IVF Give-Away Contest Controversy

Dawn Davenport


infertility ethicsTwo weeks ago I was asked to judge a video contest put on by Sher Fertility Clinics to give away a free IVF cycle. I hemmed and hawed for a while. They aren’t a Creating a Family sponsor so I felt no obligation. And Lord knows, I didn’t have the time. In the end I thought, what the heck, I already “waste” a fair amount of time watching and reading infertility and adoption journeys online, so I might as well help a clinic and some lucky couple while I’m at it. I’m a big believer in paying it backward. Sher is an active member of the online Twitter and Facebook professional infertility community. On occasion they’ve retweeted my educational posts, so why not help them if it isn’t too much trouble.  Besides, it would give a little bit of publicity to Creating a Family, and that couldn’t hurt us either.

In truth, it took much more time than I had anticipated. Somehow the whole 45+ (# of videos) x 5 (minutes) part of the equation escaped me when I was feeling magnanimous in agreeing. (Math never was my strong suit!) I’m also an incurable optimist on how much I can get done in any given week. I think I’m more efficient than I really am.

I also underestimated how hard it would be to decide. I made a list of five criteria for judging then started watching and ranking the videos whenever I needed a break at work. Turns out I don’t take as many breaks at work as I thought, so I had to set aside 45 or so minutes at the end of a couple of days to catch-up. My plan was to have my five finalists picked at this point. My plan did not account for the majority of the videos scoring so close together– making it impossible to select just five. So I added a few additional criteria and watched most of them again. Better, but I still had way more than five. Sigh. I finally whittled my selection down, but was still angsting over whether # 6 and 7 should actually be #4 and 5 until I finally hit “send”.  The finalists from our stage of judging were then voted on by members of the Sher Facebook group. I gladly skipped that vote. I was happy to hear that the clinic eventually awarded three of the couples a free IVF cycle. You can watch the winning videos here.

While I have problems with the overall cost of IVF, the significant regional variations in cost, and especially the lack of health insurance coverage for this medical treatment, I did not have any significant ethical or moral qualms about this contest.  Apparently mine is not a universal view. (Imagine my surprise since I am so used to universal acceptance!?!).  If you’d rather skip the part about the controversy, feel free, but please please skip to the bottom and read what I think is the heart of this blog.

Time Magazine ran an online article about this contest titled: Baby Contest: Couples Compete for Free IVF — Is This Exploitation or Generosity? Exploitation?? Wow! Others in the infertility community have chimed in with their own criticism as well.  This controversy feels a bit of a tempest in a teapot to me.

Bonnie Rochman, who by the way is a terrific science writer, in Time wrote: “For the three winners, it was fabulous. For the others, it must have felt like yet another loss. And for the rest of us — watching these tales of woe on our computer screens — it felt undeniably voyeuristic.”

No doubt the winners were happy and the losers were disappointed, but I don’t see the voyeurism.  Or, perhaps the better way to say it is that these videos were no more voyeuristic that the average infertility blog or video that are posted by the thousands each week. I suppose reading about someone else’s life has a voyeuristic quality, but nowadays we call it a blog if online and a memoir if in print. I assume some people read my blog in part to catch a glimpse of my life and me as a person. In fact, blogs which share little of the blogger’s personal story, such as purely educational type blogs, have a hard time attracting readers.

IVF Give-Away Contest Controversy

IVF Give-Away Contest Controversy

Keiko, over at The Infertility Voice equated this contest to gambling and said, “there are some things on which I just won’t gamble. For me? That’s anything related to my family, whether it’s my husband, our marriage, or our future children.” (The great pic is from her blog.)

While I love Keiko’s blog and am a regular reader, I don’t get the gambling analogy in this situation, or more accurately, I feel that this contest is no more gambling than what we routinely do in life. Gambling for me is when you give something of significant value on the hope of getting something of much greater value, but the odds of getting the something greater are small. The only thing the couples that entered the contest gave up was some time and some hope. Although a few of the videos clearly reflected a significant time commitment, none looked like the applicant had paid to have it made.

