Posted on 2.7.15
Despite the advances in science that have made fertility treatments so much more successful, there are still many people who believe that their chances of success are influenced not just by good science but by such non-scientific factors as superstition, religious faith – and even astrology.
A belief in superstition is nothing new. For thousands of years people have been keeping their fingers crossed, avoiding ladders and watching out for black cats. But does any of it make a difference, especiually when it comes to pregnancy?
In fact, research suggests that being superstitious is not just the opreserve of humans but is something that occurs in many animals and may even provide a better chance of survival.
Drs Kevin Foster from Harvard University) and Hanna Kokko from the University of Helsinki recently reported that animals which instinctively hide when they hear the rustling of grass would tend to have a greater chance of survivial because, while in most cases it was caused by the wind, the rustling grass might also be caused by a predator. The researchers concluded that, as long as the cost of believing a superstition was less than the cost of missing a real association, superstition would be favourable - and this is why it has become part of the adaptive behaviour of all organisms, including humans.
Superstitions around fertility have also been around for thousands of years. Rosalind Franklin explores many of them in her book Fertility Magic, Myth & Lore: Old Wives Tales, Magic Practices, Fertility Rites & General Superstitions about Conceiving a Baby.
She explains that fertility customs often start at the wedding. At a traditional Russian wedding, for example, an egg is broken as the bride leaves the ceremony; this is said to “grant her many children with easy labours”. In medieval Europe, rose petals were often thrown in front of the bride to grant fertility. And people the world over have for centuries observed the custom of throwing confetti in the form of rice, nuts or seeds, symbolising fertility to the bride and groom.
In the USA some people believe that, if someone with a baby leaves an article of baby clothing in your home, it will “bless you with the patter of tiny feet”. And in the UK, it’s even said that, if a woman pours from the same teapot as another woman, she will have ginger twins!
How can all this possibly make a difference? The best evidence we have is a study published around 20 years ago in the medical journal The Lancet which appeared to show an improved success rate for IVF babies who had a coin with a picture of a fertility god placed on their incubators.
Keeping the faith
Advances in fertility treatment now make it possible to predict, to a certain extent, the success of a particular procedure. However, there are many people who believe that other factors also influence their success. The real impact of practices that involve faith and religious belief is hard to measure but there is no doubt that some people at least earnestly believe it has influenced the outcome of their treatment.
Dr Kamal Ahuja, scientific director of the London Women’s Clinic, recalls: “One of our patients had tried unsuccessfully to become a father because he did not have living sperm. However, he was a religious man who spent the next six months praying and meditating. When he returned to the clinic he asked me to test his sperm again, even though I told him that it was unlikely there would be any difference. To my amazement, his sperm were living and he was subsequently able to father two IVF children. He was convinced that this was due to his faith.”
Stories of fertility miracles associated with faith date back thousands of years but some people still find them relevant today. Pilgrims still visit a temple in Thirukarugavur, Tamil Nadu, each year to pray to the fertility goddess Sri Garbharakshambikai who, it is said, kept a foetus alive in a jar.
Among those who attribute their successful pregnancies to the goddess is Shanti*, a Hindu who, having had two miscarriages following IVF treatment, decided to visit the temple in Tamil Nadu to pray to the goddess for a child. She recalls: “From the moment I stepped inside the temple, I knew that my prayers would be answered.”
Shanti prayed that the doctors at LWC would discover what was preventing her babies from surviving to full term and that she would not miscarry a third time. “I was given a bottle of ghee [clarified butter] which the priest explained would give the baby protection and a book of prayer songs. When I returned to the clinic the doctors were able to find out why I had been having problems before, and shortly afterwards I became pregnant. I rubbed the ghee on my tummy each day and sang the prayers each evening. I knew from the start it would all be OK and my whole pregnancy was a truly spiritual experience.” Shanti named her baby girl after the goddess, and returned to the temple a year after she was born to take part in a special thanksgiving ceremony.
Looking to the stars
So when you’ve tried everything under the sun, should you look up to the stars? Some people believe that certain astrological arrangements can influence fertility, and can even identify the best dates for fertility treatments.
According to Dr Pat Harris, Deputy Convenor of the Research Group for the Critical Study of Astrology, astrologers have observed that certain angular relationships of Venus and Jupiter to planets in the birth chart can identify years in a woman’s life when she is most likely to bear children. However, only one study has been done to correlate astrology with fertility, and astrological indicators do not guarantee success.
So where does the answer lie? Does being superstitious, religious or using astrology to plan when fertility is most likely really affect the chance of a successful pregnancy? “It’s impossible to measure personal experiences that have little or no scientific evidence,” says Dr Ahuja. “However, it’s certainly true that some people do believe it makes a difference to their fertility treatment.”
Thousands of infertile couples visit the temple at Thirukarugavur in Tamil Nadu in Southern India on a pilgrimage to seek the blessings of the Goddess Sri Garbharakshambikai who, according to legend, saved a miscarried foetus which had been cursed by a demon. The goddess preserved and grew the foetus in a pot until it developed into a child, a boy she named Naidruvan. “I just wish we knew the secret formula she used to grow the baby – it would be wonderful to guarantee a 100% success rate!” says Dr Ahuja.
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