed consent of the risks and success rates. On top of that, we serve patients better if we seek the why behind their diagnosis and treat them as a whole person deserving of healing.