Human understanding of reproduction and childbirth has come a long way since God introduced labor pains in Genesis 3. Yet even after hundreds of years of scientific advancements — some that are far beyond the ethical standards a civilized society should hold — how some babies are made still remains a bit of a medical mystery.
We’ve all heard stories of couples who received what appeared to be a bleak infertility diagnosis but later became pregnant without intervention. Some classify these joyous anecdotes as a mere deviation or perhaps a misdiagnosis. Others, like Texas parents Jake and Megan Gigl, say it’s a miracle.
After several rounds of reproductive testing, all of which came back normal, Doctors determined the Gigls had only close to a 3 percent chance of conceiving each month. Shortly after learning that news, Megan began fertility drugs designed to promote ovulation. She chose to stop the pills because “they did not help at all.”
“We didn’t have an answer as to what was the problem. And so everyone would say, ‘Oh, we could try this, and it might up your chances a few percent,’ but month after month after month and just trying stuff like taking shots in the dark really wears on you emotionally,” Megan said. “Every month, you’re like, ‘Are we pregnant?’ It took a huge toll on my mental health.”
“It’s just insane to me that we can’t actually get a diagnosis,” Jake said. “Other than infertility, it feels like in the medical world, there’s so few things where they can say, ‘Yeah, we just don’t know what that is.’ There’s always something else they can do.”
The Gigls also looked into using assisted reproductive technology (ART) to boost their chances of becoming pregnant. Their doctor, however, warned them that methods like intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF) weren’t the end-all solutions they are often marketed to be.
“Our doctor was really candid with us. She was like, ‘Look, you can do this, but it will basically increase your chances from essentially zero to maybe have a 5 percent chance or maybe have a 10 percent chance,” Jake said.
Not only were their chances of conception with IUI or IVF considered low, but the Gigls’ one consultation with a prominent infertility specialist in their city was what Jake described as “very transactional.”
“[The doctor] walked into the room, and he had a chart that he showed us. It was basically like, ‘Hey, you’ll never have kids unless I do something for you,’” Jake explained.
“During that season, us and other people were in such vulnerable states that we’re looking for a solution. If someone kind of has a god complex or whatever it is, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I can fix this for you, and while I’m doing it, I’m gonna charge you an arm and a leg to do that,’ it’s just hard,” he added.
The Gigls had always planned to foster, so when natural conception wasn’t working, they pivoted to opening up their home to children in need.
“A couple of babies came and went. Then a third foster baby landed in our home, and four months later, we found that we were pregnant,” Megan said.
The Gigls said they weren’t “actively” trying to conceive, especially since they were planning to adopt their latest foster baby, but they are now living happily with two toddlers.
“It’s difficult to navigate, but we’re definitely grateful for our story. Even though there are hard things, we wouldn’t change anything about it,” Jake said.
Fertility Is Fluid
To this day, the Gigls’ medical team hasn’t been able to explain why they suddenly conceived naturally after being unable to do so for so long. That is not an uncommon experience. The world is filled with couples who, after years of struggling with conception, suddenly find themselves pregnant.
“Fertility is a continuum,” Dr. Kimberly Barrows, a board-certified family physician and natural family planning medical consultant practicing in Michigan, told The Federalist. “The diagnosis of infertility — like absolutely infertile, no chance of conception — is very rare. Likely, [couples] do not actually have infertility, but what you would more accurately term sub-fertility.”
A June 2023 study from the University College London found that one in five women who underwent in vitro fertilization under the impression that they could never have kids on their own ended up naturally conceiving later in life.
UCL researchers wondered if fertility drugs played a role in this spontaneous conception. Medical professionals across the globe, however, question whether some of those women required ART to conceive in the first place.
“Eighty-five percent of couples will conceive in the first year. In the second year, those 15 percent who have not conceived, 50 percent of them will conceive in the next year,” Barrows said. Some scientists put that first number even closer to 90 percent for women of childbearing age.
Widespread medical consensus suggests that couples who have regular, unprotected intercourse for a year but do not become pregnant are considered infertile. That means men and women who still have a good shot at becoming naturally pregnant are often prematurely deemed unable to have children and offered ART as the sole way to begin their journey of parenthood.
It also means that the underlying issues affecting conception are not being properly addressed.
“Infertility, while it is often given as a diagnosis, is really a symptom of another underlying medical issue,” Dr. Marguerite Duane, a board-certified family physician and co-founder and executive director of the FACTS about Fertility, told The Federalist. “To give women a diagnosis of infertility is doing them a disservice because it’s not explaining why they are infertile, why they are not able to conceive.”
Profitability Over People?
CDC data suggests that approximately one in five women (19 percent) find themselves without child after one year of trying. As many as 30 percent of these so-called “infertile” couples do not have a medical explanation for why they are unable to conceive.
After being handed such a daunting diagnosis, wannabe parents understandably scramble to find a solution. Instead of addressing the underlying issues contributing to a couple’s chances of conceiving, doctors will often recommend their patients seek solace in ART.
“I’ve heard from patients who say after one or two trials of a few things and maybe a small amount of blood work, they will be pushed towards IVF,” Barrows explained. “That’s a really common thing. I think it’s hard to know the reason behind that, but definitely, not enough research has been going into how to help these women conceive within their relationship without the use of IVF or other artificial reproductive techniques.”
In other words, ART is literally sold for thousands of dollars to emotionally vulnerable people as a one-size-fits-all solution for what appears to be impossible-to-overcome infertility diagnoses.
ART is expensive, plagued with moral and ethical issues, and physically taxing — by no means is it the easiest thing for patients to be prescribed. Reproductive technology such as IVF may yield tens of thousands of babies each year, but it’s not a foolproof way to ensure parenthood. It is, however, profitable for those prescribing it. Globally, the booming fertility industry is expected to be worth $46 billion in the next decade.
Parents like the Gigls were largely spared from the ART pressure after they switched doctors, but many infertile couples are told their only chance at children is to use artificial interventions. This can cause stress for many couples, a factor that does play a significant role in reproductive health.
“I think that’s our temptation in our culture is if it’s more technically difficult, if it’s more complex and intricate from the technological standpoint, it must be better,” Dr. Barrows said. “But that’s not necessarily the case. And improving a woman’s health so that her cycles are more fertile and her husband as well, helping him be as healthy as possible, goes way farther and will help with the conception of multiple children, not just the one time of doing IVF, one cycle for hopefully one baby.”
Profit may play a role in ART recommendations, but it’s also quite possible artificial methods are the only ones some medical personnel know to offer couples struggling to conceive.
“In the United States, most people, and this includes most medical professionals, physicians, nurse practitioners, midwives, etc., are not familiar with restorative reproductive medicine or restorative reproductive medical approaches,” Duane said.
Duane, who is a trained medical consultant in the Creighton Model, NeoFertility, and Fertility Education and Medical Management (FEMM), not only wants patients to be educated about their options after hearing word that natural conception might be difficult, but she also wants physicians to “focus on getting at the root cause of underlying reproductive health issues” and “restoring the reproductive system back to its normal function.”
Cycles fluctuate, bodies change, and circumstances can shift in a split second. All of these play a large role when it comes time to make a baby. The last thing couples struggling with conditions that manifest as permanent infertility need is pressure to choose assisted reproductive technology that could be doing them a major moral disservice and even slowing them from discovering whether they have the ability to conceive naturally.