The Obstetrical Celibate

Celibacy seems so counterintuitive and aberrant to me that I’m constantly amazed how close to the surface it seems to float. Its etymology comes from a Latin word meaning ‘unmarried’ and that, in turn, is an amalgam of two proto-Indo-European words meaning ‘to live alone’, but its exact definition seems contextually influenced. For example, despite the fact that it is not the exclusive prerogative of one sex, we tend think of male Catholic priests as the prime examples, even though nuns –their female counterparts- also live a celibate life.  It is also variably regarded as being either the condition of living alone and being sexually abstinent, or merely sexually abstinent. In the Catholic church, although it was only mandated for priests in 1130 A.D., it included both lack of partner and sexual gratification of any kind.

Celibacy is usually seen in a religious context, but it need not be. A more contemporary view tends to focus on the sexual abstinence aspect or on the lack of a regular partner. It may be a temporary phenomenon and not one that is intended to be pursued, or a lifestyle choice. It is seldom related to the condition of asexuality in which the reason for the abstinence is one of indifference or lack of sexual drive –as I have discussed in a previous essay:

Now I don’t wish to sound so dismissive as to reject the concept of celibacy out of hand. We all make decisions based on our wants and needs, often guided by doctrines or beliefs which make sense to us at the time. In a free and open society, what the rest of us may think of the decisions should be of little consequence so long as adhering to them has no adverse effects on any except the participants. Witness the spate of publicity surrounding the late Pope John Paul II and his relationship with the married Polish-born philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, before and during his papacy:  That a very human side was able to successfully coexist with his deeply religious beliefs is both touching and laudable –especially in a pope.

But this prologue was by way of an introduction to Ann, a patient of mine shortly before I retired.

As she sat in my office that first time, she seemed unusually nervous. She had short brown hair and was smartly dressed in a white blouse and grey pant suit. Ann seemed the perfect model of a corporate executive on her lunch break –which indeed she was. But she was perched bolt upright on the edge of her chair like a bird about to launch from a branch. Her face was taut and unnaturally shiny; her lips were frozen in a straight line as if she were trying, unsuccessfully, to fabricate a smile. Only her eyes betrayed a profound mistrust, bordering on aggression.

“You seem rather nervous, Ann,” I said with a smile of my own to break the ice.

She nodded politely, but remained silent. Only her proximity to the edge of her chair changed. I wondered how long she’d be able to stay balanced on it.

I have to say that the laptop screen on my desk is a wonderful tool. It not only provides me with information –consult letters, lab data, and so on- it also gives me something to hide behind when the patient has sent her eyes on a predatory mission. It is a type of blind, I suppose. I pulled up the consultation note from her GP on the screen more for something to do than for information –the day sheet from my secretary had already disclosed the secret: Ann was pregnant.

The note from the GP was rather terse I thought: ‘Pregnant. Angry’. I took a deep, albeit disguised, breath and peeked out from behind the screen. “So, your family doctor says you are pregnant, Ann. Congratulations!” This initial praise for the achievement usually disarms patients -well, confuses them, anyway. But it did nothing to Ann but harden her expression. She mouthed the obligatory ‘thank you’ silently and with barely a movement of her lips. This wasn’t the easiest consultation I’d ever been sent.

I decided to be more direct. “Are you angry about being pregnant, Ann? Or are you angry with me?”

That obviously caught her by surprise, because she suddenly dropped her eyes onto the table –her armour had been chinked.

Then, she broke her fast of silence. “Doctor, I have to explain something to you,” she said, slowly and disdainfully, again with lips that barely moved. I began to wonder if they’d been botoxed, or something. “I am 37 years old, unmarried, and unattached!” She said the last word carefully and slowly, lest I misunderstand. I could feel the exclamation mark from right across my desk. “Further, I am not in a lesbian relationship, nor am I ever intending to be dependent upon a partner for assistance.”

At this point her face actually narrowed and I could sense its muscles trying to avoid spasm. She liberated the predatory falcons of her eyes once again. “I am a celibate by choice, not necessity, doctor,” she said, this time between obviously clenched teeth. “My career is paramount…”

Her minute pause emboldened me to ask the obvious: “And the pregnancy isn’t…?”

It was not intended to be a profound rejoinder, merely an question, but her eyebrows immediately jumped up as she recalled the falcons to their home roost. They watched me from the shadows of their cage as her face gradually softened. An embarrassed smile crept slowly across the once angry lips and I thought I even detected a blush.

