IVF patients have been all over the UK media this week. First came news that the Medical Research Council is to set up a national embryonic stem cell bank. People who have undergone IVF treatment and have embryos that they no longer wish to use will be asked to donate embryos for this research. Then came discussion of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority IVF statistics and attendant worries that patients are being encouraged to have fertility treatment before they really need it.
A common theme in the reporting of these two stories is the perception that IVF patients are losing out, both in the research laboratory and in the clinic. Many commentators have voiced concern that women are pushed into giving their embryos to research or cajoled into having expensive fertility treatment that they don't really need. Whilst one commentator worried that there is 'coercion involved in getting parent to donate their embryos to research, another declared that 'baby hunger is raking in big bucks for those experts who promise they'll deliver your very own child'. One newspaper columnist went as far as to say that people are losing their sanity: 'women in their thirties who have left it a bit late are now rather demented as a result'.
But besides the view of IVF patients as shrinking violets, another image pedalled by newspaper columnists is that they are demanding consumers determined to 'get' the baby they feel they have a right to: 'I am entitled to a baby: for many men and women, their obsession with procreation is so overwhelming that 'want' becomes need', said one Sunday paper commentator.
Neither of these views does IVF patients any favours. The first reason is because they are both untrue. There may of course be a few doctors out there who encourage women to have treatment too soon. There may also be women who are either too unsure of themselves to resist or too obsessive to stop and think. But they are not typical of women in general or of IVF patients in particular. Rather, they are images dreamt up in the minds of journalists who base their view of reality on a handful of their own friends and acquaintances.
But this schizophrenic picture of the IVF patient as both feeble and obsessive is not simply inaccurate. Worse, it implies that all they need is protection - from over-eager scientists, from unscrupulous doctors, even from themselves and their own desires. But rather than protection, what would be much more useful are routinely available, inexpensive treatments to enable them to have children and get on with the business of bringing them up.