Implanting Ideas: How the Octuplet Coverage Shapes Your Views on IVF

8 years ago

The coverage of Nadya Suleman's octuplets has been like fingernails on a chalkboard--especially the misuse of the term implant concerning embryos. The verb choice may not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things (I mean, am I missing the point that the woman just had 8 children--8!--who cares what verb they use?), but I actually think the words used are just as damaging to the general public's understanding of infertility as the actual act itself.

Out of the 50 or so stories I've read over the last few weeks concerning the octuplets, the only source that has gotten the correct terminology is People magazine. Seriously. It felt a little Alice in Wonderland when People magazine was using the correct terminology and the New York Times had it all wrong. In fact, they didn't just have it all wrong--they had it all wrong on purpose as per a quote by New York Times reporter, Stephanie Saul:

We had an internal discussion about whether to use the term "implant" or "transfer." We decided to use the word "implant" because, to the average reader who is not well-schooled in the terminology surrounding in-vitro fertilization, it is an accurate description of what happens. The average person does not really understand what "transfer" means in this context.

Apparently, People magazine believes that they have a more intelligent readership than the New York Times. That, or the New York Times is greatly underestimating their own.

It's a switch of a single verb, but it has major implications in the way the general public views IVF as well as other fertility treatments. Embryos during IVF are transferred to the uterus, placed inside the organ with the hope that it will adhere to the uterine wall and grow for nine months. Embryos cannot be implanted, a verb that bypasses the reality of chance and success and hides the limitations of the procedure.

Why is the correct term important to the 7.3 million Americans who are currently diagnosed with infertility; even those who will use other fertility treatments to build their families and will never utilize IVF?

Peruse the comment section on any recent newspaper article concerning infertility and you will see vehement opposition to assisted reproductive technology. These opinions, more often than not, are formed based on media coverage of infertility topics rather than experience. The main argument that repeats is variations on the theme of control.

The idea of control is easy to see when you consider the picture the wrong verb paints in the mind of the average reader. If doctors can implant embryos, it follows that people believe that doctors currently have control as to which children are born. This couldn't be farther from the truth.

Fertility treatments are meant to circumvent fertility issues by mimicking what occurs in a well-functioning body. In other words, it is the equivalent to having a tutor in school--it is meant to enhance reality and not create an unnatural state. Unless intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) is used, millions of sperm have a chance to fertilize the egg albeit in a dish rather than inside the uterus. Not all eggs fertilize, creating the first stage of attrition. Not all embryos make it to transfer, arresting in the petri dish, creating the second stage of attrition. Finally, the embryo is transferred to the uterus where, just like all women who conceive without assistance, it is up to the uterus to create the optimal environment (drugs can encourage an optimal environment--they can't create said environment) and the embryo to adhere itself to the uterine wall. Implantation cannot be manipulated at this point in time because too many factors exist--from the uterine lining to the pinopodes used to attach the embryo to the lining--for doctors to wrest control from the body and nature itself.

Doctors can simply place the embryos in the body and hope just like everyone else that a pregnancy continues with the birth of a child nine months later. See--IVF isn't that different from unassisted reproduction if you take out that whole fertilized-outside-the-body part.

And yet, because the word circumvents the limitations of fertility treatments, those choosing not to pursue treatments or leave the path of treatments are met with incredulity that someone wouldn't utilize this "sure thing." How many times have those choosing to resolve their infertility by living child-free heard the term "give up" as in "why are you giving up on treatments?" Giving up implies that there will be success if one plugs away long enough in the situation. Those choosing adoption as a first or later path to parenthood are questioned about why they're not giving fertility treatments a chance (care to explain uterine anomalies and loss rates with Aunt Jane?). While treatments can help many, there are no procedures in place at this time that can circumvent all fertility issues.

I think it is detrimental to the health and well-being of those undergoing fertility treatments when they enter the clinic with the same expectations held by the general public. It is too easy to approach fertility treatments with blinders on, trying the next thing and the next thing and the next thing without considering the larger implications of these choices--namely mental, physical, and financial health. And yet, when you believe that most will have success with fertility treatments, it is difficult to walk away regardless of what else you are losing in the moment.

It is understandable if journalists are simplifying a process or removing medical jargon from a news story in order to make it more accessible for someone outside the experience with limited knowledge about assisted reproductive technologies. But trading the word "transfer" for "implant" doesn't remove an uncommon term in favour for one more well-known. It is sloppy writing, saying something the author doesn't mean at all. And, in turn, the reader does not get a factual presentation of the procedure.

Due to my background, I can spot these mistakes within an article on fertility. At the same time, it makes me wonder how many other medically-based articles I've walked away from without truly understanding the nature of the disease or procedure. What else have I been overpromised by the media in regards to my health?

Others have also weighed in with commentary on the misuse of the term "implant"--both for and against its usage.

I Want to be a Mommy is frustrated over the misuse of the word, stating,

I know that the general public often don't know the in's and out's of fertility treatment but all the misleading information or quotes flying around are maddening. If the media would at least use the right terms which they can research easily enough, maybe there wouldn't be so many people who thought IVF was a sure thing and that everyone doing it was bound to end up with at least one if not two take home babies.

Our Own Creation points out how simple it would be to use the correct term. "If they could be implanted, it would be a whole lot easier. Why can’t interviewers on major network news shows just check with an RE to see if their questions are valid/correct before actually interviewing someone about their fertility procedure?"

A Little Pregnant makes an argument for allowing the media to use the term implant, explaining, "Within our own echo chamber, we can all agree that we're right. And we are right. Transfer is a better word. It's just such an esoteric point that no one else on the planet cares, not even a little."

As journalists continue to write about Nadya Suleman and the eight babies, it would be helpful for the general public's understanding to choose a word more closely aligned with transfer. Journalists can write about how doctors placed six embryos in her uterus if they believe the reader cannot understand the concept of transfer. And once we get the terminology correct, readers will have the tools to correctly form their opinion on the ethics of IVF.

Melissa is the author of the infertility and pregnancy loss blog, Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters. She keeps a categorized blogroll of 1700 infertility blogs and writes the daily Lost and Found and Connections Abound, a news source for the infertility blogosphere. Her infertility book, Navigating the Land of If, is forthcoming from Seal Press in June 2009.

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