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“Test Tube Baby” Scientist Leaves Thought-Provoking Legacy

I was born on July 25, 1978 at 2 p.m., in Midland Hospital in Midland, Michigan. Across the Atlantic, in Oldham Hospital in Oldham, England, Louise Brown was born on that same day, at 11:47 p.m. My parents had conceived me in the old-fashioned way, but the Browns had had trouble in that department, having...

Robert Edwards holds Louise Brown, the first successful “test tube baby,” beside a midwife and the surgeon Patrick Steptoe, on July 25, 1978. Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

I was born on July 25, 1978 at 2 p.m., in Midland Hospital in Midland, Michigan. Across the Atlantic, in Oldham Hospital in Oldham, England, Louise Brown was born on that same day, at 11:47 p.m. My parents had conceived me in the old-fashioned way, but the Browns had had trouble in that department, having tried to get pregnant for nine years. Lesley Brown reportedly had blocked fallopian tubes.

And so on November 10, 1977, Mrs. Brown underwent an experimental procedure that would eventually be called IVF, or in vitro fertilization. Sperm and eggs were harvested from each parent and then joined together in a petri dish. The resulting zygote was then implanted in Mrs. Brown’s uterus.  (Watch a video of how in vitro fertilization works.)

When she was born, Louise Brown became a kind of scientific celebrity, making headlines around the world. And for each year afterward, the media would report on her progress, faithfully on my birthday. Hearing the latest on Louise became a kind of personal tradition on my special day, and to some extent, I felt like I grew up with her, although I have never met her.

I don’t remember when Louise’s sister Natalie was also born through IVF, because I was only four. I do remember when Natalie became the first “test tube baby” to give birth herself, naturally, in 1999, welcoming a daughter into the world.

I recall in 2004 when the media reported that Louise had gotten married, to a bouncer named Wesley Mullinder. I remember thinking that I had felt much too young to get married at that age. In 2006, the happy couple welcomed their own child, naturally conceived, a boy they named Cameron. I knew I wasn’t yet ready to be a parent.

Also in 2006, Louise’s father John passed away. Lesley, who had given birth to her, left the world in June 2012. I am very fortunate to have both my parents alive and healthy.

In 2010, Robert G. Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the work that led to Louise Brown’s successful birth (done in conjunction with gynecologic surgeon Patrick Steptoe). I remember feeling proud that I had some connection, even if only in my mind, to that milestone.

On April 10, 2013, Edwards passed away at the age of 87. Before Louise’s birth, the English physiologist had been working on human fertilization for years at Cambridge, despite a lack of funding from the government and a fair amount of controversy at the time.

Further adding to the controversy was the fact that Edwards and Steptoe did not tell the Browns that the experimental procedure had yet to result in a baby, according to Robin Marantz Henig’s book Pandora’s Baby.

An Impact of Choice

As someone who cares about both people and the planet, I’ve long had mixed feelings about IVF. I have enjoyed following Louise Brown’s trip through life, and I wish her all the best. I imagine some people reading this post were born through IVF, or perhaps they have children or relatives who were.

I would certainly never suggest that any individual shouldn’t have been born, or didn’t have a right to be born. But at the same time, I have always wanted to ask, could IVF be placing more stress on our polluted, resource-extracted planet?

In graduate school I attended a presentation by Anne Machalinski, Aili McConnon, and Christie Nicholson, three Columbia Journalism students who eventually won a Webby for their project Science of Sex. The reporters explained the latest in conception-assistance technologies, and profiled a family who had spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to get pregnant.

I wouldn’t want to tell that family what to do in their own lives, but I did ask the reporters if they had considered whether some people might think those resources could be better spent elsewhere, such as feeding starving children somewhere or helping families adopt children from disadvantaged areas.

An older woman sitting a few rows in front of me in the auditorium turned around and gave me a blistering, withering look.

McConnon answered that they hadn’t considered that.

Population and the Environment

When I worked for E Magazine, we wrote a lot about human population and its effects on our environment. We learned early on that it is an extremely sensitive issue, one that can divide religions, political parties, and even families. In China, the state’s restrictions on family growth are widely seen as coercive. In Iran, programs to distribute free birth control and provide widespread education are often praised internationally.

At E, readers told us on several occasions that they had consciously opted to never have kids specifically out of concern for the environment. They didn’t want to bring one more mouth into the world to feed; one more person to require transportation; one more body to clothe, house, and entertain.

Others left impassioned comments on our stories to the effect that we should never try to restrict growth, we should put our emphasis on changing the way we live. Make cars more efficient, squeeze power from every last drop of oil, and develop new clean technologies, they said, but don’t tell people to have fewer kids.

Some have pointed out that population is a highly regional issue. Most industrialized countries have growth rates that have leveled off, reached replacement level, or even dipped below replacement level. Only a few countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, still have sky-high reproduction rates.

As recent dustups over adoption in Russia and elsewhere suggest, it’s no simple task to simply move people from one place to another, and there can be cultural, ethical, and economic ramifications. There are many factors to consider, but what is perhaps most surprising is that few people seem willing to engage in the conversation about perhaps unintended consequences of various procedures.

It is extremely understandable that couples would do everything in their power to create life after their own fashion. That is, after all, one of the primary reasons why we are here.

When it comes to individuals like Louise Brown, my celebrity birthday doppelganger, it seems inappropriate to suggest that they shouldn’t have been given a chance. But when it comes to thinking about such technologies as IVF, and especially future technologies, it may be wise to have a broader conversation about the impacts.

 

Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

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