Ruminations from the Frontlines of Infertility: How Paul Ryan’s Anti-Choice Policies Could Outlaw Some Couples’ Quests to Conceive

It may take a while, the doctors cautioned us, when we looked for help having a baby.

I’d figured that, to be honest. It had taken me a while to want a baby, after all.

My husband and I got married when he was 26 and I was 22. Both writers and designers, we wanted to establish our own place in the world, create the outlines of a relatively stable life, before adding any other people to it. We got jobs and settled in Chicago, bought a vintage condo, and started stripping woodwork.

Most parents of my acquaintance at that point weren’t exactly walking advertisements for joining the life. They complained about their kids, or admitted they’d had them too young, or had too many. They talked about how they had no money, no time, no fun of their own. It wasn’t an effective sales pitch. My husband and I were happy together, working hard, and young.

Shortly after I turned 28, I felt sad when finding out a college friend was pregnant, instead of sighing in relief that it wasn’t me. About a year after that I noticed that I was wanting to snatch babies in stores and cuddle them with great force. We got to know parents who took visible joy in their children, children who became part of our lives as well. My husband and I started talking. Stupider people than us had had kids. We knew lots of people who could hardly walk and breathe at the same time, and they’d reproduced successfully. How hard could it be?

I quit the pill and my job as a newspaper reporter, wrote a book I’d always wanted to write, and got a great flexible, part-time job that would allow me to spend all kinds of time at home with a kidlet. I took my temperature every morning and wrote it down on a chart. I started hoping for positive pregnancy tests instead of worrying about them. My husband started taking vitamins.

A year went by. Another.

In January, a Republican Congressman named Paul Broun, a doctor from Georgia, introduced a bill in Congress called The Sanctity of Human Life Act. “The life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, irrespective of sex, health, function or disability, defect, stage of biological development, or condition of dependency, at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood,” it read. “The Congress affirms that the Congress, each State, the District of Columbia, and all United States territories have the authority to protect the lives of all human beings residing in its respective jurisdictions.”

The bill declares that a zygote — the one-celled organism that results when a sperm meets an egg — was as much a person as a full-term baby or, for that matter, an adult. Such a designation is aimed at curbing abortion in the earliest weeks of pregnancy. So called “personhood” bills and ballot initiatives have been introduced in 15 states, including Colorado, Florida, and New Hampshire.

The federal bill was co-sponsored by current Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman often described by political commentators as shrewd and intelligent, has also sponsored a bill that would let hospitals refuse to provide an emergency abortion even if it would save a woman’s life, and one which would ban some forms of birth control.

The personhood bill would, in the opinion of doctors and advocates, outlaw many ways couples treat infertility, including in-vitro fertilization. “The effect of Personhood Legislation would be to threaten a medical treatment that has, since being pioneered in 1978, brought some four million babies to loving infertile couples around the world,” says RESOLVE, a national infertility group. “At a minimum, it would force changes in the practice of reproductive medicine (e.g., limitations on the number of eggs that may be fertilized) that are not in patients’ best interests and constitute inferior medical practice.”

In his nationally televised address before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Ryan said, “We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope.  Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life.”

Concerned Women for America, a conservative pro-life group, called Ryan “a tireless supporter of the unborn.”

Infertility affects about 15 percent of heterosexual couples in one form or another, according to a recent study by the University of Iowa and Penn State University.

It doesn’t sound like very many people. Hardly enough to get all het up about.

After two years of what my husband and I euphemistically call “trying,” we saw a doctor. I had fibroids, benign tumors in the uterus which would have to be scraped out by a surgeon.

I scheduled the operation, had it, and was told in jolly tones that it should fix everything. Go home and have lots of sex! Good luck!

A year after that, still not pregnant, we drove to a fertility clinic, arguing in the car on the way there. We’d told no one where we were going. I think if there was a way for me not to know, I’d have taken it.

The clinic’s waiting room was lit like a restaurant kitchen and covered in parenting magazines and loving family photos. Tailored, blond women with happy, fat children everywhere, glossy indictments of my childless status. A huge TV blared CNN’s “health” news loud enough to wake the dead. The receptionist didn’t have any record of us until we argued her into checking her computer twice, and the doctor demanded an internal ultrasound before he’d speak to either of us about so much as what an internal ultrasound was.

