BBC Radio 4, October/November 2017
Presented by Sophie Sulehria
On the surface, public awareness of fertility issues seems to be high. The statistic that about one in every seven heterosexual couples experiences difficulties whilst trying to conceive is now very familiar thanks to the work of organisations such as Fertility Network UK. In addition, fertility clinics and the services that they provide are frequently discussed in the news – although not necessarily in a complimentary manner. Yet despite concerted efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding fertility struggles, there still appears to be a 'facelessness' to this incredibly common issue, which suggests that fertility is still very much a taboo subject.
This seems to be the reality for many of the patients who undergo fertility treatment at the clinic in which I work. Many opt not to tell their family, friends or colleagues that they are undergoing treatment until the outcome is known, if at all. As such, the intellectual understanding that 'starting a family can be difficult' is not always accompanied by an appreciation as to what fertility treatment actually entails on a practical and emotional level.
BBC reporter Sophie Sulehria and her husband, Jonny Baker, have decided to tackle this issue by creating a series of radio features documenting their own personal fertility journey. These interviews, which are being broadcast as part of BBC Radio 4’s PM show, follow the day-to-day realities of undergoing fertility treatment and the process of deciding what to do next if that treatment fails.
Sophie and Jonny have opted to document their experience in real-time, with very little retrospective reporting. The result is an incredibly special radio series which is full of very raw and complex emotions. The honesty and vulnerability that the couple exhibit across the series has a very powerful effect; it allows the listener to gain a deep understanding of the internal struggles that can happen when all attempts at trying to start a family fail.
To date, four features have been broadcast, with each one focusing on a different point in the couple's fertility journey. We start by meeting Sophie and Jonny as they embark on their sixth and final round of IVF treatment. The couple originally started trying for a baby in 2013, but after Sophie was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure and endometriosis the couple were told that fertility treatment would be their only option for achieving a pregnancy.
The listener gets to follow the couple over the course of a month as they attend appointments at their fertility clinic right up to the point of their pregnancy test. As Sophie fluctuates between optimism and deep worry the listener starts to appreciate why IVF treatment is often likened to a rollercoaster ride. Every step in the IVF process represents a hurdle that needs to be cleared: will the stimulation drugs work? Will the egg collection yield any eggs? Will the eggs fertilise? Will the embryos be good quality? At any point one of these hurdles can topple and the treatment will be over. Sadly towards the end of Sophie and Jonny's treatment it becomes apparent that there is only one slow-developing embryo available for transfer and the couple do not become pregnant.
The second instalment of the series is rather different. The host of PM, Eddie Mair, interviews the couple about their experience of undergoing fertility treatment and how they are coming to terms with not having a biological child of their own. Mair is incredibly forthright in his questioning and at some points his boldness can feel quite unnerving. However, the couple do not shy away from his direct questions and talk candidly about the all-consuming nature of the 'IVF train' and the ways in which their grief has manifested. Both Sophie and Jonny express how difficult it is to be around women who are pregnant and how challenging occasions such as Mother's day, Father’s day and their wedding anniversary can be.
One of the most striking things about this interview is the difference in Sophie and Jonny's perspectives. Jonny seems to be ready to find an alternative way of creating a family, Sophie is open about her continuing struggle to accept the fact that her body has not be able to perform its 'expected' role and that she will never meet her own biological child: 'It can be an embarrassment to feel that you can't have children. It's something that, as a women, it should be the most natural thing in the world. The death of genetics is just heartbreaking.'
During the final two episodes, Sophie and Jonny tentatively start to explore the alternative ways of becoming parents. They first interview a couple who had undergone successful fertility treatment in the Czech Republic using donor eggs. Then they speak to a couple who had created their family through adoption.
The egg donation interview is particularly moving. This is perhaps the highlight of the entire series so far; it really demonstrates the cathartic power that can come from speaking to someone who has a gone through a similar experience. Sophie is able to openly discuss her concerns about using donor eggs with Claire, the successful egg recipient. She is particularly worried that she will simply feel like an 'incubator' for the baby that her husband has created with another woman. Claire eloquently describes how the concept of epigenetics allowed her to 'make peace' with the idea of using donor eggs – how her child would have turned out slightly differently if the pregnancy had occurred in another woman and how she therefore contributed to the unique nature of her child. It is clear from these latter interviews that Sophie and Jonny's journey to parenthood has only really just begun.
As a whole, the radio series achieves what it sets out to do. It offers listeners a window into the tumultuous world of assisted reproduction and demonstrates just how pervasive the desire to start a family can be when all attempts to conceive naturally fail. It is open and honest and isn't afraid to shine a spotlight on the darker emotions that can descend when future plans seem unattainable.
It is very easy as a listener to become invested in Sophie and Jonny's journey and I would thoroughly recommend the series to anyone who has experienced their own fertility struggles. The series would also be of benefit to anyone wanting to gain an understanding of how best to support friends or family through fertility treatment.