On Simon Thornley exploiting miscarriages to save his ego

On Simon Thornley exploiting miscarriages to save his ego

Stop me if this sounds like a broken record – or don’t.

If you’re pregnant/hapū or breastfeeding, one of the best things you can do to keep your baby safe from COVID 19 is get vaccinated. The antibodies your immune system makes get passed to baby through your placenta and breastmilk, and give them protection while they’re too little to be vaccinated themselves.

Babies can get COVID. And it can get really serious. But there’s been a lot of disinformation spread around about the vaccine, and especially how it (DOES NOT) impact pregnancy, miscarriage, and fertility.

On the fertility side of things: here’s an excellent article from the Herald about the vaccine being safe for fertility, IVF and pregnancy. Please share it widely to counter the disinformation.

On the miscarriage side of things, and to get to the point of this post: I am so, incredibly, angry at Dr Simon Thornley.

Thornley, who is somehow still a senior lecturer in Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland, has been a critic of New Zealand’s response to the COVID pandemic and a member of Plan B, the weirdo lobby group who declared (I’m not linking to their website) “New Zealand’s attempt in 2020-21 to eliminate Sars-Cov2 was unnecessary, and would cause more health, social and economic harm than the virus itself.”

If anyone needs me I’ll be over here looking at NZ having some of the strongest economic stats in the world AND not thousands of people dead.

After been proven wrong on every point for a year and a half, Thornley (and others) decided to stage a defence of their position by “reanalysing” a study published by the US CDC on the safety of mRNA vaccines in pregnancy.

Stuff have an excellent piece outlining all the different ways in which this “reanalysis” is complete bunkum. This is the big one:

Many of its promoters focused on one specific aspect. The paper recalculated the reported miscarriage rate to only include people who were pregnant in their first or second trimester when they were vaccinated. Doing so increased the miscarriage rate to between 82 and 91 per cent, a shockingly high figure.

Doing so, however, makes no mathematical sense. Because the study lasted three months, the only way for a person to complete pregnancy in that timeframe is to have a miscarriage (unless they were late in their second trimester).

This is like studying the safety of the vaccine in Formula 1 drivers and coming to the conclusion it’s dangerous because, of the drivers who finished the race after only 20 laps, 91% had a crash.

No shit. The race wasn’t finished yet. There aren’t many other ways to retire in the first 20 laps!

In very weaselly style, the authors of the paper claim they only did this math to prove that the CDC study was insufficient. Except you don’t need to do the math to explain that – you just say “the study was only three months long so we don’t have full data on all the pregnancies recorded.” And Thornley has gone on to say things like “vaccination early in pregnancy “indicates a substantially increased risk from background””. The paper itself recommends withdrawing the vaccine not just from pregnant people, but also children and people of “child bearing age”.

(I have a whole other post or two in me about the sexist smugness of people who want to treat everyone with a uterus between the ages of 16 and 50 as though we’re automatically pregnant at all times. Another day!)

This whole situation made me deeply angry. Miscarriage is an incredibly traumatic experience. When it occurs there’s a huge question hanging in the air: what did I do wrong? There is so much pressure and anxiety on pregnant people to make the right medical choices for themselves and their baby, so much risk and so many unknowns, and as I wrote in my last post, it’s impossible not to hold yourself responsible if something goes wrong.

And Simon Thornley et al, in a desperate, cynical attempt to scrape back a bit of credibility, seem to have deliberately exploited that anxiety by essentially telling all those people who had miscarriages after getting the COVID vaccine: it was your fault. You made the wrong choice. You harmed your baby. And by telling everyone who is pregnant and has had the vaccine: your baby’s going to die and it’s your fault.

That is simply unforgiveable to me.

(It’s been suggested that of course we cannot know for certain if Simon Thornley did all this on purpose. The alternative is that he’s completely incompetent, so it’s still baffling he can hold a senior academic position.)

I thought my rage was subsiding a bit over the past day, and then yesterday afternoon I was driving home listening to Checkpoint’s story on the new community cases in Rotorua. And I heard a young woman say she was going to get the vaccine – after her baby is born. Why? “I’ve just heard too much things, ay.”

“Things” like a senior lecturer in epidemiology insisting that pregnant people (in fact, anyone “of child-bearing age”) shouldn’t be allowed to get the vaccine because it increases the risk of miscarriage, maybe?

This isn’t some high-minded, good-faith academic debate. This is people – scientists – manipulating data to create fear and anxiety and to dissuade people from getting vaccinated. Which, again, is the single best thing you can do to protect your baby in pregnancy or infancy. This kind of disinformation directly contributes to low vaccination rates and they’re using the credibility of their doctorates and institutions to do it.

These unscientific thought experiments are having serious, real-world impacts, affecting pregnant people and their babies and making it even more difficult to persuade hesitant people. I don’t know what to say except how appalling it all is.

And please, get vaccinated.

