Yesterday was a red-letter day for the annals of human reproduction in this country. First, Mississippi voted on an amendment that would have defined a fertilized egg as a person. On the surface, had it passed, it would have prevented abortion in the state of Mississippi. But digging a little deeper, the measure would have outlawed many forms of contraception, including hormonal birth control and IUDs. It would have severely curtailed fertility treatments, including limiting IVF to harvesting, fertilizing, and transferring only one embryo per round. It would have had the potential to prosecute women who miscarried on their own accord as a form of homicide. Pregnant women with cancer might have been denied chemotherapy by physicians for fear of legal repercussions. Essentially, the personhood amendment (as on the ballot in Mississippi yesterday and on the ballot in other states previously, twice in Colorado) would set out to remove most reproductive and many other types choice for the citizens of Mississippi. Thankfully, the “personhood” amendment was defeated, in part because of social media campaigns conducted over Facebook and twitter to educate the citizens of Mississippi about the potential drawbacks of a “yes” vote.
Also yesterday, the country’s most famous
clown car overworked uterus multiparous woman and her husband and family, the Duggars, went on national television to announce that they are expecting baby #20. While I have a lot of personal feelings about the Duggar family and the choices they make, more than anything when I heard the announcement, it made me sad. Primarily, I’m sad because these people already have 19 children, and their four oldest daughters do a fair chunk of the child rearing. Their youngest daughter was born at 25 weeks’ gestation after Mrs. Duggar was hospitalized for pre-eclampsia. Both mom and baby were very ill for quite some time post-birth, and the little girl is not even two years old yet and still in fragile health. And now she’ll take a back burner to the next baby on the way. I’m also sad because I truly wish that everyone who wanted a baby could get pregnant as easily as this couple can. And while I find their choice repugnant, particularly under the circumstances, I still feel that everyone should have the right to make their own choices about the size of their family, how many babies to have (or not have), and how often to have them.
I kind of feel like the Duggars the same way that I feel about the Westboro Baptist Church or the KKK and the first amendment. I may hate the message and 100% disagree with what they say, but I still recognize their right to say it. Because everyone has free speech, or nobody has free speech. And everyone has the right to have 20 babies if that’s what they feel they truly must do, just like everyone has the right to have zero babies, or some number in between.
It’s possible that the reason I feel so strongly about protecting people’s choices is because, as half of an infertile couple, my choices are so limited. I’ll never have the opportunity to have more than one or two children, even if I wanted to, because it’s going to cost thousands of dollars each time we want to try to have one. Malpractice cases like Octomom or independently wealthy people like the Jolie-Pitts aside, IVF as a reproductive strategy is extremely expensive and so most people in our situation don’t have large families. I’ll never have a fun, romantic memory of conceiving a child, because our children will be conceived by other people in a lab, and my part of the process will involve a lot of shots, hormones, and medical procedures, while Dan’s will involve a specimen cup – not exactly the sort of story that will bring fond memories. If I ever post a photo of a pregnancy test, it will be after months of preparation, several uncomfortable weeks of needles, and several days of nail biting and worrying that all the money we’ve spent will have been for nothing – not the casual and hopeful, excited environment I imagine it must be for most people who pee on a stick and see two pink lines.
No, when it comes to fertility, our options are not like those of most people. We can choose to buy a house sometime in the next ten years, or try for a baby. We can choose to travel, or we can try for a baby. We can choose to try to transfer any potential frozen embryos we might get out of an IVF cycle if it doesn’t work the first time. We can choose to donate embryos we decide not to use. And that’s about it. So when I see people’s choices under attack, it gets me pretty riled up, because nature’s already taken away the choices of a whole lot of people who really want babies. How can the people of Mississippi think it’s OK to legislate what a medical professional can do to help infertile or subfertile people have desperately wanted children? Why should a collection of cells that is not even yet implanted in a uterine wall have more rights than an already-born person? and nobody should have to carry an unwanted fetus, period, whether it be because a woman is physically, emotionally, or financially (or some combination of all three) incapable of doing so.
The other choice I have as half of an infertile couple is how to respond to pregnancy and birth announcements by people in my life. As the months and years have passed since we started trying to have a baby, I’ve realized that more and more, I’m far more interested and excited when someone who has struggled is finally able to make that announcement. For example, I cheer every time someone undergoing fertility treatment is successful in achieving pregnancy, and I’m thrilled when I see an announcement on Facebook or a blog post about it. Because when it’s difficult to become pregnant or to stay pregnant, every success story feels like a victory in the ongoing battle we people who want kids and can’t have them without medical intervention are fighting on a daily basis. We’re mostly a silent minority for a variety of reasons, which is understandable, but I think the fertile people in our lives who will never, ever understand what it is like to be in our situation need to hear our voices more often.
Tonight, friends of ours who struggled for years to get pregnant and to stay pregnant met their daughter for the first time. I hadn’t been that excited and happy about someone else’s kid being born in a long time, and I think it’s because all the other babies born to people we know since we started trying were born to people who didn’t struggle to get or stay pregnant. The ability to conceive and gestate easily is something that most of humanity takes for granted (and, in fact, is an unwanted gift some of the time). I wish that more people would realize just how lucky they are to be able to stop using birth control and get pregnant after a cycle or a few cycles of trying. The emotional roller coaster of wanting a baby and hoping for a baby and the excitement or disappointment of success or failure takes its toll after a while. Imagine feeling those same feelings of disappointment when it doesn’t work for years, and even after you know WHY it doesn’t work a tiny part of you still has hope every month that it might, even when the deepest part of you knows that, save an act of deity in which you do not believe or a startling medical breakthrough, it won’t. And then, yet again, you’re proven right, time after time and month after month.
I reserve the right of all infertile couples to have mixed feelings when people in our lives announce pregnancies. We can be happy for them while still wishing we could be so lucky. We can wish them safe, easy pregnancies and healthy babies while still feeling the unfairness of the roller coaster, when each month, each dip, feels a little lower. I reserve the right to wish that everyone who has it easy could understand that the best way to announce a pregnancy is not to make a joke about babies being gross (because we know they’re gross, and we want one anyway, and that doesn’t make it better) or to try to sugar coat it (because nothing will make it better for us but time and achieving pregnancy ourselves), but to just say hey. We’re going to have a baby. We’re excited, and we hope you are too. Because we’ll be excited for you, on our own terms and our own time. We’ll be excited for the multiparous families who seem to get pregnant at the drop of a hat, just as we’re excited for the people more like us, who have to struggle through difficult times before they finally get to where they’d like to be. Many of our choices have been stripped from us, so please don’t take this one. Tell us simply, and let us have time to process. Because we don’t want to be angry or bitter about other people’s babies, other people’s pregnancies.
If I’ve learned nothing else during all this time of wanting and not having, I’ve learned that reproduction is not a zero sum game. Michelle Duggar’s next Jfetus has no bearing on whether or not someone else can have a baby, and so curtailing her reproductive choice would not do anyone else any good. I would hate if we lived in a world where a family could not decide for themselves how many children were too many, whether that be zero or 50. It would be tragic if a woman with cancer was considered less important than the fetus she carried, if a family could not choose to end a wanted pregnancy if a fetus were incompatible with life and waiting to miscarry naturally would bring more complications and potential health risks to the mother. Nobody should have to worry about whether or not they might go to jail if they need a D&C after a missed miscarriage in order to not get an infection. Nobody should have to worry about having more children than they want, or to be unable to choose how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. And people for whom conception and pregnancy are easy should realize that the people in your lives who want kids and don’t yet have them may need time to process before they can congratulate you on your big news.