Saturday Night Live (SNL) and comedy, in general, walks a fine line between finding the humor in the absurdities of life and crossing a boundary of mocking situations that perpetuate unfortunate stigmas.
One such sketch from the May 20th line-up hosted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the seemingly acceptable response to it reminded me how vital it is to renew a conversation about the struggles and deeply personal turmoil of those enduring infertility.
With the political parodies and their analyses the much awaited weekly fodder for news outlets, one skit flew beneath the radar. As a physician consistently in support of the importance of laughter as a worthy adjunct to the healing process, I was left a bit unsettled by the faux World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) promo featuring Johnson and SNL cast members.
In it, Johnson’s character is urged to trash talk with his opponent before their match. Instead of the usual insults of a generic nature, the focus was making fun of his opponent’s sterility in ways like “shooting blanks,” suggesting the doctor has never seen such defective sperm, challenging his masculinity at being unable to conceive, ridiculing adoption along with statements like “the only bun he’s putting in the oven is a Cinnabon because he is not fertile.” (See video here).
Given Debbie Downer is one my favorite SNL creations, it is not my intent to be one here. Nor, is it to champion limiting creative freedom. It is clear that pleasing everyone is an impossible task. However, upon viewing this sketch, I felt the need to raise awareness about the psychological and physical tolls of infertility on individuals and couples in the hope it will assuage some of that harmful, unnecessary stigma.
Sometimes emphasizing sensitive topics can have a positive effect by bringing to the forefront suffering that is taking place in the shadows.
The spectrum of infertility is wide. Its consequences often contribute to chronic high stress, anxiety and depression. Marital or partner strain to varying degrees is a reality. Though many are afflicted with challenges in this arena, it is routinely not openly discussed until a couple encounters recurrent miscarriages or discovers poor sperm quality etc.
This is regrettable.
Shame, anguish, devastation and distress can accompany the journey. This doesn’t have to continue to be the story. We can shift our culture by tackling the subject in less maligning ways not only in the entertainment realm, but throughout society as well.
To appreciate the scope of those impacted, here are some vital statistics (1):
- 7.5 million women (age 15-44) or 12.3% have impaired fecundity (impaired ability to get pregnant or carry a baby to term)
- Roughly 1/3 of infertility is attributed to the female partner, 1/3 to the male partner, and 1/3 due to a combination of problems of both partners or is unexplained (See here & here)
- Data for 2011-2013 reveal 6.9 million women or 11.3% (aged 15-44) have used infertility services
Fortunately, medical progress allows for many options depending upon the etiology of the infertility. Some easier than others. Some conditions more amenable to treatment than others. But, readily not a perfect or effortless road. Often with an uncertain, ambiguous end point.
There are genetic disorders that can affect sperm production. Hormonal disorders that range from tumors in the pituitary to chronic use of glucocorticoid medications. Cystic fibrosis, varicoceles, cancer treatments that have adverse testicular effects, trauma and specific supplements and medications like testosterone. Identifying the underlying cause and whether there is an existing treatment (e.g. surgical, medical) determines the likelihood of fertility preservation. (See here for male and female infertility facts).
The subject of infertility involves an elaborate scale of emotions and potential interventions. It is complicated. It is deeply personal to that individual or couple. For those who attain a successful outcome albeit via live birth or adoption, the gratitude is immeasurable. This viral video made by a young Australian man who thanks his biological mother on Mother’s Day for giving him up for adoption was recently viewed by over 10 million people. Why? Because the complexity of the issues resonate.
In the end, which avenue conveys a more valuable service to advancing the discussion—the SNL skit or the viral video? You decide.
(1) Excellent resources regarding the gamut of topics from evaluating and treating infertility to adoption and so forth, include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Resolve (The National Infertility Association), The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.