Time to end the social stigma attached to test-tube babies

Test Tube Baby

When South Delhi resident Pariniti Ahuja and her husband decided to go in for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) after 10 years of marriage, they informed their immediate family first. Ahuja’s in-laws were a bit concerned initially. “They asked me, ‘Bachcha to tum log ka hi hai na?’ (It is your child, right?),” says the 35-year-old. “But once we made them read up on assisted reproduction they were supportive.”

Countless Indian couples are opting for assisted reproduction techniques like IVF to fulfill their dream of parenthood. But unlike the Ahujas, a majority still keeps the matter a secret while undergoing treatment, even from parents and close friends. They announce the “good news” only when they get pregnant, and usually pretend to have conceived naturally.

This is because 31 years after the birth of India’s first test-tube baby, the stigma surrounding IVF is yet to fade. “In India, when people have a successful bypass or a knee replacement, they proudly discuss it in social gatherings. But people don’t even utter the word IVF,” says infertility specialist Dr Hrishikesh Pai, who consults at Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital.

Dr Anirudha and Dr Anjali Malpani who run Malpani Infertility Clinic at Colaba point out that the situation is much better than two decades ago when couples who came to see them would complain of stomach ache or other issues before finally admitting that they were unable to conceive. “Patients are better informed and more forthcoming now. But they continue to be shy in public,” says Dr Malpani, adding that people sometimes look through her at restaurants as they fear their friends will figure out they are being treated for infertility. “I remember feeling extremely awkward at the naming ceremony of a child born to one of my patients as her family barely acknowledged me in front of their relatives,” she says.

Dr Manish Banker, chairman of Nova IVI Fertility, pointed out that only 10 to 20 % of IVF patients are completely open with their families.”There is still a misconception that test-tube babies are unnatural,” he says.

Experts believe the coyness stems from the association of reproduction with sex. “Patients worry that their friends will think they are not getting pregnant because their sex life is not good,” says Dr Malpani.

Manju Padmasekar, a Germany-based biologist who gave birth to a baby girl after IVF treatment in Mumbai in 2015, agrees. “People don’t want others to know that they are unable to conceive in their bedroom. Somehow they find it humiliating,” she says. The 39-year-old blogs about the scientific and emotional aspects of infertility — she had conceived her daughter in her eighth IVF attempt — and also counsels couples who write to her about their own struggles in trying to get pregnant.

Mumbai-based media person Shanti Shah feels that reproduction is too private a matter to discuss. “I talk about IVF positively in front of friends and colleagues. But I don’t tell them I have tried it. I don’t think anyone needs to know,” says Shah, who is six months pregnant owing to Intra Uterine Insemination, a technique wherein sperm is manually injected into the uterus. The 38-year-old had gone for IVF too as she yearned for twins, but failed to achieve pregnancy. Doctors believe the stigma is largely because infertility is still looked upon as a personal shortcoming rather than a medical problem. “A woman who is unable to conceive does not consider her infertility as simply a failure of her fallopian tubes, but rather her own failure. Similarly, men start blaming themselves for masturbating too much and using up their sperm. They feel they are incomplete instead of understanding that a low sperm count is often idiopathic (without cause),” says Dr Malpani.

Padmasekar too had hidden her IVF trials from most of her family for the same reason. “I believed that if I can’t get pregnant on my own I am defective,” she says. “What if people pity me? What if people talk behind my back? This was my greatest fear.” She decided to open up only on realising that most of her fears were unfounded. She now tells everyone, even strangers. And hopes that more IVF patients would also come out and talk about their troubles as it would help them realise they are not alone.

Padmasekar plans to show her daughter Anisha a picture of her as a five-day-old embryo when she is a little older. “Only IVF parents have the privilege of seeing their children as embryos. I will tell her she is special because she was born through a very special procedure and we fought tooth and nail to have her in our lives,” she says.

Needless to say, most Indian parents don’t share her views. Whereas in the West parents are debating the ‘right’ age to tell children about their origin and how best to reveal the same – books that explain IVF to kids have hit the shelves – the question does not even arise in Indian families. “A small bunch of parents now tell their children that they were made in a laboratory but most prefer to keep the information to themselves,” says Dr Malpani, adding that the ‘secret’ is guarded even more closely if donor sperm or eggs are used. “Parents here worry that the child’s sense of belongingness will get disturbed,” says Dr Kaberi Banerjee, medical director of Advanced Fertility and Gynaecology Centre at Lajpat Nagar.

Many doctors too don’t agree with the need to tell children. “I am totally against telling the child. There is no need to make them feel there is anything different about them just because their conception occurred in a medical way,” says Dr Pai.

Source: Times Of India

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