I don’t audition doctors. I grew up in a very small town where you went to the doctor you went to. This clinic was recommended by my surgeon and regular OB/GYN, a guy I love and still see, and I trusted his opinion. But in this case, I should have run like hell.

When we finally did see the fellow we’ve come to refer to as the Quack, he prescribed artificial insemination. He saw no reason I shouldn’t have a baby by Christmas. I began decorating the nursery and my husband started pitching names to me, all of them male. I teased him about the boys our daughters would date, about pony rides and petting zoos.  Thus began the longest eight months of my life.

Drugs that I told the doctor I didn’t want and didn’t need indeed made me sicker than I’ve ever been. I was sore in places I didn’t know had nerve endings, exhausted and snappish. I gave up caffeine, alcohol, fish at the doctor’s direction, only to be told by his nurses that in all cases it was just about useless to do so. The office staff sent bills to my house which I’d already paid in the office and refused to credit my account when I pointed out the discrepancies. They cancelled an appointment, then called back an hour later to confirm it. This place was an hour from home and the tests — constant blood work and monitoring are necessary to calibrate the sensitive machinery of your body — were at 6:30 a.m. Did I mention I was giving up caffeine?

In assisted reproductive therapy, you see nurses far more often than the actual doctor, so the staffing of a particular clinic is of critical importance. Not that I knew this. The Quack’s nurses ran the gamut from tolerable to absolutely horrid. One of them couldn’t find my cervix, as if it had suddenly taken a vacation. Another was so inept at drawing blood that I bruised from elbow to wrist and my boss, staring at the track marks, asked if there was anything I needed help dealing with.

One sweet nurse, who cried with me when my third attempt to conceive came up negative, told me she was going to get in trouble for spending so much time with me. We’d been in a consulting room for three minutes.

When my husband and I finally, after begging and threatening to incite a mutiny, had an appointment with the Quack, he told me that scarring and cysts on my ovaries that had been previously unmentioned in any of a dozen test results would make it impossible for me to have children without in vitro fertilization.

He said this in a tone of voice you’d use to tell someone they should move their car to a different spot in the garage.

Paul Ryan is a Roman Catholic, a former altar boy who mentions his relationship with God on the stump as often as he mentions his citizenship in the United States. In Charlotte, NC, recently for a campaign appearance, Ryan got a hero’s welcome when he popped into a local church for mass and the priest announced his presence.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes in-vitro fertilization and most other advanced reproductive technology. Even artificial insemination is looked at askance, as masturbation is still verboten in the church.

In communications to its followers, the church equates IVF with abortion, calls it a sin and morally reprehensible, and paints a grim picture of the cavalier way infertile couples disregard the true plans God has for them. The idea is that in IVF, couples often produce more embryos than they need. These are frozen for later use, but if a couple already has children, they may not want to use all their embryos. The embryos can be destroyed, or turned over to the doctor or hospital for research.

The possibility of this ending is enough to turn the church against the entire practice. If embryos — microscopic groups of cells, invisible to the naked eye — are people, this is murder.

RESOLVE pointed out some complications to this simple and righteous-sounding designation: If one or more microscopic embryos from an IVF cycle do not develop normally in the lab or fail to result in live births after transfer (all natural events), could the physician, lab, and/or patient be criminally liable? Would non-IVF treatments such as simple inseminations be threatened because they carry a risk of miscarriage? Would clinics with high miscarriage rates after inseminations be at risk for criminal liability? Could the miscarrying women be subject to criminal charges?

In other words, should Paul Ryan’s policy positions become law, would I be a killer?

My husband and I tried to come to terms with being childless.

We worked. I wrote another book. My father made silly faces at babies in restaurants and I wanted to die of shame for not making him a grandfather. I told my husband, in all seriousness, that he should divorce me and find some nice dumb fertile 20-year-old to raise a family with, instruction he inexplicably refused to follow.

My in-laws commented that their annual Christmas party had become less frequented by relatives now that most of their brothers and sisters had their own grandchildren. Conversations with anyone and everyone started to become a minefield. I felt bad for being so sensitive: It wasn’t their fault.

It wasn’t mine, either.

