On July 25th, 1978 Louise Brown was born in the UK, along with hundreds of other babies. What made baby Louise singular and special, was the fact that her birth was seen as a scientific breakthrough, after two decades of tireless, and often under-funded, scientific research. Louise Brown was the first “test tube baby.” Actually, “test tube baby,” as she was popularly referred in the press, is a bit of a misnomer, because the fertilization of the egg is done in a Petri dish, not a tube. More accurately, baby Louise was the first successful in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure (this was after a reported 250 attempts).
While some in the world cheered at this watershed event in parenting history, others cast a skeptical eye on this brave new world procedure, and saw it as the harbinger of all sorts of doom.
32 years later, and an estimated 4 million IVF-assisted births to boast about, IVF has been legitimized (if not already greatly popularized) by the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Medicine given to Robert G. Edwards for his pioneering work in the field of IVF. Edwards, along with his collaborator, the gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, work not only made childbirth possible for traditional couples who otherwise could not have biological children; it also made biological parenthood possible for same-sex couples, single parents, parents worried about passing genetic conditions to their children, and parents that wanted to employ the use of egg donors and womb surrogates to help create a family. This achievement was not only a scientific and medical revolution, but it contributed to a change in how we viewed conception and parenthood as well.
To get a more clinical idea of what happens during an IVF procedure, click on the video animation below (I promise there is nothing for the faint of heart):
At the time, the notion of a “test tube baby” was an alien and controversial prospect – a scientific tinkering and exploitation of the natural world. Many people voiced concern that this sort of treatment was far from safe and would result in highly compromised and unhealthy babies. Even some doctors and scientists at the time warned of monstrous birth defects and chromosomal chaos among the experimental “test tube babies.” And religious leaders, especially the Roman Catholic Church, voiced strong opposition to the process, saying that it opposes all kinds of in vitro fertilization because, as with contraception, it separates the procreative purpose of the marriage act from its “unitive purpose.” Not to mention the specter and distinct possibility of same sex parents, unwed mothers, and all manner of non-traditional unions finding a way to procreate made the church none too pleased. But since the initial outcry against IVF, the procedure has become relatively mainstream (albeit still exceptionally expensive and out of reach for most of the population) and religious objections have been largely marginalized by IVF’s obvious successes.
Despite the successes, IVF still carries with it a lot of baggage, as well as stigma. As mentioned above, the price tag for a single IVF procedure is upwards of 15K (in the U.S.), and most medical insurance plans refuse to cover the cost of these procedures. However, Dr. Ian Cooke, one of the founders of the Low Cost IVF Foundation, is trying to make IVF much affordable by bringing it into the developing world. And while IVF has helped millions of infertile couples realize their dream of parenthood, there remain some thorny medical and ethical questions about the procedure. The frequency of twins (or multiple births) in IVF procedures comes with logistical challenges as well as some unforeseen special risks often overlooked in the desire to produce babies. There also remain certain ethical complexities that continue to be addressed and discussed: “designer babies,” carrying certain selected genes; pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which allows the possibility of choosing the baby’s sex; and human cloning, you name it.
Nevertheless, IVF stands as a sort of marvel of science over nature, and this understandably makes some people nervous. The result, without dispute, is far more parents, and children, in the world, that would otherwise never be realized. IVF should likely stand, not as an abasement to the natural world, but an optimistic improvement on it, and a widening of the definition of parenthood.