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Kids, Cancer, IVF, and Infant Formula: A Logic Puzzle Not on Your Kid's SAT

Posted Jul 21 2010 1:32pm
IVF is to ______: Baby Formula is to ______

No, I'm not prepping for the logic section of the SAT, but I've got a puzzling logic problem of my own after reading about kids and cancer.  Yes, kids with cancer. Pretty much a parent's worst nightmare.  Something the media could really milk. If I'm being cynical, I'd expect the media to run away with the new study out of Sweden showing children conceived in vitro face slightly higher cancer risks.   Pump up the fear, forget to tell us why we shouldn't be so scared.  After reading the journal article I was prepared for the embellishment of the rather undramatic results that IVF children have slightly elevated risks of childhood and early adulthood cancers for uncertain reasons.   

So I was pleasantly surprised to read Time's finely nuanced piece on the IVF study published in this month's Pediatrics (see the Times article, Study: Why IVF is Linked with Cancer Risk ):

The article delves into the details like the number of cancer cases in IVF young adults (56) versus others (38) in the sample of 2.4 million births, including over 26,000 IVF babies.   The reporter could have merely told us the risk increases by 42%, then we'd be worried, right?  But we learn these cancers are very rare and that in plain English, the risk translates to just one more case of cancer per 1,000 IVF babies.  Phewww.  And there's discussion of why it's so hard to study the issue, complicated by the tangle of factors that might contribute to a higher risk - something about the infertile mothers, something to do with the specifics of invitro fertilization, or those of preterm birth in general, like the child's birth weight, birth size, breathing issues, Apgar scores, etc.  

Interesting, refreshing in nuance.  But then this little nugget stuck out:
Even if the study had confirmed IVF as a risk factor, experts say the level of increased risk is not enough to deter parents from undergoing the treatment. While IVF may bump up a tiny risk of childhood cancer, without it, many infertile couples may not have a baby at all.
All good.  The way it should be. 

Basically the lead researchers and the reporter bent over backwards to assure IVF parents and children they should not sit around worrying about cancer. And potential IVF parents certainly should not NOT do IVF just because of this slightly elevated cancer risk.

But I couldn't stop thinking about the parallels to other parenting issues.  Say breastfeeding.  Can you imagine if we treated the negligible health risks of infant formula like those of IVF?

 And in the latter we're talking respiratory infections and diarrhea - nothing compared to cancer for goodness sakes.  Why is it the parenting industry downplays the risks of invitro fertilization (as well they should) but not infant formula?  Both are excellent examples in which parents generally are limited in their options -  one by fertility, the other, by complications making breastfeeding difficult or impossible.  They come to the alternative method not completely by choice.

It is particularly striking when you consider the ongoing stigmatization of infant formula...  

Remember the public service ads likening not breastfeeding to riding a mechanical bull or smoking while pregnant? Imagine a public health campaign comparing IVF to child abuse.  Maybe it's a test tube emblazoned with the words CANCER.  It's absurd.  Simply crazy.  But why do we accept, even endorse at times, this criminalization of moms who use formula?

Why the respect for IVF parents and perhaps families and children struggling with cancer but not the same for women who simply feed their babies infant formula, hardly a known carcinogen.  It's an odd thing, the public battle over how and what we feed babies.   I bet part of it is our perception of personal choice.  Women don't chose to be infertile but they do choose not to breastfeed.  Or so goes our stereotypical thinking - though I know, I know, infertile parents do choose IVF and some do not and many women do not "choose" formula so much as they cannot breastfeed.  If I were to do a little survey I think people would perceive more choice on the part of women who don't breastfeed.   The formula moms would fare poorly compared to women who saddled with infertility choose to use invitro. We stigmatize those who we perceive to have choices. 

Speaking of choices, let's face it, there's not much difference between child health outcomes when it comes to breast milk or formula.  The risks/benefits are relatively small so we need to justify our choices.  Turns out we're good at employing psychological means to justify our decisions, a little trick called cognitive dissonance that makes our foregone choices less appealing and thus less tantalizing and bothersome according to legendary psychologist Leon Festinger .  Be it the guy we didn't marry, the house we didn't buy, the career we left to stay home with the kids, the preschool our kids didn't attend, the substances we didn't feed our babies - we devalue, degrade, otherwise trash the choices we didn't choose.  It makes life less stressful, at least for our own selves if not the rest of humanity who did not make or have the ability to make the same choices.  In the case of breastfeeding, it's arduous, often thankless work.  All the more reason to seek out justification, especially in light of not so perceptible differences between the health outcomes of breast milk and formula kids. 

So this week let's try to remember the genius of Mr. Festinger, a chain smoker par excellence who might very well have invented the theory of cognitive dissonance to justify his addiction - had he, the son of Russian Jews who came of age during the Holocaust, not been eager to understand atrocities of human behavior, especially those involving group dynamics and the justification of social beliefs and behavior. 

So have you solved the logic problem at the top of the page?

If only we could so easily reduce the justification of our own often illogical beliefs and behaviors.

CORRECTION: OOwww I love reading these in the Sunday edition!  Anyhow, I reversed the numbers for the cancer cases in an earlier edition.  Me culpa.  Sorry!  Kids were hungry, me hurrying....
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