Photo by Sebastian Pociecha on Unsplash

Where the story goes next

Where the story goes next

So I’ve already written a lot about the IVF process we went through to get pregnant. The next obvious step is to talk about pregnancy. And that’s a topic that could (and will) fill a lot of blog posts. So I’m going to try to break it down in as logical a way as possible – and probably occasionally swerve back into the present day when there’s something I want to rant about (yesterday it was “people pushing kids’ faces into birthday cakes” because WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU).

Except it’s not a logical process, from the very beginning. The way pregnancy gets portrayed, in books and movies and TV and even in the pre-natal books you read for homework, it just happens (no IVF!) and then you get the test to find out (not multiple tests and scans and weeks of anxiety to confirm!) and then you (the joyful-despite-being-ridden-with-morning-sickness mother) break the news joyfully to the totally-oblivious dad, possibly involving some elaborate surprise like hiding the stick you just peed on in a can of his beer, and suddenly everyone knows and also in the very next scene the baby has arrived.

While we were trying, the scary algorithms that control YouTube marketing kept showing me an ad for ClearBlue pregnancy tests, which can, they say, tell you to the week how pregnant you are. They showed two nice normal skinny white ladies (the only people who can acceptably be pregnant in advertising) sitting together. One tells the other, “I’m pregnant.” “How far along???” her friend (I assume, pregnancy ads are usually aggressively heterosexual). “Two weeks!”

Who the hell is telling anyone when they’re two weeks pregnant was my main question.

Also … did they actually mean four weeks? Because at “two weeks pregnant”, you’re not actually pregnant. Pregnancy is timed from your last menstrual period, not the date of conception, because one of those is a lot easier to keep track of due to the, um, physical indications and extra laundry. At “two weeks” the best you can hope for is that your ovaries are in a good mood.

(This is why the recent Texas 6-week abortion ban is so ridiculously restrictive: even people with a clockwork 28-day menstrual cycle will have “only about one week before the “six-week” threshold to confirm pregnancy” before they’re out of time to seek abortion care, if they want or need to.)

It was very irritating, is what I’m saying.

The process of telling people wasn’t that tidy for us, by any means. When you’re doing IVF, a lot of people know, not just that you’re trying, but that there are very specific dates involved. Some of our closest family members knew very quickly, and thankfully, were very understanding that we didn’t want to go public or even really commit ourselves emotionally until more time had passed. If you’ve confided in a work colleague or supervisor, especially because you’re taking sick days for procedures like egg harvesting and embryo transfer, they have a pretty clear sense of whether you might have news or not.

The day of our successful embryo transfer, I’d already had a massage booked for weeks and figured it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to be nice and relaxed – and the therapist was already a very good friend – so I had to mention it to her, just for caution’s sake, before baby had even had a proper chance to implant. I was being a Wrong Mama again: you’re not meant to get massage during the first trimester, they say. But it wasn’t even the first trimester yet, was it?

The point is, she was literally the first person I told after I left the clinic and while I love her, that was not the plan.

When we went into COVID level 2 restrictions I needed to call my GP to see if my fleeting sore throat warranted getting a test, and felt it was something I should probably mention then, too.

My regular feminist book club / fight club / wine friends were always going to figure it out when I started ordering ginger beer instead of my usual sours and ciders. They were good enough not to ask but the big reveal lacked a bit of revelation given they’d all been sitting there staring at my glass for the whole evening.

What this all added up to was people finding out in a very higgledy-piggledy way, well before I was really comfortable with the idea. And for weeks afterwards I was trying to remember who knew, who I should call, who would have seen the Facebook post we eventually did.

I wish it had been easier. And I wish I could have been more comfortable telling people in those early days.

The main reason I think people don’t, is that there’s a huge cloud around losing pregnancy. We – I really mean Pākehā, I can’t speak for others! – aren’t comfortable with the grief, with the loss of such potential, the disappointment of such hopes and expectations, and on top of that we don’t have cultural mechanisms to process it well or even at all, probably coming from our fairly locked-down / patriarchal / Christian / British roots. So we don’t tell people until the “risky stage” is over, to save them from the grief and to save us from having to suffer it publicly. It’s a dark personal secret, and gets treated as a brave revelation when people talk about their experiences of miscarriage – because it is brave. It invites a huge additional emotional burden on top of everything you’re going through (and opens you up to abuse and judgement because that’s the nightmare society we live in).

Even when everything goes according to plan, there’s still that period of hunkering down and hoping and praying, without being able to reach out to other people to share the load.

For us, having kind-of lost our first attempt (I don’t really count it because it was so fleeting and I did, somehow, manage not to pin all my hopes and dreams on it) and having told a few people – the necessary ones – I really didn’t want to get anyone else’s hopes up on our behalf again. But I also wished for someone to share it with who wasn’t my partner, i.e. the other person going through the experience. Some perfect, detached, supportive being who wasn’t also weighed down with the what-ifs and the what-if-nots.

