On the 25 July 1978, Lesley Brown gave birth to Louise Joy Brown – the first baby ever to be conceived using in vitro fertilisation. After 12 years and 80 failed attempts, the Cambridge medical had final achieved a medical breakthrough. Some thought doctors were ‘playing God’. For those people who desperately wanted a baby, it offered hope like no other.
In the early days the procedure was treated with suspicion. The media fuelled the controversy, referring to those like Louise as ‘test tube babies’ – an unfortunate label which stuck despite the fact the magic happened in a dish not a test tube at all.
35 years later, the ethics and morality of IVF is no longer hotly debated. In fact with more than five million babies born worldwide since and with an annual IVF birth rate of more than 17,000 babies in the UK, the procedure has gone from being controversial to almost ordinary.
As a new mum, I know at least three babies conceived using IVF. The parents are some of the most committed, loving and self-aware people I know. Not to say single teenage mothers who have an unplanned pregnancy don’t make good parents too. It’s just that IVF babies are some of the most wanted babies around.
It would seem some of the fears about IVF babies suffering from higher rates of infertility and other health problems have been overblown too. As one IVF pioneer, Dr Van Steirteghem of the Brussels Free University Centre for Reproductive Medicine insists, most parents accept the risk that their children could have fertility problems – and that future doctors would be able to treat them. But, and this is the crucial bit, ‘overall these children do well’. Louise Brown for one has fallen pregnant naturally twice.
So where next? The UK is already set to become the first country in the world to create babies with the DNA of three people. Director of Guy’s and St Thomas’ IVF unit, Yacoub Khalaf, believes the future of IVF lies in stem cell research. ‘We do see patients who are struggling at 40 to 45, and the only thing which would change the face of treatment would be…if we could make sperm from men’s skin cells, or eggs from women’s hair cells.’
So is this a step too far, a bit Brave New World? Or will these pioneering procedures, just as we’ve seen with IVF, become just another acceptable form of fertility treatment in 35 years time?