“I’m sorry, doctor,” she said, after a rather reluctant sigh. “It’s just that the men at work have been giving me a hard time.” She stared up at a picture hanging on the wall for a moment. “Word somehow got out that I was considering becoming pregnant…” She closed her eyes briefly to decide how to explain. “Men don’t seem to understand that…” She glanced at me quickly, and then corrected herself. “Many people –not just men- don’t seem to understand that wanting a baby is not the same as wanting sex, or a partner, or even a calculated one-night stand.” She retreated inside herself again to pick the words she wanted. “I don’t hate men, and I don’t disparage relationships, I have simply chosen to live my life differently from most: a celibate life…”

She took a deep and stertorous breath before continuing. “You wouldn’t believe the whispering in my office when the rumour spread that I was going to pay for IVF when there were so many willing donors around… The men would wink suggestively whenever I passed by, the women would get that silly smile on their faces…

“Anyway, I decided to take a few weeks off for the in vitro fertilization process, only half expecting it to succeed on the first cycle. But when it did, I didn’t know if I could stand the censure that most men would exhibit when they hear that I did it voluntarily -in other words, without them.” She shrugged and looked out of the window behind me for a minute or two. “So, I asked my GP if she knew of any female obstetricians she could send me to, but for some reason she chose you.

I hate this kind of situation –being blamed for something over which I have no control. A false negative, as it were. I linked eyes with her for a moment. “Sorry,” I said, smiling innocently. “I can probably find you a female Ob if you’d like.”

She sat back in her chair and thought about it. It almost felt like I was at a job interview and my CV was being inspected. After a few seconds, she smiled –warmly, for a change- and sent out her eyes again –this time rather than circling for a kill, however, they perched softly on my face. “After all that anger, would you still be willing to see an obstetrical celibate?”

I nodded. “I’ve always been nonpartisan.”


Fertility options

Some people would do anything to become pregnant: undergo painful procedures, borrow money, mortgage their homes –anything, it seems, to have a child. While this is certainly understandable –parenthood is perhaps the raison d’être of our genes- it seems a shame that fertility would be something denied to some while granted to others. Arbitrary at first  glance, it sometimes remains so even after extensive investigations. And yet there has been a lot of progress in understanding the mechanisms that both allow fertilization to occur and, maybe even more importantly, implantation of the egg and subsequent successful development of the pregnancy.

Obviously, there is a whole cascade of events each having to unroll in the proper order –such things as development of a viable and healthy egg in the ovary; its ovulation and successful encounter with a (hopefully) normal sperm; a clear and unimpeded route to an appropriately developed uterine lining… And these are just the early requirements for the long journey to l’accouchement. But, like a planning a trip, it is more likely to arrive at its destination if the car is sound and there is gas in the tank.

There are many roadblocks along the way, however, not the least of which are the body’s defence mechanisms which try to destroy foreign proteins that might pose a risk to the health of the organism. A fertilized and developing egg contains a mixture of just such foreign material from the male, and so in some cases might be construed as an attack. Although the uterine cavity is designed as an immunologically privileged site to thwart such a mistaken identity, for some reason it doesn’t always work. While this can be a subtle issue and difficult to detect, it can be an even more difficult thing to correct. There have been attempts to do this with medications to increase success during IVF (in vitro fertilization), but with few breakthroughs so far.

Sometimes my patients know more about this than I do, or perhaps pay more attention to disparate media reports that view every paper published, even in obscure journals, as fodder -landmark achievements. The job of journalists is to interest their readers, not to critically analyze the data and research whether or not the findings were merely a one-off that has not been validated by others in the field. A crash is news; a non-crash is not. Or am I being too cynical?

Last year, I remember seeing Janice, a woman who had been trying to become pregnant for several years. She told me that all of her tests that her GP had ordered had been normal as were those of her partner. Because she was already approaching 40, I immediately suggested that she would likely benefit from being assessed at an infertility clinic to see if they could expedite things. I wasn’t sure that I could help.

She shook her head. “I’ve already been to a clinic…” she said, with a sad expression on her face. “They wouldn’t listen to me.”

“Listen to you? What do you mean?”

