How women anxious to have a baby are being exploited for profit

Get A Drip, a wellness company offering “affordable IV vitamin drips and booster shots”, has withdrawn a product it called a “fertility IV” from sale after the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said there was no evidence this “treatment” could improve fertility.

The drip was advertised as costing £250. The only supplements medically recommended for women trying to conceive are folic acid and vitamin D, so you wonder what on earth it contained to warrant such a price tag (£250 would get you 28 bottles of folic acid from Holland & Barrett, incidentally). More to the point, how could the wellness industry have stooped to such a new, exploitative low?

Get A Drip was caught out quickly – withdrawing this “fertility” product, offering apologies for insensitivity but saying it made no claims of alleviating any medical condition. However, it was inevitable that an industry propelled by women’s fears and insecurity would land on fertility.

The use-by date of our reproductive systems is constantly shone in our eyes like an optician’s torch. But nature doesn’t always follow its own rules. Often until someone starts trying for a baby they have no idea how easy or hard it will be. If conceiving is hard, they might wish they’d started looking into things earlier. This swimming sense of uncertainty can lead people to magical thinking; the belief that what we think, wish or do will affect our physical world realities. During the research process for my new book, Hormonal, I spoke to women who felt that if they didn’t try everything on the market that might help with their fertility they’d be shooting themselves in the foot.

It is not hard to see how a woman who is anxious she may not conceive might see something like the “fertility drip” in her social media feed and be seduced by the idea. The company boasts having “qualified doctors and nurses” among its healthcare professionals and lists lots of scientific-sounding bumf.

Capitalising on this tangle of fear and self-doubt women live with is nothing new. “Alternative” medicine, with its chakras and expensive supplements, has long done the same. Vitamin drips are just one of the newer products being offered, despite being routinely lambasted by medical professionals as false quick fixes. A one-off vitamin IV might have a nice placebo effect but is probably as helpful to our physical constitution as a shoehorn made of rhubarb.

We must consider the driving forces behind the consumption of these products. There has been a powerful shift in the way women conceptualise and treat their health. The Global Wellness Institute reports that the wellness industry grew 10.6% from 2013 to 2015 and is now valued at $3.72tn. Many treatments have little evidence base beyond the anecdotal.

The continued growth of the wellness industry is a clear response to a medical establishment that so often dehumanises and dismisses women. Tired of being dismissed, unheard, left in pain or forgotten, women in the western world have created their own alternative healthcare system. This industry has the female body at its centre, providing soft-lit, embracing and safe spaces that make women feel seen, heard and, crucially, an individual with individual needs.

From light therapy to sound baths, shamans to yoni crystals, wellness interventions are designed to make women feel unique and treated as such. There are no doubt many practitioners in the field who are kind, dedicated people potentially making their clients feel a lot better about themselves. Yet even the term “practitioner” is worthy of our suspicion – those with the self-appointed, proper-sounding title are charging women an absolute fortune for their perceived wisdom but often haven’t studied long-term and don’t have robust qualifications or legislative accountability.

Use of the word “wellness” itself is also pernicious because it is nebulous and less open to being challenged by regulatory bodies that have started to home in on companies using words such as “natural” as a marketing tool. These phrases rely on tapping into or creating a set of values. It can all feel rather sinister when you consider who is ultimately profiting – usually white, rich people.

But it is not only the wellness industry that is selling fertility reassurance to women: the medical world continually monetises women’s hopes in the private sector. I rang four Harley Street fertility clinics to inquire about fertility IVs. All offered them to “boost” fertility. One receptionist enthusiastically told me how the doctor would tailor the IV to suit my body’s needs – “not the levels supplement companies and scientists say you should have”. Again, our distrust and fear are exploited.

It is the same with egg freezing. I’ve written before on how the process has become hugely, perilously commercialised – 81% of treatment cycles in 2016 were carried out in private clinics, costing, on average, £3,350 a go. Yet rates of successful conception down the line are modest. Women should be supported in their decision-making but also made aware of how realistic their chances of pregnancy are. When it comes to money-making, they often aren’t.

Regulating bodies must start to engage more fully with questions around private companies profiting from women’s fertility fears. This is true for other expensive products offering alluring reassurances, such as the “fertility MOT”: a blood test that measures anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) levels, giving an idea about a woman’s ovarian reserve. The expensive test has been called “a waste of time and money” by the NHS because it cannot assess the quality of your eggs – the most important factor that, again, we don’t really know about until we start trying for a baby.

More literature is drawing attention to the systemic problems with the wellness industry and people are becoming quicker to call out acts of insensitive and immoral daylight robbery. But until any kind of paradigm-shift happens in women’s health, private companies will continue to view our fears surrounding our bodies – including fertility – as capital to be exploited.