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IVF: The Kids Are Alright

IVF: The Kids Are Alright

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.

Read more: Babies, Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, Pregnancy, Women's Health, , , , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

41 comments

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12:19AM PDT on Oct 22, 2010

Has it really been that long? Today IVF is taken for granted

1:55PM PDT on Oct 19, 2010

I understand the whole, "you shouldn't force nature" point of view as I am very much in belief of survival of the fittest as being nature's way of weeding out deffective gene pools, but what of some people whose genes were great for passing on but spent most of their lives working hard to study & make a difference in the world who may have waited too long to consider children? Why penalize the less selfish?

9:56PM PDT on Oct 16, 2010

I read all the comments, and all I can say is wow! I had my children by IVF, and for what it is worth, adoption and IVF cost about the same amount of money. There are pros and cons to both adoption and IVF, but in the end my husband and I decided what was best for us. Adoption is not as easy a process as people make it out to be...unfortunately many of these children are in need of significant assistance beyond just parents...skills that I just don't have. I love my children, I waited to have them till I was older, and can afford them. I work with many nonprofit organizations to assist other children. There will never be agreement on this issue, but at least I live in a country where I don't have to listen to folks telling me what I should do with my body, or legislating IVF. I wouldn't trade my children for anything in the world. And yes, I am seriously contemplating becoming a foster parent too.

3:52PM PDT on Oct 10, 2010

ana p. ~ Be happy? I am not the one screaming on the internet.

8:00PM PDT on Oct 9, 2010

I think that the government should set laws in place to limit the uses of IVF for those who cannot conceive their own children.

Sorry that was unclear. I meant: to those who cannot conceive their own children

7:58PM PDT on Oct 9, 2010

I feel as though IVF raises some interesting questions and controversial at that. On one hand, IVF has many beneficial implications for those who cannot conceive their own children. Yet, there are many other disadvantages and ethical dilemmas to consider. This article presents some of the questions raised by the Catholic church, speaking directly from the Vatican, and other religious and secular sources.
http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wirestory?id=11797487&page=1
I think that the government should set laws in place to limit the uses of IVF for those who cannot conceive their own children. I think everyone deserves the right to bring a child (biological) into the world. While adoption is an option, it shouldn’t be forced upon anyone. Additionally, I believe that Britain is on the right track (ABC article), using IVF to clone organs for those who need transplants. IVF is definitely adventuring into uncharted waters. The government and scientists must be intentional with their advances. They must also implement laws as they see fit to prevent the disadvantageous effects of these advancements.

3:30PM PDT on Oct 9, 2010

NANCY,YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO YOUR OPINION. THAT'S NOT MINE!. BE HAPPY! GOOD BYE!

3:08PM PDT on Oct 9, 2010

ana p. ~ Going to the doctor, having a surgery and taking medication has nothing to do with IVF just like God has nothing to do with our inventions!

9:10AM PDT on Oct 9, 2010

It really, doesn't matter if you approve of the procedure or not. It's science, it's here and it isn't going away.

In principle, IVF-assisted births don't bother me, in the least. An over-crowded planet, however, does.

8:03PM PDT on Oct 8, 2010

WORLD and SPONSOR A CHILD BUT I ALSO I'M VERY GLAD TO BE AN AUNT - MY COUNTRY IS AT "GROWTH ZERO" FOR THE LASR 30 YEARS (2 PEOPLE,2 CHILDREN).
I DON'T WANT TO BE MAD AT ANYONE; IF IMY WORDS OFFENDED YOU PLEASE FORGIVE ME BUT I HAD TO SAY WHAT I THINK! I WISH YOU ALL TO BE HAPPY!

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