She probed my face with her eyes for a moment to see if I was likely to listen to her. Then, apparently reassured, she sighed and sat back in her chair. “Well when they saw the normal test results they added their own versions of the same things but still couldn’t find anything wrong. So they suggested IVF. Time’s running out, they said.” She straightened in the chair and uncrossed her legs. “We can’t afford IVF,” she said, all the while staring at her lap where she was alternately wringing her hands and straightening the fabric of her dress. “They basically shrugged and told me to think about it and come back if I changed my mind.”

I waited for her to continue. There must have been some reason her doctor had referred her to me.

“Anyway,” she said after a long thoughtful pause and a quick gulp of air, “I went on the internet to do some research on other options…”

I managed to stop my eyes from rolling but I have to admit she caught me holding my breath. I never know how to react when a patient innocently offers a totally unorthodox and largely un-researched idea that they’ve found on some website lying in wait in a dark corner of the web.

But she noticed my expression and chuckled at my obvious discomfort. “You must get this all the time from desperate women, eh?” I smiled, embarrassed at being caught. “I’d been trolling through some weird stuff and then noticed a reference to a paper published in the journal Science –it was dated 2015, so not very old. It was only the abstract, though, and I wasn’t really all that sure that I understood it correctly…” she said, no doubt to head off any criticism before I could formulate it. “But there was also a reference to a BBC article talking about it so I looked at that as well.” She handed me a piece of paper with its address so I could look it up as well:  and then to show she meant business, the abstract from Science:

When I didn’t immediately punch it in on my computer, she decided to explain. “There’s a parasite that increases a woman’s fertility, doctor,” she said, now intently studying the panoply of expressions that flitted, untended, in quick succession across my face. “Not all of them do, of course,” she added quickly, to show me that she wasn’t that foolish. “I mean, I don’t want to try one, or anything. I just wanted to know what you thought of the idea.”

While I gathered my thoughts, she explained. “I went back to the fertility clinic and asked their opinion about the worm… Ascaris lumbricoides –I memorized the name,” she said and immediately blushed. “Anyway, when I mentioned it to the clinic doctor, he just laughed at me. I don’t think he meant to, but it just kind of escaped from his face before he could stop it…” Janice suddenly leaned across my desk with a serious look on her face. “Of course I thought the doctor was being rude and dismissive, so I walked out on him and headed over to my GP’s office. At least she was more patient with me, but I could still read the disgust in her eyes. We managed to talk about it for a few moments, and then she decided to refer me to you. You’d listen, she assured me and then walked me out of the room…escorted me, almost. I think she just didn’t know how to handle the idea so she passed the buck.”

There was a sudden twinkle in Janice’s eyes that I almost missed –a mischievous expression that flirted briefly with her mouth, then disappeared. “My GP obviously didn’t think I needed an urgent appointment –although I did remind her of my age- so it took me a while to get in to see you.” She smiled a more ordinary smile this time, although it was still nuanced. “Several months, in fact.” I could hear the italics around the word from across the desk. “You’re a busy man, doctor.” I think I blushed.

She waited for a moment to let the thought embed itself in the desk. “So, what do you think of the worm idea?”

I struggled for words initially. It was an unusual idea, but I remembered a brief flurry of rumours when I was in medical school about fashion models infecting themselves with intestinal parasites to help them to stay thin. Perhaps they were just that: rumours, but the idea at least was not without precedent. “Well, I suppose if we could be sure that it wouldn’t affect the developing baby in any way… or you!” I paused for effect. “And that we could reliably get rid of the parasite when it had done its job –again without harming you or the baby- then…” I had run out of words. I had no intention of endorsing the idea, but I didn’t want to dash her hopes entirely. Hope is what keeps us going. I leaned across the desk towards her and smiled. “Let me just say that if you were my daughter and you had honoured me by asking for my opinion, I would have to say that some things are just not worth the risk.”

“You mean you’d advise against it?” She seemed relieved.

I nodded carefully, sensing I was being led into a trap.

A smile almost split her face in two and her eyes lit up and sparkled like lights on a Christmas tree. “Well, I’m pregnant now,” she said, italicizing the important word again and leaning across the desk as well. “It took so long to get to see you, I thought I’d use the time constructively.” My eyes must have betrayed something, because she suddenly extended her hand and grasped my arm. “Don’t worry, doctor, my husband and I decided against the worms. He said he was really worried about them…”

I relaxed my expression and was about to say something about a caring partner, when I noticed another twinkle in her eyes. “Yes,” she added before I could open my mouth. “He was afraid of getting them from me.”

