Step right up

“Step right up…everyone’s a winner.” You’ve heard the familiar pitch. But this time it’s not coming from a carnival game operator. And the “prize” isn’t an enormous stuffed panda.

No, apparently, this is a new way of marketing medical services that have the most profound effects on women, family, and society. Believe it or not, there are now contests to win free in-vitro fertilization (IVF), the hugely expensive medical procedure for women who have not been able to get pregnant naturally.

One of these IVF contest winners had submitted a home video. It showed her repeatedly injecting her abdomen with hormones and then weeping on her bed—a new low in shameless self-debasement. But she learned she won the contest and “just lost it,” blubbering like a fool, when a doctor holding balloons knocked on her door. (We can only suppose they had to send a doctor with balloons to announce the prize winner because both Ed McMahon and Dick Clark have passed on.)

But what makes this new trend even worse is that these IVF contests and raffles are not primarily an effort to provide this medical service to families who cannot afford it. (One round of treatment can cost $15,000—full treatments up to $50,000). No, it turns out this is just a way for clinics to promote their services and attract more “customers.” 

Thanks to the efforts of animal rights groups, it is now illegal to raffle a puppy, but we are allowed to raffle human test tube babies. The director of a group called Reproductive Health Specialists said about these contests, “I hesitate to use the word ‘marketing’ but we wanted to get our name out there. It worked really well.”

I also hesitate to use the term “marketing” for this whole despicable approach as well.  That sounds a little too legitimate. Carnival barking might be a more accurate description after all.

This kind of “progress” in medical technology has led to the development of yet another medical specialty—experts in “medical ethics.” Every physician should be an expert in medical ethics,instead of shopping it out, or outsourcing it. In a review in the New England Journal of Medicine 20 years ago I predicted that the emergence of full-time medical ethicists would result in physician specialists being able to “cop out,” saying “that’s not my department,” much like an internist would just wash his hands (hopefully) and refer you to a surgeon if you need an operation. Sorry, not my job…We need an expert. Send lawyers, guns, and money…and medical ethicists. 

So, what do these so-called experts say? Well, some medical ethicists say that these IVF contests exploit vulnerable people and trivialize human conception. British authorities have condemned such giveaways and the Australian government has proposed banning them. 

Why is there a need to create even more demand for IVF anyway? Its use has already doubled over the past decade. Today about 1% of infants born in America are products of this technique. And the potential consequences simply aren’t known.

The bioenergetic environment of a test tube is quite different from that of the human womb. These test tube babies may ultimately represent the biggest human social experiment in history.

So, why are doctors doing IVF? Well, let me share a brief story that might help explain it.

I was invited to speak about natural medicine at one of those famous medical conferences at an expensive ski resort back in winter 2000. Many of the doctors attending were IVF specialists. Also presenting was my colleague Dr. Ronald Dworkin of Baltimore who works with the Hudson Institute on social aspects of medicine and American cultural values. He and his wife Alexandra Roosevelt participated actively in the proceedings. And Ron’s own talk described how the medical profession had declined from the classical “learned professions” of history, when medicine was a calling—an avocation as well as a vocation,  and the physician was an intellectual, cultural role model, community leader.

Now, Ron said, medicine has become just another business and medical practice just another job. When they weren’t on the ski slopes, the distinguished physicians in attendance took great exception with Ron’s description of modern medicine as just another job (after they got done taking me to task for considering natural approaches over ever more medical technology). The ski slopes were not the only thing rapidly going downhill.

But it was all in good humor. Later over coffee one group of IVF doctors was happy to tell me what a great business it is. And that they hoped to attend a lot more of these conferences at expensive ski resorts in the future.

I was invited, but haven’t gone back. That coffee just left too bad a taste in my mouth.