While I’m the first to acknowledge that time has a value, we each “gamble” our time daily on things where the odds are against success, and each person has to decide how much hope they are willing to invest/gamble. I am in the process of researching grants for Creating a Family.  I will spend a significant amount of time (and hope) applying for these grants with considerable less odds of winning than 3/45+. Next year one of my kids will spend a huge hunk of time, hope, and not an insubstantial amount of money applying for colleges. I’ll encourage her to stretch and try for some schools were the odds of acceptance are significantly against her. I always encourage my kids to try for the team they might not make and ask out the girl that might not say yes.  Life is all about the gamble of time and hope. I want to readily and even eagerly participate in these gambles because the alternative is to never try and never reach beyond what is certain. I hope the couples who participated felt the same way.

The Time article also said: “[T]he contest is also a gambit, an unapologetic marketing ploy. Physicians like Geoffrey Sher recognize that their services are elective, much like those of plastic surgeons, who have also been known to host giveaways; in an increasingly crowded field, they have to promote themselves if they want to pack their waiting rooms.”

Yes, this contest was definitely part of Sher’s marketing, and they never hid this motivation. That was the part I struggled with the most before agreeing to be a judge—not whether it was ethical for Sher to give away the IVF cycles as a marketing strategy, but whether I should spend my limited time to help them attract this publicity. In the end I decided that the upside of helping a couple (or as it turns out three couples) access IVF, spreading goodwill amongst my fellow infertility professional online community, and whatever publicity came our way at Creating a Family was worth my time.  (I underestimated the time, but that was my own ignorance and no fault of the clinic.)

Terri Davidson, the Fertility Marketing Maven at Davidson Communications with over 16 years’ experience at marketing for infertility clinics (and a darn nice and thoughtful person), addressed this criticism of the Sher IVF contest. And as always, she said it best.

Of course, they were going to use this contest for marketing and publicity. Every health care provider markets; it’s naive to think they don’t. But marketing also promotes education and public awareness. Marketing is not a dirty word. …But here we are debating about the nuances of this so-called controversy, when instead we should be focusing on why only 14 states in the United States have mandated infertility insurance coverage and why residents of the other states have to enter contests, lotteries, giveaways, instead of being able to access the infertility treatment they deserve. That’s the real controversy.

All together now: Amen.

Now, at long last I get to the heart of this blog. As I was preparing for this week’s Creating a Family radio show, I was actually thinking about this contest before I heard about the controversy. The show was on Lower Cost Infertility Treatment and one of our guests was Dr. Joe Massey, a Reproductive Endocrinologist and co-founder of the Servy Massey Fertility Institute.  Prior to starting this clinic a few years ago, Dr. Massey co-founded Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta, and was a leader in the development of many advances in IVF including the first ICSI pregnancy in the US, the first US egg freezing, and the world’s first successful assisted hatching procedure. I’ve been acquainted with him by his several appearances on the Creating a Family radio show and have always been impressed with his insightful and practical approach to infertility treatment.

Dr. Massey has long been troubled by the cost of IVF limiting access to treatment, and he has made it his professional goal for the last several years to lower the cost of fertility treatment for all his patients. His clinic offers IVF for everyone regardless of age or diagnosis for $6,575 for the first cycle, $5,900 for the second cycle, and $5200 for the third cycle. This covers everything, including ICSI and assisted hatching, if necessary, but does not include fertility medications, which would add about another $2-3,000 to the total cost.

His explanation on the Creating a Family show of how save money on IVF will be useful to all infertility patients, but in the end it seems to boil down to paying a great deal of attention to what each test, drug, and procedure costs to the patient and choosing the most cost effective approach balanced against the odds of success. Sounds simple, right, but I’m sure it is not, and I’m sure it is open to varying opinions of how to strike that balance.

The Servy Massey clinic is just one of a number of infertility clinics that are marketing themselves as “affordable infertility treatment”.  Other clinics are trying various cost sharing methods to attract patients and lower the cost, such as multi-cycle programs, shared risk, etc. We’ve done a number of radio shows/podcasts on how these techniques work and who should use them and have resources on our site as well, including a video.  Although I don’t begrudge any infertility clinic from marketing through contests, glossy brochures, or posh offices, I’d love to see us reach a place where more and more will try the lower cost marketing approach.