I don’t have a tidy answer (I almost never do). As with everything in pregnancy, I don’t think there is one. You’ll feel wrong if you tell people, like you’ve jinxed yourself, and if it all goes well you’ll feel wrong for worrying. You can only make the best decision for yourself – which isn’t the same thing as a comfortable decision.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The bad news

The bad news

This is pretty much the verbatim post I wrote, on 11 June 2020, when it was confirmed our first embryo transfer hadn’t taken. I still find it upsetting to read, and it gets sweary, so, approach at your own discretion.

(Content note: infertility, pregnancy loss)

I was pretty sure what the result would be. I thought I’d been pretty chill. Not getting my hopes up, and not setting any expectations, reminding myself it’s all just a coin toss and no one knows why it does or doesn’t take. But there was too much blood, and it was too red, and so it wasn’t a surprise when they called with the blood test results. Negative. No baby this time. And I cried anyway. For a moment. But I was at work – my first day back after the COVID lockdown, what fun – so I pulled my shit together and powered through the next four hours, with just a tiny catch in my throat when I called J to let him know.

It’s always really awful to realise you have no idea what’s going on in your own head. Because I thought I had it together. Like I said: no expectations. No telling myself the stars were aligned, the odds were in our favour. I think a core part of me just assumed we’d fail, like so many of our friends failed, again and again and again. I hoped, but I didn’t stake my mental wellbeing on hope. I thought.

It’s so fucking hard to cry and not have any idea why. To not be able to pin down the frustration, the source of the pain. I didn’t think of our embryo as a baby, not yet. I kept telling myself the odds were bad. But – as J kept reinforcing to me because he’s wonderful – it’s still a loss. It’s still a disappointment. And whether you’re thinking about it or not, whether you think you’ve got closure on it or not, there’s all the years of disappointment that suddenly crystallize into one point in your mind and demand emotional release.

The TLDR is I just cried a lot. Without having anything to say, which is unusual for me.

I decided to vent everything by drinking a whole bottle of prosecco. It wasn’t as satisfying as I thought. J had his friends over for their usual game night so I stayed in the study, trying to find something on Steam that would give me the right mix of mindless, violent entertainment without requiring any skill or coordination, which is not in any way my usual gaming taste. I watched some random YouTube videos. I wrote angry tweets about Black Lives Matter and explained in cold, crystal terms why JK Rowling was a confirmed transphobe in Facebook comments. I daydreamed about shouting at people I’d never be allowed to shout at.

It’s almost cliche that when I’m upset, my brain turns to the political injustice of the situation. It’s too painful to dwell on my own frustrated need to be a mother. It’s too hard to reflect on whether I already did think of our doomed little embryo as a baby, a future child. I hadn’t picked a name. But I had picked the name I wanted to pick if the test were positive. But that’s not the same. Unless it is.

Fuck all that. It was so much easier to sink into a rant – to myself, to my non-operational webcam – about fat politics, about our fucked up health system’s racist fatphobia which just happens to impact some white women like me.

We could have been trying this five years ago (when the odds are incrementally better) if the Ministry of Health didn’t use fucking BMI to ration healthcare. If we’re doomed to not have children, if that’s something I’m going to have to accept and work through, we could have been and gone through that fucking trauma already, and have a plan to age disgracefully through our 40s and 50s instead of still being stuck at the trying, and failing, and having no fucking idea stage.

I keep yelling at the mirror: I do (well, before COVID, did) eight hours of dance class a week. Our infertility isn’t anything to do with my health or my size. Yet my size is used, was used, continues to be used to deny us the chance to have children without forking out tens of thousands of dollars.

How the fuck am I supposed to succeed with that stress hanging over my head?


The funny thing is, there’s been some conversation on Twitter recently about how every infertility story you hear has a happy ending. The accepted, appropriate narrative to share is one that ends with miracles and sunshine. And let’s be honest: that’s what these posts are. I know I only feel comfortable sharing my outpouring of grief and frustration *because* there’s a baby-shaped pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

And that sucks. It was something I felt really strongly when we were in the middle of this process, and a big part of me was convinced we were going to fail anyway. And aren’t I now just contributing to that narrative by only posting these posts with the hindsight of a positive outcome?

The thing is, whatever the outcome, the process is a gruelling, alienating one. And a lot of it gets glossed over even in the happy-ending narratives (probably because comparing your vaginal discharge to candle wax is a little TMI for most people. But not me!). There are few enough raw, nitty-gritty accounts of what it’s like to go through IVF – certainly I couldn’t find many when I needed them – and from other experiences I’ve had since baby was born I’ve really appreciated the power of a personal account with those little details you just don’t get from a fertility clinic webpage or a human interest news article. The feedback from members of our family, who knew we did IVF but had no idea what that really entailed on a day-to-day basis, and the sheer number of people I know, who’ve now told me they did IVF but never mentioned it before, tells me this has value.

For those who have tried, or are trying, or stopped, for whatever reason, I know that it’s only a matter of sheer bastard luck that I’m not in your shoes. And that’s so unfair. And your stories deserve to be told too.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash