Yesterday’s NYT has a story about fertility services being offered as prizes in variously structured contests. I’ve written about this idea a couple of times in the past couple of years–once a couple of years ago when a UK clinic offered a IVF as a door prize and more recently when there was a Facebook contest with free IVF as the reward.
Yesterday’s story suggests that these were just early instances of what is becoming a more widespread phenomenon. All manner of prize-oriented promotions are cropping up–video essay contests, raffles, lotteries, race sponsorships and so on. It makes perfect sense, really. As Douglas Quenqua, who wrote the NYT piece, notes:
The people who stage the raffles say that both sides benefit: one woman gets free treatment, and the sponsor gets publicity.
This makes it seem like a win/win. Yet someone it seems we ought to think a little harder about this. Is it win/win all around? Are there losers we should be concerned about?
Here I think of unsuccessful contestants–the people who enter the contest but do not win. The people entering these contests are vulnerable–they are presumably people who have had trouble with fertility for starters. There’s no doubt that this is traumatic and it might make the desperate–particularly if they don’t have tons of money. (I’m inclined to be a good deal less concerned with those who can buy all the best possible access to IVF.) Thus, it seems to me we could worry about potential exploitation.
I think my actual level of concern will vary depending on the sort of contest being held. Consider on the one hand a contest where you buy what amounts to a raffle ticket and on the other a contest where you submit some sort of video entry for public voting, a la the Facebook competition. The latter is doubtless more valuable to the sponsoring clinic for publicity purposes and also poses the greater risk of exploitation of the entrants. While no one is forced to enter, I really do worry about the pressures that lead people to enter and the consequences of an unsuccessful entry. What happens to you when you make these intensely personal and painful videos and then not many people vote for yours?
Now perhaps there are other things to worry about here as well. I know that for many people–me included–there’s something at best unsettling about offering fertility services as a prize. What is that about? For me, raffling off fertility services is not at all the same thing as raffling off a baby. (I do quite see that if you think about it that way it is wholly unacceptable.)
Perhaps Professor Nir Eyal put her finger on it:
I think it’s a good parody of the unfair system in which important medical services are only available to those who can afford them,” said Nir Eyal, a professor at Harvard Medical School who specializes in ethics. “Nevertheless, sometimes these raffles exploit the despair of couples or their misunderstanding of statistics to extract money from them.”
Maybe I’d feel the same way about any other important medical service made available via contest. Enter to win heart bypass surgery? Win treatment for your ulcer? If the service is that important then your ability to have access to it should not be conditioned on your willingness to enter a potentially exploitative contest where you’re a vehicle for free publicity for the fertility clinics. At least, that’s what I find myself thinking right now.