After a little over a year of inaugurating its controversial but apparently successful plastic surgery loan, Lebanon’s First National Bank (FNB) has launched yet another initiative, this time, the world’s first fertility loan.
In 2006, using the slogan, “Beauty is no longer a luxury,” FNB’s plastic surgery loan created waves of criticism for encouraging the commercialization of women’s bodies. It also consolidated the bank’s position as a hip, risk-taking institution for young people, and the Fertility Loan plans to take it even further, this time playing to couples facing difficulties in having children.
FNB is gearing up for another media blitz. Religious TV channels have already started criticizing the loan, while the international press, always on the lookout for a quirky Lebanon story when the guns are silent, has picked up on the campaign. What FNB learned from the negative press coverage for the plastic surgery loan is that almost all publicity is welcome. “When they criticize negatively, we know it’s good, because this is what we call ‘viral marketing,’” said Mahir Mezher, FNB’s head of marketing and the campaign’s creator.
LBC’s Bassmat al-Watan, one of the most popular political comedy shows in Lebanon, lampooned the loan just days after its official launch, while Mezher said that his bank has received a staggering 200-250 calls per day from interested customers since billboards were put up in mid-August.
Fertility - especially male fertility - has long been viewed as a symbol of masculinity in Lebanon and the region. This notion, coupled with the emphasis put on the sacredness of family and kinship, has made discussion on any sort of artificial intervention for the infertile something of a social taboo. In fact, Lebanon, according to a quantitative study conducted by Mezher in the brewing phase of the project, suffers from a higher-than-global-average 15% infertility rate (the global average for women’s infertility is 9%, according to a 2006 study sampling over 170,000 women), a situation Mezher explained as due to stress induced by more than 25 years of war and political instability.
Despite the taboo nature of infertility problems, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) is a common enough procedure, with 20 infertility centers in Lebanon. The American University Hospital (AUH) charges around $2,500 per IVF and performs 60-100 trials per month. “We’re as good as the States or even Europe,” said Dr. Ghina Ghazeeri, a gynecologist at AUH.
The loan allows people with regular employment to take out up to $7,000 (on the basis of two to three IVF trials), paying it back over three years. The loan itself is designed to be much more flexible than the personal loan. First, there is a confidentiality guarantee, which means that clients need not reveal their identity to the bank, but work through their doctors. Also, unlike the personal loan, no guarantee is needed for fertility loans of up to $3,000. Lastly, it is a “revolving loan,” which means that one can continue to take out loans even during the repayment period, as long as the $7,000 line has not been reached.
Mezher emphasized the “humanitarian” aspect of FNB’s endeavor, upholding the “social, ethical and religious values” of the family. To make this claim stick, the Fertility Loan has steered clear of upsetting religious and social sensitivities: It does not cover sperm or egg donor procedures - the issue of which has spurred a long series of ethical controversies among Islamic scholars and recently triggered a court process in which a husband sued his wife for undergoing an intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) without his knowledge - and only covers IVFs in which biological parenthood remains intact.
The loan can also finance stem cell preservation, which, according to Mezher, costs $2,600-$2,800. The procedure consists of extracting the blood of the umbilical cord when the baby is born, and then flying it to the UK to keep it in a sterilized cold storage unit for 25 years. Stem cells are known to transform into any type of cell upon contact, be it heart cells, brain cells, etc., which makes them effective in treating cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other difficult maladies. Even close family, with their strong compatibility, could benefit from these stem cells.
According to Dr. Joseph Abboud, a gynecologist and president of the Lebanese Fertility Society, the demand for stem cell preservation in Lebanon among those who are well-informed and have the means, has increased notably over the last three to four years.
“Stem cells will be the hot subject for the next 50 years,” predicted Mezher, who hopes that FNB will be remembered for its foresight.
So is FNB’s initiative an example of corporate social responsibility at its best, or a cynical attempt to sell a loan? Perhaps a bit of both - a bank is a bank, after all - which is not such a bad thing if what is now a luxury will become accessible to all.