I daydreamed about giving my mother a World’s Best Grandma mug for Mother’s Day. I listened as she talked about spending quality time with my cousins’ children, who were incredibly sweet and had so much fun at her house, who were a joy to spoil. She didn’t know most of what was going on with us at first — most people didn’t, actually — because I so wanted to do this the way other people did it, keeping a delicious and joyous secret and then presenting it, all wrapped up in a bow, like a gift to loved ones. I didn’t want the whole ugly struggle publicized for all to see. I just wanted to be effortlessly happy.

“We’re so good at everything else,” I said to my husband, angrily.

I started sending apologies to people who invited me to baby showers, or parties where everyone else attending would be a mother. I started lying about having to work.

And look, let’s get one thing straight. I have work, a husband I am goofy about, and a roof over my head that is not falling in … much. I’m not in hock to the Russian mob for my fillings. I have a hell of a life. I seriously have no problems anyone should care about. But from birth I’ve been the type of person who needs to get an A in everything. I have to win every game, come in first in every race. In order to live like this I’ve developed a very simple strategy: The things I suck at, I don’t do.

Now I apparently sucked at making a kid, and I kept trying to do it, and I kept coming up short. It isn’t bragging to say I make sure to be good at what I do choose to pursue, so I’d grown unused to the constant dull beating that is failure. I’d grown unused to the tightness in my chest that I feel when something I do isn’t good enough.

Three years went by, and that tightness in my chest became a feeling unremarkable for its constant presence.

“At the core, today’s ‘pro-choice’ liberals are deeply pessimistic,” Paul Ryan wrote in 2009 for the conservative Heritage Foundation’s publication Indivisible. “They denigrate life and offer fear of the present and the future — fear of too many choices and too many children.”

I wonder, frequently, what I would say to Paul Ryan if I met him. What I would ask him. How I would tell him that his “personhood” bill would close my clinic, put my doctor out of work. Put me in jail, possibly, because my infertility story — unlike so many others, told only after the destination made the journey the more joyous — doesn’t have a happy ending.

Right now, I have two frozen embryos in a suburban lab. I’ve had three rounds of IVF. One resulted in a pregnancy that lasted a week. Another resulted in a two-week ordeal of hope and despair.

The third was unsuccessful from the start.

It’s cost the earth. Not a day went by during those courses of treatment — giving myself shots, getting uncomfortable internal ultrasounds, taking handfuls of pills — that I didn’t wonder if I was doing the right thing.

I stayed up late when the treatments wouldn’t let me sleep, reading stories about people whose pregnancies had failed. Who had ectopic pregnancies, lost babies at 18 or 20 or 22 weeks, who nearly died of infections because their doctors didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t perform abortions.

I read news stories — a Catholic teacher fired for using IVF to conceive her child, glib comments on web sites, selfish women “taking the easy way out” — and I read interviews and statements Ryan and his fellow Republicans made about abortion. About conception. About doctors and consequences. About the dignity of human life and the horror of those who devalue it.

Pro-life groups, not content with picketing abortion clinics and driven by political rhetoric about personhood, began protesting outside IVF facilities as well. They picked a branch of my clinic in the Chicago suburbs. Thankfully, not the one I visit, but still. My nurses work there, too. My fantastic new doctor, whose compassion and generosity astound me every day, travels there twice a week.

I wondered what those protesters thought about me and my husband.

Were we careless? Did we denigrate life?

Were we pessimistic?

I, like Paul Ryan, am a Catholic: 12 years of school, a current member of a parish, taught the rosary by my grandmother. How did I offend God? Where is the Lord of Life in this story?

I might show Ryan the needles I was sticking in my muscles, the bruises and the scars, the marks from three surgeries.

I might tell him: No one does this lightly.

Instead of in vitro fertilization, the Catholic Church and the more conservative wings of the Republican party counsel adoption. People ask us all the time, “Why don’t you just adopt?”

On TV homeless babies seem to be given gratis to the first two people who wander into the frame, but the cost of adoption can run into tens of thousands of dollars. With good insurance and the sensible laws of the state of Illinois where we live, IVF was much more affordable, and had it worked for us, I don’t think we’d have looked at it as a waste of money, offenses against the Lord of Life notwithstanding.

But it didn’t work, and that money isn’t coming back. And a couple of semi-starving writers need to consider how important having a family really is, once there’s price tag like that attached.

