Octomom Was Just the Start: How to evaluate your local fertility clinic, part one

Published on
April 9, 2009

If you do a Google News search for the word "octomom," you will get more than 4,000 results on most days.

What is lost in much of the coverage of Nadya Suleman and her expanding brood is how completely expected this all should be. No one should be surprised that a woman with six kids could order up another eight more or that she could find a doctor willing to help her.

The fertility industry has been the subject of scores of investigative stories over the years, most famously with stories in the Orange County Register in 1995 detailing how some doctors at UCI had stolen eggs and embryos from women trying to get pregnant and implanted them in other women. (One of the lead reporters on that series has put together a nice compilation of those stories here.)

I wrote about problems in the fertility industry for the Los Angeles Times in 2006, exploring how a couple who found out their child had Tay-Sachs was unable to get any information about the egg donor who must have carried the Tay-Sachs gene mutation.

Here's something that writers everywhere can do: Check and see what's going on at your local fertility clinics. Find out how they compare with other clinics in the city, state and nation. Compare what they tell their patients and what they say in their marketing materials with what they report to the CDC. Do they claim to have a 90% success rate on the side of a bus or on a billboard? See if that's true. Are their treatments generally resulting in one child at a time? If twins, triplets and more are the norm, that can be the marker of a sloppy or overly aggressive treatment program.

1.Start with the CDC stats on fertility practices. The CDC provides detailed data that is voluntarily provided by most of the country's fertility centers (with a few big exceptions). If yours is one of the centers that does not report, that could be a good sign that there is something being hidden. For those that do report, you can either look them up one by one here or download them all in a spreadsheet here.

2. Start looking through the numbers for the various categories. Everything is broken down by age category. Women under 35. Women between 35 and 40. And women over 40. You can compare the numbers for your clinic to the CDC's averages for clinics nationwide by crunching the numbers in Excel or checking the numbers here.

3. One good question to ask is, "Is this clinic targeting older or younger women?' Women typically reach their peak fertility in their late 20s, and true "infertility" doesn't really become a problem for most women until their late 30s or early 40s. Some studies have shown that women older than 35 have a less than 10% chance of getting pregnant in each month they try. Nationally, according to the CDC data, about 44% of all fertility treatments are performed on women under 35. So if you see someone whose practice has a higher percentage than that, you might want to take a closer look. Why would a doctor want to give fertility treatments to women who were just as likely to get pregnant without them? It could be a way to make their statistics look better.

I'll write more about ways to use the CDC data in future posts.