An Obstetrical Edition

Miscarriages –early pregnancy losses- have long been the subjects of research. They are unfortunately all too common, and until very recently, we were only aware of those that occurred after a noticeable menstrual delay –the tip of the iceberg, in other words.

Some progress has been made in understanding why they occur, of course –random genetic mistakes either from development, or from abnormalities in the sperm or egg DNA that happened to be involved, for example. But this type of knowledge is often after the fact -insufficient to predict or prevent the problem, although with in vitro fertilization (IVF) there are often techniques available to detect genetic flaws and guide the choice of fertilized egg to be implanted. This does little to address the issue in the much larger population attempting pregnancy in the more traditional, unaided fashion, however.

I was therefore intrigued by an article in the BBC news: that outlined a proposal to genetically modify some human embryos (not for implantation, be aware) to ‘…understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby.’

I realize that, at first glance at any rate, this proposal seems to cross a boundary that has been hitherto sacrosanct: experimenting with human embryos. It seems to trespass on at least two traditional shibboleths. The first one –the more problematic and dogmatically based one- is that from the moment of conception, the embryo –or morula, once the fertilized egg has divided into 16 cells- is a person, or at least entitled to all the respect and privileges of a human being. This is more of a belief, a religious or moral tenet, than a demonstrable attribute of the embryo at this stage, though, and a more neutral consideration of its personhood would have to rely on either arguments from potential or its ability to survive outside of the uterus, should that be required.

The other, and maybe less religiously coloured objection, is the issue of unintended (or even intended) consequences: that to interfere with human DNA is to interfere with humanity itself and perhaps even the reason we are as we find ourselves –evolutionary adaptations that are the solutions to myriad problems of which we may be only dimly aware, if at all; and that we don’t really understand what we’re doing –or how to do it safely –i.e. without inadvertently affecting other things, even if we did. Like any ecosystem, everything is interdependent in one way or another: solve one problem and perhaps create another that you might not have even suspected was being modulated by the initial problem.

This, of course, is the thrust of the UK proposal. One can reasonably study animal models –mice, for example- only if they have comparable genes for early embryologic development. And as Dr Niakan, from the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Many of the genes which become active in the week after fertilisation are unique to humans, so they cannot be studied in animal experiments.” Initially, the study could have more benefits in IVF work – ‘Of 100 fertilised eggs, fewer than 50 reach the blastocyst stage, 25 implant into the womb and only 13 develop beyond three months…’ “We believe that this research could really lead to improvements in infertility treatment and ultimately provide us with a deeper understanding of the earliest stages of human life.”

Convinced? It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? Clearly, we need to understand how things work (as the study proposes) long before we attempt to modify them in any way. And if gene editing on a human embryo can be done, it is inevitable that it will be done by someone, somewhere, but perhaps with less stringent rules and guidelines to constrain it. So, should we just bite our collective tongues, and bow to progress? And is there really a choice?

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of genome editing; I don’t think there is a one-size -fits-all solution, but I do think there is un bel compromis. The issue must be kept open for discussion, made public, in other words, so that at the very least it is not perceived as being done in secrecy and without identifiable or appropriate input. The pros and cons must be aired and in terms that all can understand. And the opinions of all of the various interest groups -both religious and secular- should be publicly and repetitively solicited. The left hand must know what the right hand is doing.

No, there is unlikely to be consensus; people will divide along predictable lines as I have suggested, but at least there will be a chance for an airing of the arguments, and an assessment of their merits or deficiencies that is available to all who care –a public catharsis. A mitigation…

But in the end, I think we must always be mindful of the dangers that Shakespeare intimated in his Much Ado About Nothing: ‘O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!’









Should IVF be denied to Obese Women?

Obesity has a long and chequered history. Different cultures have both defined it and viewed it differently: in some it was a sign of wealth and was seen as desirable; in others, a sign of weakness, dysfunction, sloth. I use the past tense advisedly, given the rise of fast food outlets throughout the world and their putative role in the rise of obesity in all social strata. Adiposity wears different clothes today.

The classification of weight is now largely dependent on measurement of the Body Mass Index (BMI) -(calculated by dividing the person’s mass -weight- in kilograms, by the square of their height in meters. i.e. M/H x H). In North America, at least, ‘Normal’ weight is less than 25; Overweight is 25-30; Obese is greater than 30. The levels assigned for each category are somewhat arbitrary, however, and various countries -perhaps reflecting differences in diet, genetics, or their own studies- have defined them quite differently.