Yet: My younger brother and sister are unmarried as adults and my husband is an only child. Our parents are no longer young, a realization that crashed into me like a wrecking ball this spring, at the funeral of my father’s younger brother.

They’d never pressure us, but it doesn’t matter. Reality pressures us.

The doctors suggest therapy to people in this situation. I’m not sure what anyone could say that isn’t already being said. I know I’m not personally at fault. I know I’m not obligated to produce offspring for the world, or for my family, or for my husband or his family. I know these are lousy reasons anyway, to want a kid. I know we could save up and adopt. I know those last two embryos might take. I know there’s always hope. I know there’s no point in beating myself up. I know I’m not a failure, that I have a full life for which to be very grateful. I know not everyone has to have children to be happy. I know some people don’t even want children and are delirious about it, and I envy those people. I know all this stuff.

I tend to think inevitable things that suck, like the deaths of loved ones (oh, Grandma, I tried so hard, I really did, to give you a great-grandchild), like breakups, like this, suck until they don’t. Putting all this horror in someone else’s head just means there’s another person out there walking around with it. Friends, good ones, have refused to let me go through this alone, and I love them for it, but I want to forget it all.

All I really want is to lie in a hammock near the ocean and drink pineapple daiquiris and not speak to anyone about anything for about a month. I want to go to Paris, London, Italy, Jordan, Cairo, South Africa. I want to jump on board one of the tall ships that comes through the city in the autumn, and sail somewhere out of reach. I want to run away. Pile everything I own in the street and set it on fire.

Find a new direction, because this one led to this dead end.

In May, the oldest son of Ryan’s running mate, Mitt Romney, announced the birth of twin boys via IVF and publicly thanked the surrogate mother who carried the embryos to term. IVF is responsible for another of Tagg Romney’s children as well.

Romney’s Mormon church leaves decisions about IVF up to the individual couple, and Romney himself is in favor of embryonic stem cell research under certain circumstances, a more liberal stance than many of his pro-life counterparts.

Ryan has told news outlets that though Romney’s stance on stem cell research is different from his own, the other anti-abortion views of the ticket were in line and Romney represented “a step in the right direction.”

If anyone has asked him about IVF, about the Romney grandchildren, he hasn’t said.

“I am proud,” Ryan told ABC News, “of my pro-life record I have.”

I want to believe that in time the question “Do you have kids?” will not make me want to throw up. I want to believe I can be flip about it someday, like, “We don’t breed well in captivity,” laugh and mean it. I want to believe my husband wouldn’t be better off with someone who could make him a father, make his parents grandparents. I want to love what I have, which is a lot, and stop waking in the night feeling what I don’t have aching like a missing limb.

I want to read stories about people like Paul Ryan, who think they know everything that can go wrong inside a person and can wave it all away with a slogan and a smile, and I want people like him to understand that life isn’t like that, no matter how pro-life you are.

The doctors, in the end, were right: It may take a while.


PG

Author: Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel is a 10-year veteran of the newspaper business. She publishes First Draft, a journalism and politics blog, with her partners Adrastos and Jude. She is the author of It Doesn’t End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal (2008, Heritage Books) and the forthcoming Chicago’s Historic Irish Pubs (with Mike Danahey) (2011, Arcadia Books). She also edited the anthology Special Plans: The Blogs on Douglas Feith and the Faulty Intelligence That Led to War (2005, William, James & Co.). Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Daily Southtown, Sirens Magazine, and Alternet. She lives in Chicago with her husband, three pet ferrets, and approximately 60 tons of books.

Comments

  1. Shawn says:

    Paul Ryan might suggest that you consider adopting an older child or being foster parents if you are interested in building a family. Would that be a dismissive wave on Ryan’s part?

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks for sharing your story A; it must have been terribly hard to write and share. I hope “a while” comes sooner than later for you and your husband.

  3. Rufusruff says:

    Shawn: did you actually read what Allison wrote? Adoption is NOT straightforward or simple, and you don’t know what they have considered. Your sheer callousness in the face of her pain is astounding.

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  1. [...] a topic I’ve addressed before, on my own trip through infertility hell, and on that score I have mentioned that my wanting of a child (and deeper understanding of all the [...]

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