Image credit: Paul Mayne, Bernd*

22/06/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 11 Comments

11 Responses to IVF Give-Away Contest Controversy

  1. Melanie Kristine Joy Seier Melanie Kristine Joy Seier says:

    I agree with you, Leilani Writer…I didn’t have time to read through the entire post yet, but like you so beautifully said…anyone who has not gone through this, anyone who hasn’t been faced with the question of do we get a house or get to have a child…who are they to judge?! It is utterly unfair that some people get to have six, seven, eight plus children while others of us use every last financial resource and go into huge amounts of debt to have just one…

  2. Leilani Writer Leilani Writer says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog, Dawn. You’ve probably seen that my husband and I were lucky enough to adopt our son from Russia, and soon, we hope to be able to do DE IVF. I have NO problem with this contest. It wasn’t something that people were forced to enter, it was a personal choice, and regardless of how expensive ART is, you do have a choice. My husband is in the Navy and so we have Tricare, once you move onto ART, they cover NOTHING. After spending our down payment for a house on our adoption and scrimping and saving everything extra we get from my husband being in a hazardous duty region and from being away from his family because he’s been deployed for the past few months, I would welcome a contest that would allow me to share my story and potentially save some money. I have zero regrets in regards to money at this point, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t wish we didn’t have to spend 100K just to have children. I personally feel that anyone who has not gone through this, anyone who hasn’t been faced with the question of do we get a house or pay for more treatments, or how much debt can we take on? has no place to judge the moral validity of this contest. Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion, but I find that most of the people who have tried to weigh in on our family building process have been the ones who have no experience in the area. ! I love your blogs and this page and I’m so thankful to have stumbled upon them both!!!

  3. Avatar Noman says:

    Our first IVF cycle was two years ago. We did it in Seattle so we were away from home. But it was the week of the summer Olympics so we got to watch all the eenvts as we progressed through our egg retrieval and embryo transfer. Talk about a nice distraction. I also rely on Friends when I need a fun distraction its light and funny, and keeps my mind off IF stuff. When we do our next IVF cycle (hopefully in the next 6 months), we plan to be in Seattle again, but we will have our son w/ us, so he will keep us occupied enough.Its the stupid in between IVF cycles that drives me crazy. I have taken up a lot of craft projects, which I find very therapeutic. But the driving force getting me through the waiting time right now is our home improvement projects. There are quite a few that absolutely have to get done before another baby comes along, so my goal is to complete them before our cycle even gets underway. Not only does it occupy my waiting time, but its rewarding to fix up my house. Oh, and I am also doing a half-marathon before our next cycle. Its on my bucket list.

  4. Avatar Dawn says:

    Ossie, while I agree with you about it not being gambling, I do understand the criticism of having a contest to offer three lucky winners free IVF, rather than figuring out a way to reduce the cost of IVF for all patients.

  5. Avatar Von says:

    You don’t see anything unethical and rather distasteful about gambling on a human life then?

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Von, I just don’t see this as gambling. As I said in the blog, I’d like to see this area of medicine move to lower cost for all.

  6. Kevin Carr O'Leary Kevin Carr O'Leary says:

    Dawn, I think you need to take a step back and look at this. While I was going through my adoption process, I found your blog, facebook, and podcast helpful. But between this and your promotion of the “primal wound” theory I have to step back too. I wish you very best and I hope you someday understand why making “Queen for a Day” of IVF is SO insulting and a sign that maybe you’re monetizing things a little too much.

  7. Kevin, thanks for your comment. I’m somewhat confused about the part about “promoting” the primal wound theory. I’ve been pretty vocal about having some significant problems with it. I do think it is something that we adoptive parents should think about, at the very least because it is something that some adoptees believe in very strongly. They believe it explains a deep ache that they feel and I want to understand that ache and any possible cause. Not sure this is it, but that’s my goal by sharing information. Help me understand why you think offering someone a chance at a free IVF cycle is insulting?

  8. Thanks Terri and thanks for your comments.

  9. Thanks for including my comments. Another week, another controversy in the infertility world. Those videos were moving and powerful and I wish the non-infertile could be compelled to watch them. Have a wonderful weekend.

  10. Avatar Ossie says:

    I don’t get the criticism of the contest. Like you said, most of us have problems with how much it costs, but given that it cost so much, I for one would appreciate any help in any way to help pay for it. I’d feel the same way if we didn’t have health insurance to cover the cost of say cancer or diabetes. I’d certainly enter a contest to pay for that too. Like you, I don’t see anything gambling about any of this. Would people have problems dropping their card into a bowl for a drawing. is that gambling?

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