Noémie Merleau-Ponty, January '17
On the 5th and 6th of November the Fertility Show took place in London. This event hosted “over 100 exhibitors, top names in fertility and up to 60 seminars over the 2 days making it the biggest fertility event in the world.”
ReproSoc was there!
Public outreach is indeed one of the very interesting approaches ReproSoc is building through its Life in Glass initiative.
Thanks to an exciting collaboration between Lucy van de Wiel and Amanda Gore a designer from The Liminal Space, we had a stand called Timeless. “Timeless is a fictional pop-up shop created to broaden our understanding of the impact of infertility and fertility technologies on our lives. The aim of Timeless is to listen, learn and share. We offer a range of personal experiences and insights to read and listen to, alongside ways to share your stories and thoughts.” On the stand we shared quotes from people who have undergone infertility treatments and we offered our visitors a space for discussion, as well as opportunities to write down some of their insights. We also provided recorded testimonies and had a message pod where a one’s own oral testimony could be recorded in a quiet atmosphere.
During the two days, we engaged with a lot of people and visited several stalls. It was an intense experience and a fascinating experiment.
What is public outreach about?
It is not easy to answer, but our group had several ideas to deepen the discussion stemming from our presence at the Fertility Show.
“All your fertility questions answered”, is the first sentence that the Show provides on its website. And indeed, with the vast numbers of exhibitors and seminars, one had the opportunity to get information on all kinds of topics, from nutrients boosting fertility to embryo glue helping implantation, from medical to legal counsels, from local to international clinics.
The general feeling could be a sensation of diving into a dense web full of colourful information shining at every corner.
A common trait was the dominant presence of a commercial answer to fertility questions. One of our MPhil students suggested that “at first glance, the fertility show was a marketplace which sold alternatives to NHS fertility care such as fertility lifestyle management that might or might not be helpful, acupuncture, high-end technologies that allow women to monitor ovulation at home or do artificial insemination at home and IVF clinics in Turkey, Europe and the U.S. The first thing that I expected but I was still uncomfortable about was commercialism. Perhaps I was not good at refusing salespeople, but they just kept persuading you to accept their products and ideologies. And it seemed they did not listen to what I was saying but kept promoting their products.”
The Timeless stand had nothing to sell at the Show. Our proposition was to nurture a space for discussion about infertility. Maybe, public outreach can be seen as a way to offer a step aside and take time, less to buy, and more to share. One colleague even suggested that “Timeless felt like an oasis.”
But the commercial logic was still quite significant and, as commented another academic volunteer, Nitzan Peri-Rotem, “although our stand was exceptional by not offering anything to sell, I did feel like in a way we had to ‘sell our goods’ and justify why we were there. Some people were interested in the research that we do, although most have asked very general questions, such as ‘so what trends have you found’? or, ‘what has changed over time?’. In this sense, it was an interesting experience in explaining our research to people outside academia or to those who work in very different fields.”
Another common trait of the Fertility Show, as suggests Marcin Smietana, “concerned citizenship and transnationalism”. “On one hand, he says, I was struck by how permeable British national borders and reproductive prohibitions were for those who could afford it in financial terms – as I could see several non-British stands advertising in block capital letters the techniques that could neither be advertised not practised in the UK: commercial surrogacy, anonymous donation, gender selection. What is more, this was clearly explained and promoted during two seminars I attended … My feelings about all this were mixed: on one hand, I could see that such an offer gave hopes for parenthood to those who could not otherwise have it: yet at the same time it was clear that only the better-off could afford it.” A lot of people who stopped at our stand shared that this financial approach was challenging. Maybe, as my colleague puts it, our stall suggested “a different and more understanding and compassionate approach. In this sense, I think our stand was a welcome space for many people.”
A third general impression stemming for this hyper commercialized approach to fertility was a blurring of scientific rationality to the benefits of an advertising one. A lot of stalls indicated very high success rates and I was quite surprised to read not just once that 82% or 90% of “patients” would become “parents” if willing to go for this or that clinic. At first I was confused and wondered what the rationale behind these unexpected numbers was, then I realised that these numbers were not trying to inform but to sell. And, of course, if one accepts the premises that in vitro fertilization makes you a “parent” by relating “patients” to embryos and not born children, then things make even more sense. These high numbers most probably reflect fertilization rates, not implantation and even less live births ones.
We did not offer bioscientific numbers at Timeless, and we still have a debate about the legitimate approach that social sciences should have to health information and kinship knowledge. Indeed, one extreme example of the risks encapsulated in an expertise position is the Italian public reaction to the government’s campaign to bring awareness about ageing. This campaign was understood as being highly normative and intrusive, to say the least. Lots of protests occurred in the country when this campaign was publicized.
To sum up, Nitzan Peri-Rotem highlighted that “in a way, the show provided a glance into the ruthless IVF industry, in which people are being fitted into a general mould, which does not necessarily fit their personal needs nor it reflects their preferences. At the same time, those who can afford it, can pursue a more personalized treatment. I wonder if people who came to the show to gain some insight about available fertility solutions left more knowledgeable or more confused.”
One strength of social sciences is certainly its capacity to build knowledge by listening to people and recording their testimonies. Public outreach, in that sense, is seen by another ReproSoc member as a tool to underline that knowledge makers are the people who came to the show. They are the experts of these new technologies of reproduction. And our aim is to develop ways “to connect with the most knowledgeable group of the subjectivities at play.”
 National Health Service
 HFEA indicates that women aged under 35 have 32% to conceive a child and 5% above 43. Moreover a recent post from Bionews recapitulates the findings of a study showing that some “IVF clinics advertise misleading success rates”.
Thanks to Karen Jent and the Liminal Space for the other photographs