This month we are launching our Centre blog which will be used to share work, advertise events and most importantly, to generate discussion and dialogue. For our inaugural post, we invited January’s guest speaker Jessica Hepburn, to tell our readers about her experience as a public figure in the world of fertility and what she thinks needs to change to improve things for patients and the public in the future. Jessica is one of the UK’s leading patient voices on infertility and founder of Fertility Fest the world’s first arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility and the science of making babies.
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Standing at the front of the classroom at the Centre for Reproduction Research in January, I thought how far I had come. Four years ago, almost to the day, my first book The Pursuit of Motherhood had been published and since then my life has changed completely. For years, I had been very secretive about my struggle to conceive. Publicly I was a successful ‘career woman’ (that terrible term that is never used to describe men). I ran a large theatre in London. But privately I was desperately trying to become a mother going through round after round of unsuccessful IVF.
I contemplated bringing my book out under a pseudonym. I knew it was a story that needed to be told, but I wasn’t sure whether I was strong enough to face the stigma and shame associated with infertility. I was going to call myself ‘Jessica Harper’ but then my editor did a Google search and discovered there was someone of that name who had just defrauded Lloyds Bank of millions of pounds. It wasn’t worth the mix up.
So I ‘came out’. I became a public infertile. And it’s been ok, not only because being honest about my own experience has made things better for me and those around me – because secrecy and shame can be toxic – but also because it’s enabled me to campaign to make a better world for fertility and infertility. And this May my second book will be published: 21 Miles: Swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood. It’s the story of one woman (me!) who ate 21 meals with 21 women and then swam 21 miles to answer the question: does motherhood make you happy? You can watch the trailer here: https://unbound.com/books/21-miles/
My work in the sector has taken a number of forms in addition to writing including being a trustee of the national charity Fertility Network UK, a patient adviser to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and hosting the Q&A stage of the Fertility Show in London and Manchester. It sometimes bemuses me that the black-sheep of the fertility industry (me again!) is welcomed in these arenas which are dedicated to supporting people to achieve their dreams of a family. But I do think there is more and more recognition that IVF, whilst being a modern miracle, isn’t a magic bullet. It doesn’t work every time for everyone and it’s important that there is better understanding of that as well as the psychological impact of going through treatment. But at the same time the science does offer remarkable routes to parenthood, both for people who are fully fertile (single women, the LGBTQ+ community) and for couples struggling with infertility and sub fertility. And the opportunities that the science might offer for the way the human race is made are developing all the time. We need to talk more as a society about all aspects of human fertility and reproductive science – what it can and cannot do and how people can best make the families they want, with (or without!) children.
In 2016, I brought my two worlds of the arts and fertility together and founded Fertility Fest – the world’s first arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility, modern families and the science of making babies. It will be back in May for its second edition at the Bush Theatre in London (8 – 13th May www.fertilityfest.com). Six days, forty events and 150 artists and fertility experts in a unique programme of events, entertainment, discussion, debate, support and solidarity. I’m delighted that Professor Nicky Hudson from De Montfort University has agreed to be one of our fertility experts in our session ‘The Gift’ which will look at the light and dark sides of egg, sperm and embryo donation.
The festival has three big aims:
- To use the power of the arts to improve the understanding of the emotional journey of the fertility patient in order to ensure better patient care and outcomes;
- To improve the level of public discourse about all aspects of reproductive science;
- To improve fertility education.
I believe that the next generation deserves a more rounded and robust understanding of their fertility. They shouldn’t just be taught how ‘not to get pregnant’ and our project, Modern Families, which launches at the end of February aims to influence the current consultation that is being undertaken into the PSHE curriculum following the introduction of compulsory Relationship and Sex Education in schools – you can read more about it on our website here: https://www.fertilityfest.com/the-modern-families-project.
The festival programme will be exploring things like ‘The Doctor In The Bedroom’ (what it really feels like to conceive through reproductive science); ‘The Invisible Man’ (on the still little discussed issue of the male experience of infertility). We’ll also be looking at the aftermath of unsuccessful treatment in sessions such as ‘When ART doesn’t work’ as well as parenting after IVF in ‘No Longer Extraordinary’ – because does the experience of struggling to conceive ever leave you? We’ll also be tackling some big societal questions like ‘What Comes First The Career Or The Egg?’, ‘Race, Religion and Reproduction’ and ‘The Future of Fertility.’
And new for this year, we have a series of sessions called ‘Fertility Fight Club’ in which artists and fertility experts will take to the stage to argue for something they want to change about the world of fertility. These sessions will be live-streamed so if you can’t join us in person, you can watch and participate from the comfort of your armchair wherever you are in the world.
But I hope you can join us in person. Tickets are on sale now. The festival is for everyone and anyone and you won’t find another event in the fertility calendar like it. It’s for patients at all stages of their fertility journey. It’s for fertility professionals (scientists, clinicians, and academics). And it’s for people who are just plain curious about the subject and want to learn more. Crucially it’s for people with and without children because we all have a fertility story. I may be an accidental infertile. It’s certainly not something I ever planned for or wanted. But now I’m here let’s talk about it because this is how the human race is being made (and sometimes not being made) today.