Send in the clowns

No joke: "Medical clowning" seems to help women conceive.

Published June 23, 2006 7:03PM (EDT)

You're going to think we're making this up, but it is substantiated by actual news reports: Fertility doctors in Israel have found that women who undergo in vitro fertilization have a better chance of conceiving if clowns perform for them after the embryos are implanted.

Reuters reports: "After introducing clown therapy to patients having in-vitro fertilization, doctors at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Zerifin, Israel, said the conception rate rose from 20 to 35 percent." The sample size was pretty small, but researchers saw a noticeable increase. "Thirty-three of the 93 women entertained for 10-15 minutes by the professional clown conceived, compared to 18 patients among the same number who had not had a good dose of humor," according to the wire service.

It makes sense that laughing would help patients relax. And I'm all for anything that boosts chances for women who are trying so hard, at considerable financial and emotional cost, to have kids. Still, there's something a wee bit infantilizing about having clowns -- who normally visit hospitals to boost the spirits of sick kids -- attempt to soothe adult women. Especially considering that not everyone likes clowns. I sort of wonder whether women could watch some "Chappelle's Show" reruns or something.

On the plus side, though, "medical clowning" may provide a personal connection that watching an amusing DVD does not. Shevach Friedler of the Assaf Harofeh center described proper clown technique to the Independent: "A specially devised medical clowning session of 10 to 15 minutes was composed by our clown team. Women after embryo transfer lie for an hour in bed and the clown has a session with them," he explained.

"The clown approaches the bed where the woman is lying and he makes contact first by eye, then with conversation. The point is to get the women to smile and laugh. They use magic tricks and tell some jokes."

It does sound a little creepy. But medical care that makes a patient's emotional health a priority, and is empathetic enough to make the patient laugh, seems like a good idea. I'm thrilled that researchers are finding ways to meet their patients' needs and make IVF better. I just hope they'll work on solutions for the cynics and coulrophobes among us. If I'm ever in a fertility clinic and the docs are set to send in a clown, I'm hoping for Krusty.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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