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The World of Fertility

Boston Globe,  Oct 10, 2010
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WHEN BRITISH scientist Robert Edwards, the creator of in vitro fertilization, won the Nobel Prize last week, the world marveled over how routine his procedure has become. IVF, once feared and reviled, is responsible for some 4 million births worldwide, a stunning expansion of families and joy. In Massachusetts, the first state to mandate health insurance coverage for fertility treatments, IVF and its offshoots have led to the conception of more than 60,000 babies.

And yet, as anyone who has gone through fertility treatments knows, the process — more than 30 years after the first IVF birth — is still shrouded in a culture of silence. In the brief time I spent in packed fertility-clinic waiting rooms a few years ago, I discovered some clear, unspoken rules: Don’t make eye contact. Don’t smile. Keep your nose in your magazine. It seemed counterproductive, even absurd: a roomful of well-informed, pragmatic people, taking charge of their lives in a positive way, feverishly pretending they weren’t there.

But Dr. Jill Colman isn’t surprised.

“It’s that classic club that you don’t want to be a member of,’’ said the clinical psychologist, who specializes in infertility and other women’s health issues. Years ago, when she ran support groups for the infertility association RESOLVE of New England, Colman had trouble assembling enough women who wanted to talk. In part, that was due to superstition. Women in the midst of treatment didn’t want to jinx the process.

But partly, Colman says, the trouble was shame. Fertility problems touched on those classic measures of self-worth: sexuality, virility, vitality. And, as academics have noted, the stigma of infertility dates back to biblical times, when “barrenness’’ was cited as the will of God.

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