Josephine Balfour Oatts talks to the co-creator of Fertility Festival, Jessica Hepburn about ‘Project Baby’, bringing the conversation into the 21st Century and climbing Mount Everest.
Jessica Hepburn’s voice makes this dark, grey morning somewhat brighter. Flecks of hail press into the ground outside, the windows awash with rain. There is something infinite about the way she sounds – not (as one might expect), as a result of her tendency to deliver generous monologues, but because her tone seems like that of a woman who has lived countless lives. This is, in one sense, true. Her professional self (that grew out of 9 years as the Executive Director of the Lyric Hammersmith) was quietly permeated by more private matters: namely, the desire to carry a biological child. This collision of selves is wrought further by the journey that was to follow – 11 unsuccessful rounds of IVF, multiple miscarriages, and a near-fatal pregnancy.
Historically, the topic of infertility is shrouded by taboo. “It’s about sex. And we don’t talk about sex, we’re British.” Hepburn says, wryly. Our culture also means that for women in the workplace, declaring pregnancy or a wish to conceive might affect their career prospects. Additionally, the possibility of said pregnancy not going to plan causes many not to disclose their condition until after three months – an unspoken contract which can breed feelings of shame or inadequacy. According to Hepburn, the power behind more traditional taboos is lessening, but in its wake, modern social customs (of which major variables include class, race, gender and sexual identity) are growing, each working to create a Matryoshka-Doll Effect of discontent. This is why when prominent female figures share their own experiences of infertility – such as Michelle Obama on her use of IVF treatment to conceive her two daughters – that any stigma created by silence can be challenged.
The joint experiences of herself and creative producer Gabby Vautier (who also struggled with conceiving naturally), led the pair to create an arts festival dedicated to exploring modern families and the science of baby-making in the 21st century. Now in its third year, Fertility Fest is a four-week programme which, at the end of this month, will be hosted by the Barbican. “We are arts professionals as well as IVF patients,” Hepburn continues “and what we feel artists can do brilliantly is to tell the stories behind the science.”
The Festival itself has three main objectives. These encompass the improvement of fertility education, patient solidarity and support, as well as raising public awareness of the topic. With the legalisation of same-sex marriage and advances in technology, the event of reproduction has seen huge changes in recent years. In fact, the border between genetics and eugenics is becoming blurred, with prospective parents now able to eradicate hereditary diseases from and select the sex of their unborn child (the latter being illegal in the UK, but lawful in the US). “IVF enables all these things to happen” Hepburn adds, “this is affecting how the human race is going to be made.”
Since its inception in 2016, Fertility Fest has brought about significant changes to both the healthcare and educational systems. Last year, Hepburn oversaw a project that, in combination with theatre, aimed to influence the government in reassessing the school curriculum. Predominately, students are taught the mechanics of the human body (chiefly in terms of heterosexual reproduction) and crucially, how not to get pregnant. This is a concern, particularly as sex education doesn’t reflect recent societal shifts or the reality of the fertility life cycle, which for women, usually reaches a threshold in one’s mid-thirties. Happily, the result of this campaign means that the government will be taking a broader approach to fertility education, with the subject given a place on the curriculum for the first time.
The Festival is “bigger than it’s ever been” Hepburn says, excitedly. She is perhaps, most enamoured by the involvement of Maxine Peake, who will be starring in her play Avalanche on the Barbican’s Main Stage. She is also mindful of how when the event was first created, it was born largely out of hers and Vautier’s experiences of unexplained infertility, and as a result, the perspectives of two white, heterosexual women. Now, the festival caters to a diverse landscape of voices. There is a programme of more specific events aimed at LGBTQ+ audiences, women in their 20s and 30s, those considering solo motherhood or egg freezing, as well as teenage infertility.
Through her own writing and self-proclaimed ‘Adventure Activism’, Hepburn has sought to answer two questions. One: Does Motherhood make you happy? And Two: Can you have a fulfilling life without children? “I’d given up a decade of my life to what I call ‘Project Baby,” she discloses. Then 43, she was craving something big enough to eclipse what had – or hadn’t – happened during that time. That was when the idea of attempting to swim The English Channel first came to fruition. Needing to gain weight to complete the task, Hepburn met with a host of famous women over food so that together, they could make sense of these queries. “I’ve learnt that there are many ways of being a parent” she says, pausing briefly. “I’m never going to get over this pain, I will carry it for the rest of my life. It is deep and profound. But, life is short, and I want to achieve the things I can achieve.”
And she has achieved so very much. From running the London Marathon to swimming the length of the Channel, she is now attempting to climb Mt Everest, and hopes to become the first woman to have completed both iconic tasks. She is scheduled to climb in 2020, with her final training peak set for September: Chou Oyu in Tibet, the sixth highest mountain in the world. In light of this, Fertility Fest is not expected to run next year. However, 2019 will bear witness to other developments such as The Fertility Show, which has been billed as the UK’s largest patient event, along with a conference held by ESHRE (European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology) – the biggest in the world for the fertility industry.
The Festival and some of its artists are also being made part of the Wellcome Gallery’s permanent collection, and Hepburn is looking to create a digital version of the event in order to enhance accessibility both nationally and internationally. I turn to the mug of coffee that I had set aside during our conversation. It is cold now, but small peaks of froth still stand defiantly against the pull of caffeine. They seem so modest in comparison to the mountains that Hepburn has climbed, and so meagre in the shadow of the challenges to come.
Fertility Fest will run from 24 April until 8 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Barbican website.