When Sally’s* best friend had to unexpectedly go into work on her day off, Sally offered to look after her son, James, aged two. She didn’t have a particularly busy day ahead, just running a couple of errands and an appointment at the IVF clinic to get the latest blood test results and pick up a prescription, jobs she could easily do with a small child in tow.
The expression on the face of Sally’s friend suddenly turned from grateful to concerned. “Well when you’re at the clinic, please make sure you keep a close eye on James. You know, all those childless women.”
Sally says she was angered – after all, wasn’t she one of those childless women? – yet not surprised. As a woman undergoing IVF, she’s quite used to being treated with fear and suspicion.
Ever since the first IVF baby was born amid fears of baby factories and clones taking over the world, there have been a million little ways women doing IVF have been made to feel like the enemy.
It’s that story told about a friend of a friend who knew someone who had a child snatched from a shopping trolley by a deranged but thankfully harmless childless woman. It’s a terrifying story from the USA about a young mother found dead with her child cut from her womb.
And it’s all those discussions about the whereabouts of missing British girl Madeleine McCann, and the inevitable shared hopes that she has been kidnapped by a rich childless couple, rather than a paedophile.
The demonisation of infertile women has largely gone unremarked – until now, when thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale, they are now being openly cast as pure evil.
The Handmaid’s Tale is freaking out women across the world: the misogyny; the violence; the realisation that we could be heading down the same path to Gilead. But for women trying to conceive, the series is particularly chilling.
Infertile women, captured in the character of the cold and diabolical Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, imprison and torture the fertile handmaids, and once a month hold them down while they are raped by the husbands.
For any woman, it’s an unimaginable concept. Being taken away from your family and own children, imprisoned and raped, forced to carry your rapist’s child, then having to relinquish that child once it’s born, before being moved onto the next childless couple to do it all again.
Damn these cruel and heartless infertile women.
It’s a particularly confronting scenario because women struggling with fertility can actually see shades of themselves in Serena Joy. Of course, no infertile woman would ever condone rape and torture - Serena Joy is a monster - but what woman undergoing IVF can’t empathise with her sadness, longing – and yes, desperation - for a child?
They know the feeling of powerlessness, desperation and anxiety of trying for a baby. And every month, as they hand over thousands of dollars for treatment, or contemplate using the services of a woman willing to carry a child for them, they are asking themselves: how far am I prepared to go for a baby?
And women going through fertility treatment know well the feeling of guilt and shame.
A central theme of The Handmaid’s Tale is that the ‘plague of infertility’ is the result of mankind’s greed and recklessness by poisoning the environment. You displeased God and now God won’t give you a baby.
“There are very few women struggling with infertility who don’t at some stage feel as though they are responsible for their family’s troubles,” says fertility advisor and educator, Lucy Lines, from Two Lines Fertility.
Listen: Deb Knight on going through 14 rounds of IVF. (Post continues.)
“They are too old; their bodies are not working as they should; if only they could just relax, maybe do more yoga. And because of these failings their families are suffering emotionally and financially.”
And there isn’t a woman who has gone through IVF who hasn’t heard the whisper, “Have you ever thought, well maybe some things aren’t meant to be?” Yes, Unwoman, stop hurting your family and accept your fate.
Of course, it’s tempting to dismiss all this as just vulnerable women being particularly sensitive. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story; infertile women are in no danger of becoming ‘the enemy’, right?
Well, they already are.
Public debate rages about whether IVF should be covered by Medicare; talk back shows debate if women over a certain age should be allowed access to IVF; and women are urged to find men and reproduce earlier. And if you don’t – if you disobey the rules – well, you’re a monster.
According to Lines, often animosity towards women going through IVF actually has little to do with the ability to have a baby and more to do with a lack of ability to empathise – from both sides of the fertility divide.
“I think it’s very hard for people to understand the desperation to have children,” she explains. “Especially if their own children came easily and they are now in the throes of raising young children and living with the demands that places on them.
“I can also imagine that they would probably feel that there’s only so many times they can apologise for being fertile.
“You might be pregnant for the third time, haven’t slept a full night in years, and be going through all the pressures and demands of parenting – and in these times it can be difficult to sympathise with women who are still dreaming of motherhood.”
You can visit the Two Lines Fertility website here.
Margaret Ambrose is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and author, specialising in IVF and reproductive rights. You can view her website here.
*Name has been changed.