Obesity, then, is a chimera -a culturally enhanced improvisation; there is little argument about the extremes, but much debate in the middle ground, and therefore about the value at which to begin an intervention -and the resultant stigmatization- if it is solely on the basis of BMI. Not all large people are unhealthy, and neither hypertension nor diabetes, for example, are restricted to that population. So, to base important judgements -with their attendant far-reaching effects- on the measurement of BMI alone is more of a societal bias, a cultural bigotry, than a well-founded and scientifically validated decision.

I am not arguing that excess weight is healthy -or even desirable- but suggesting that to justify treatment decisions on BMI alone risks applying generalizations that are useful when dealing with large populations, but inadequate when considering individuals. No one of us is the herd. And the distinction is an important one.

For example, there seems to be a constantly-shifting move afoot to deny fertility treatments -especially in vitro fertilization (IVF)- to obese women.  Canadian MDs consider denying fertility treatments to obese women   It is based, apparently, on several factors: success rates tend to be lower in this group; the procedure is technically more challenging, and the woman is more likely to suffer complications in the pregnancy that may jeopardize both her and the foetus. The fact that in some jurisdictions, the first one or two treatments may be covered by a government subsidy, suggests that there might also be a feeling that the taxpayer’s money could be better spent on projects more likely to succeed. Or perhaps on issues that benefit more of the electorate.

I have to admit I am conflicted in this. One likes to hope that funds -be they private or public- will be well spent. That there is a reasonable likelihood of success. That the risk/benefit ratio is weighted in favor of the funder. And if this is not the case, then it should be made perfectly clear at the start; the outlook honestly explained, lest expectations trump reality.

But hope is often unquenchable no matter the argument, so what is an infertility clinic to do? Obviously there have to be some standards for IVF. BMI may well be one of them, but as I have suggested, this is likely only a rough guide to success and seems to have discriminatory overtones, no matter the data.

In medical ethics, decisions are often guided by a few simple principles: Autonomy -the right of an individual to make an informed decision; Beneficence -promoting the health and well-being of others and attempting to serve their best interests; and Non-Maleficence -not intentionally doing them harm (primum non nocere). It is the last of these that seems the most problematic for the IVF clinics. Should they knowingly embark upon a treatment -an elective treatment at that- which may have adverse consequences for their patient? The argument has been raised that doctors don’t apply the same values with respect to dealing with, say, smokers or alcoholics that they do with obese infertile women -all of whose problems are often considered to be self-inflicted, at least by society at large. The argument, of course is specious: the condition of infertility, however unfortunate, is not comparable with emphysema, lung cancer, or liver failure…

I think that a more reasonable approach would be to divide the risks both to the obese woman and her foetus into what I will term heedless risk and assimilable risk. It would be irresponsible, for example, to consider IVF in an older woman, obese or not, with severe, unstable and longstanding insulin-requiring diabetes with hypertension and end stage renal failure -the risks are far too great and the outcome unpredictable at best. Contrast that with a large woman -otherwise healthy- whose only risk is her weight. Yes, there may be technical challenges for the IVF, and each of these would need to be assessed on its own merit and risk; and yes, obese women do have a higher likelihood of pregnancy complications, but so do normal weight women who have, say, pre-existing hypertension, or SLE (lupus). And what about obese women who have become pregnant on their own? We struggle through pregnancies with them…

So I suppose the issue is not so much the risk as the guilt of complicity. The sin of acquiescence: collusion with the woman’s dreams of having a baby. Of actively fostering it. Stepping out of the role of omniscient parent and into the character of enabler. But to see it this way, is to be blind to the other equally important, and yet often forgotten ethical principle: Autonomy. If the risk is assimilable, does the patient not have the right to participate in the decision? Is this not also a requirement of that third principle, Beneficence: serving what she perceives to be in her best interest?

It’s a difficult issue, to be sure, and there’s likely no algorithmically valid approach to its resolution. But in the end, we’re humans, not flow charts -our minds simply do not function well that way. Decisions are not unidimensional, because we are not. Let judgements be based not on the letter of the textbooks, not on the litany of complications, nor on the statistical analyses of non-players, non-actors in the drama. As with the Law, let us consider the spirit in which it was written; details are important, but so are people. Even if they happen to be obese.