To kick the blog off, it makes sense to go right back to the beginning. Back to the first ever baby born using assisted reproduction techniques – Louise Brown. She was born on 25th July 1978 at Oldham General Hospital, England, and was the world’s first baby successful conceived using in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Louise’s birth was both a success and a massive relief for the two researchers, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, who had been collaborating on their effort with IVF for at least ten years..
Obviously as the first baby to be born through such contentious means, there was a huge media outcry. It was widely known that research had been underway to create animal embryos outside of the body, and although it was inevitable such research would lead to human application, most thought it would be impossible to have success with humans. Research using human gametes (the sperm and egg cells) didn’t sit comfortably with many people as they deemed it immoral. Simply put, Louise was the end product of a history of highly antagonistic work.
Although Louise was clear evidence that the technique worked and was safe for the resulting baby (thus far anyway…), it was still not accepted by the public and scientific community. Joseph Goldstein when presenting Edwards with the Lasker Award in 2001 summed up the aftermath perfectly:
“We know that I.V.F. was a great leap because Edwards and Steptoe were immediately attacked by an unlikely trinity — the press, the pope, and prominent Nobel laureates”.
By 1980, there were 14 children born via IVF throughout the world. Steptoe and Edwards wanted to continue their work after its evident success globally, but the NHS would not allow such activity to continue under their regulation so the duo founded the Bourn Hill Clinic in Cambridgeshire. Unfortunately, as expected for a private centre, each round of IVF was really expensive – one round cost approximately half the average person’s annual salary. This just highlights how far we have come to today’s reproductive medicine; IVF is now quite a simple process and each patient is only in the clinic for a day, each cycle costs a mere fraction of what it used to and is decreasing constantly, and the success rates are so much higher than recorded in initial conceptions. The booming business of IVF is evident by the fact that over 5 million babies have been worldwide using this technique.
Not only did Louise’s birth spark ethical debate globally, but it had many political effects also. Following her birth, other IVF babies shortly followed in many other developed countries across the world – most notably Australia, the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries, all current front runners in today’s reproductive technology field. Interestingly, although the U.K. had the first live birth, it was not the first country to pass an official bill discussing legislation of specific IVF techniques. The U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act came into place in 1990, but the Government of Victoria in Australia proclaimed the first legislation in 1984 with the Infertility (Medical Procedures) Act. The U.S. followed with a public law in 1992, and the Scandinavian countries staggered over 1987-1997.
Louise’s birth triggered what I like to think of as the ‘reproductive revolution’. Although IVF was still a bit taboo at the time and everyone, scientists included, appeared to be concerned about the technique, the race was now on for other scientists across the world to replicate Steptoe and Edwards’ work, and improve on it. However, of course, it meant that Louise was really only the first of a long line of inevitable controversial babies.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoRhVmX8krM (Interview with Louise Brown, discussing the effect of being the first ‘test-tube’ baby on family and her self – highly recommend)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_Brown (Wiki page for Louise Brown)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/july/25/newsid_2499000/2499411.stm (The 1978 BBC news page for Louise’s birth)
Main image obtained from Alchetron.