Stop the Infertility Bashing and Let’s Win the Public Relations War
I’ve noticed it for a while, but it seems to be getting worse and also a little scary. And I don’t think any other field in medicine, even plastic surgery, comes under the degree of intense scrutiny that infertility does. Maybe I have this perspective because I’ve been working in infertility public relations for almost 14 years, so I remember when it was relatively easy to get positive media coverage for the clinics and organizations with which I worked. Reporters gladly interviewed happy families with their miracle babies and wrote uplifting articles about the wonders of assisted reproductive medicine. In general, the press lauded the infertility field’s accomplishments as progress. There would be the occasional blip, i.e., the “cloning” crisis or the birth of the McCaughey septuplets, but we were able to turn those debacles into teachable moments, especially in Massachusetts where we could discuss the merits of mandated infertility insurance coverage that discouraged the inappropriate use of less costly, self-pay procedures that resulted in higher order multiples.
Losing Control of the Message
But those were the days before self-inflicted wounds like Octomom, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, and the rogue agencies that excessively compensate egg donors and before controlling health care costs was on everyone’s mind. Now newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur, the media in general is veering towards tabloid sensationalism and the Internet allows everyone to express an opinion, whether informed or misinformed. Somewhere along the way a seismic shift occurred in both media and public perception that infertility treatment in general and infertility treatment insurance coverage in particular are actually problematic for society and are a cause of the rising cost of health care. The message of joy about creating families, (not to mention that family growth stimulates the economy and creates the next generation of workers to fund Social Security, etc.) has become lost. The tone has become decidedly unsympathetic. No, I don’t have statistics from a media watchdog organization and, yes, positive exposure still is happening in all parts of the country and on national outlets, but my gut feeling says that the amount of negative bashing is on the rise.
This is especially true in Massachusetts where the landmark, 22-year-old Massachusetts Infertility Mandate has been under attack in recent months from the likes of now Senator Scott Brown and with the recent publication of a front-page Boston Globe article about health insurers noticing a trend of individuals buying health insurance coverage a few months before they need “…an expensive elective procedure that can be planned ahead, such as knee or hip replacements or fertility treatments.”
It is bad enough that the Globe article (http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/04/04/short_term_customers_boosting_health_costs/) was full of holes and did not have any input from patients or professionals in the field, but what is even more disturbing are the very harsh public comments that follow the article. The posts ranged from calling infertility treatment a lifestyle choice to… denying it is a medical condition..deriding how much it costs to.. making it seem like the health care crisis would be solved and all medical ethical dilemmas would vanish if society banned infertility treatments. But these comments are not new. We have all seen them. What bothers me is that this is becoming the norm and that no other medical issue receives this type of derision.
So how did the infertility field go from being miracle worker to health care scapegoat? How can a group that represents only 1 in 8 people of reproductive age garner the support it needs? I have outlined the problem, but what are the solutions?
Evoking Empathy and Rallying the Public
There is a bright side to this public relations crisis. The infertility community, led by patient organizations like RESOLVE of New England, RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, and the American Fertility Association, has organized and become connected in more ways than ever before. RESOLVE of New England has been on the forefront of leading the campaign to update the definition of infertility in the Massachusetts Infertility Mandate so that insurance companies do not use outdated language to deny coverage for recurrent pregnancy losses or to reset the clock that delays treatment for women over 35.This year’s National Infertility Awareness Week was a tour de force example of using the power of both social and mainstream media to let the public know that infertility is a medical condition deserving attention, resources and empathy.The AFA has broken new ground by publicizing infertility prevention awareness among 20-something women as well as GLBT family building. Countless bloggers and Twitter and Facebook participants have rallied to spread the word about infertility news stories and have willingly shared their own stories to make the public cognizant of their struggles. Fertility clinics, egg donation and surrogacy agencies and other fertility providers have been involved at both the local and regional levels. There is a lot to celebrate.
Internally our community seems to be more united and organized than ever before. But there are many concentric circles of support around us, comprised of individuals who may be waiting for us to ask them for help. We need to step beyond our usual comfort zone and reach out to them. How? First, let’s rally the men and women who have previously battled infertility. Many clinics keep lists of former patients, especially those who have succeeded in conceiving children. They represent the first group of individuals who would support the Massachusetts Infertility Mandate, which helped them build their families. Next, consider our family members, all those would be grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and dear friends. These are people who love someone who is experiencing infertility. Then among the population at large are the truly empathetic — those who understand that their children are their most precious gifts, want others to be able to experience that same joy, and realize that putting families first is the best investment society can make. Support and advocacy groups for other medical conditions and diseases like breast cancer and HIV/AIDs are organized around this model of support for both public relations and fund raising.
So when we add the numbers, we are way more than 1 in 8. The support is there for the asking. We only need to mobilize what is already there.
This post was published in the RESOLVE of New England newsletter in 2010.