Scitech | Lucky to be born

Giving away babies in radio contests

Sometime this week or year – depending on whether you trust the U.S. or the U.N. – the world’s seventh billion baby was born. A lot of those babies were probably conceived in some pretty weird ways, but, as far as I know, none of the seven billion babies born in the last 120-odd years were won in a contest or lottery.

Until now.

This October, Ottawa radio station Hot 89.9 set a controversial precedent when they awarded babies to five infertile couples in a contest called “Win a Baby”. The contest was launched on, pun intended, Labour Day, and over 400 couples and individuals filled out an entry form that allowed them to make their case in 100 words or less. Reasons for infertility ran the gamut: some were queer, some had slow swimmers, and some had paraplegia or uterine cancer. The station picked five finalists, posted their stories online, and then let its listeners – known as ʻ“Hotties” – play stork by voting to decide which couple would go home with the prize money for fertility treatments.

Hot 89.9 isn’t even the only group to try to give away a baby as a prize this year. The U.K.-based website To Hatch, which describes itself as a “fertility advice and online community clinic,” launched a similar, though less saucy, lottery on its website in July. In the To Hatch lottery, twenty pounds bought you a chance to win 25,000 pounds to put towards in vitro fertilization, donor sperm, surrogate mothers, or donor embryos.

The To Hatch website itself appears to be a shill for infertility-related products, like a fertility consultation iPhone app and a portable fanny-pack to keep your fertility drugs cold, both of which can be won in a separate Luxury Fertility Hamper sweepstakes.

Both groups are not exactly shining examples of upstanding citizenship and morality. The profit motive behind these conteswts is not hard to see. The radio station makes headlines, picks up a few listeners, and its ad revenues get a boost. The online community clinic takes a portion of the twenty pound entry fee, puts it into its website or directly into its pocket, and cuts another ad deal with fertility product makers.

But infertility, and how people can and should deal with it, is a touchy subject with all kinds of attendant financial, ideological, and religious questions that are not openly talked about, but need to be. I can’t pretend to understand what kind of psychological trials people go through when trying to reproduce, but I have a strong gut feeling that that struggle should not be subjected to the wacky world of commercial pop radio.

So here are some questions that these contests invite: is it all right for a kid to be able to say he or she was conceived thanks to the Morning Hot Tub with Jenny and Josie? That is, do contests like these reduce stigma around infertility and provide genuine, benevolent opportunities for infertile couples or individuals, or are they capitalizing on desperate people to score ratings and free advertising? Is it overly sensitive or puritan to think there’s something wrong here?

Those looking to vilify this practice have plenty of grounds. Jenny and Josie gave away $35, 000 in fertility treatments to all five of the final couples, despite initial plans to choose one winner. This “everybody wins” finale was not in the original script. This made the tens of thousands of listener votes, which were pleaded for or self-contributed by the couples (one of the participants stayed up all night for a week before the contest closed voting online), entirely irrelevant. It’s hard to interpret the decision to have multiple winners as anything other than a guilt-assuaging apology for milking five emotionally wrecked couples for a month of national media coverage.

The station looks benevolent for having too much heart to turn somebody away, but nobody remembers the three hundred and ninety-five non-finalists that didn’t win.

But it is also hard to make the case that the contest didn’t do something good. After all, five couples, some of whom had been trying to conceive for over four years, and none of whom could afford the treatments on their own, now have the chance to have a child. No human being who aims for empathy or decency would tell those couples they shouldn’t have entered the contest because the contest contributed to the profits of a big broadcasting corporation.

And, inarguably, Hot 89.9 shoved in people’s eyes, ears, and noses the fact that not everyone can afford infertility treatments. One of the winning couples, after all the hugging and crying and Cast Away soundtrack-esque music, profusely thanked the station for raising awareness that infertility does not discriminate young from old, and for making them feel like their struggle was not just a personal one.

So, are all the twisted knickers justified?

Not to me. I think the critics who are tut-tutting and railing against the depravity and wickedness of the station are missing a larger point.

In the end, I think that the contest has more to do with what results when health care is left to the logic of a free market and less to do with the morality of radio personalities. If a couple is desperate to conceive, but can’t afford the treatments, and someone can profit off that desperation, then that’s what will happen.

I think it feels icky because the lack of universal access to infertility treatments means that emotional desperation becomes a kind of commodity, and that commodity is thrown into a system that is more than willing to freely exploit it.

Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty was invited to discuss on air why the Ontario government’s health plan doesn’t cover such treatments, but declined. Quebec, in January of this year, became the only province in Canada to publicly fund infertility treatments. There are a lot of reasons for, and as many against, governments paying for the procedures. One of the reasons for public funding is that subjecting bodies and babies to market forces leads to all sorts of weird reproductive tourism industries, like communes of hundreds of surrogate mothers in India and fertility clinic-beach vacation combos in Barbados.
In my mind, the Hot 89.9 contest and the To Hatch lottery are pieces of evidence in the case for universal access to fertility treatments, not examples of willful moral turpitude.

So, if you feel offended at the “Win a Baby” contest, consider that, maybe, radio contests are not the place where one should look for moral standards, but, instead, reflective of social or economic conditions. Whatever the commodity is – reproductive desperation or otherwise – somebody, somehow will turn it into cash, and we shouldn’t wag our fingers at the outcome before addressing the cause.

With almost one in every seven couples struggling with infertility, prize babies may not be just a pop radio fad.

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