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“Test Tube Baby” Scientist Leaves Thought-Provoking Legacy

Robert Edwards Holds Louise Brown, the first test tube baby
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.

Comments

  1. ann
    fife. Scotland
    April 17, 2013, 3:48 pm

    Well that’s ok the deaf chap is allowed choice,but what he is not allowed(thank God) is to make choices for other deaf people, who would prefer to have a man made solution to their problem.

    I believe God works through humans in the form of kindness, talents and skills, Brian, but l do realise that so does the Devil, and he can create badness, madness, monstrousities, so mankind has to be careful. I can perceive your fears, Brian,and l understand your concerns.

    I wish you were a little more gracious in your reply to me but l guess it is a sign that you realise l am quite formidable, so that is a compliment in a back handed way.

    Do not be angry, it does not come from God!

    End of,

    Regards

    Ann

  2. ann
    Fife Scotland
    April 17, 2013, 12:42 pm

    I hear your reply Brian.

    Just to say, l too would have concerns about some issues of technology going forward, for example; hibrid births or male pregnancy. I do not believe in tampering with Nature such as creating life that works against Nature.

    In regards to IVF, l believe God is in the equation, for the good gift given to The World, in regards to by passing a faulty reproductive system, and in that respect restoring a woman to a fertile status as that which compliments nature as in the natural order.

    To explain further; some people think that the creation of life within an artificial incubator is wrong and infertile couples should be left to their misery. But that is wrong thinking as if that was applied across the spectrum then blind people would not be assisted to see by surgeons or even spectacles. People with leg, lung, heart deformities would be left to their sad fates.

    Professor Robert Edwards and Dr Patrick Steptoe, gave a great service to the world and in keeping with God and Nature.

    In regards to your article,l got the impression that you do not see the value of IVF, but of course, you do not suggest rubbing out the lives of those already created but you do view the manner of their creation/birth as dubious and not desirable.

    I would also like to say that l agree that Mankind should respect the Planet, but as a Christian, we should be careful not to worship it as you are in danger of doing, Brian. Believe it or not God has made the World and it is not as fragile as Green People imagine it to be! Also God knows the fate of the Planet and He will decide how it ends and even has He stated that He will end it at the time of his choosing, that means only God can destroy the World and Mankind cannot do so!

    Regards
    Ann

    • Brian Clark Howard
      April 17, 2013, 2:46 pm

      Hi Ann. Interestingly, I had a similar discussion with a colleague whose brother is deaf. My aunt is also deaf, and she recently opted to get an ear implant. She says the factor that pushed her over the edge was her daughter asking her, “Don’t you want to hear my voice mom?”

      My colleague’s brother totally objects to ear implants, arguing that they are destroying what he calls “deaf culture.” He said the idea of “hearing” someone through the implants is a lie, because it is not truly hearing, it is some false approximation. But going further, he argued that there is nothing wrong with him as a deaf person, it is rather a difference that also brings with it a unique culture. He said he has no desire for hearing to ever be restored.

  3. ann
    Fife. Scotland.
    April 15, 2013, 6:25 pm

    I can not understand why a person born by natural means would arrogantly assume that because they were born by an act of sex/copulation, they have a right to be in the world, but someone born through IVF has no equality in that respect.

    To go on about population figures being added to by unnatural means through IVF is ridiculous and wrong minded.

    Obviously, 5 million humans created by IVF in the whole of the world, is a big figure to a small mind!

    I felt suicidal before my son was born through IVF in 1988. To feel in agony every day for years is a hell l would not want others to suffer.

    Sir Robert Edwards was my doctor and l love him and so does my son.

    • Brian Clark Howard
      April 16, 2013, 12:40 pm

      Hi. Thanks for reading. That’s actually not what I was trying to say at all, I was saying that for sure one can’t retroactively question the right of anyone to be born who is already here, but I think as a society we should ask about all the implications of technologies going forward. There are bound to be many more thorny questions with new technologies around reproduction, radical life extension, and other issues, so we need to consider all sides of the equation, both the science and the ethics.

  4. Jovial Toh
    Singapore
    April 14, 2013, 10:50 pm

    Liz Joyce – I totally agree with you!

  5. Brenda Ferguson
    Red Deer Alberta Canada
    April 14, 2013, 8:32 pm

    I went through this process in 1992, At the time the success rate was 3%, it was a very emotional time due to the process of hormones invading my body, yes i produced more eggs than i could possabley use, but i did go through them all,, even after i successfully birthed a beautiful baby boy, if it wasnt for this process i wouldnt have the wonderful son i now have, to deny this to any women that wants their own child on the basis of someone else over populating is ludicrous at best, if the world is over populating maybe someone should be looking at some kind of birth control where these children are being pumped out,, I have one son,, much wanted, and one we could afford to raise, because of in-vitro , thankyou all that were involved in Calgary Foothills Hospital,, Dr Green for one,, who i will never forget, who helped me with my heart and soul

  6. Michael
    April 14, 2013, 6:20 pm

    What a great article! I am always glad when someone is daring enough to consider all – or at least more of – the aspects and consequences of the choices we make and how far affecting their reach truly stretches. People often don’t want to know or consider them.
    Obviously, more lives COULD be saved by pooling all the money used for helping infertile couples and IVF together, the work and hours put in are truly tremendous just to create one child; when already there are so many who could use help. But when it comes down to it, the only one responsible for your life is you.
    So if you or your spouse is infertile, and you do desperately want a child of your own genetic make-up, it should be your own personal choice.
    As human beings we should all be there for each other, but that doesn’t mean you have to spread your money into saving as many lives as possible, although if that’s what you want that then that’s what you want; point is it’s your life to live and when you;re on your deathbed you’ll wish you did what you felt more despite all the controversy and “negative” effects.
    Great article!

  7. Mary
    April 14, 2013, 3:20 am

    Not long ago I spent time with a gay couple who had recently adopted a baby. I learned about the unbelievably insane number of hoops they had to clear (as a gay couple) in order to qualify as acceptable adoptive parents. What these guys shared with me opened my eyes to the fact that any two people who would intentionally put themselves through this tremendous, lengthy and invasive ordeal to be approved as parents are probably as close to ideally prepared parents as is humanly possible. And their journey has only just begun. I’m reminded here that any couple going through the IVF process is quite likely equally committed to the future of their children. I understand overcrowding of the planet is of paramount concern today, however, I do believe that this busy world is also in need of quality, child-focused parents who will, hopefully, teach their children well on every level – but especially with regard to care and responsibility for the Earth. Great post.

  8. TSN
    Philadelphia
    April 12, 2013, 8:46 am

    Mr. Howard — my wife and I are about to undertake IVF after several years of unexplained infertility. The choice we are making is a no-brainer: we are educated persons with the means to pay for such a procedure and raise a child in a good standard of living. At no time should someone else’s ethical qualms about the state of the world come into play in our decision or otherwise affect our ability to do so. From a macro sense, the people that go through IVF are generally the EXACT types of people that should be procreating. Adoption is out of the question — I want sons and daughters of my own lineage and genetic makeup. If you do not understand this, then you have no right to cast doubts on the motives of others that are going through what my wife and I are going through. The world is a big place and the impact of our family’s IVF procedure will most certainly not harm it.

    • Brian Clark Howard
      April 12, 2013, 10:09 am

      That’s certainly understandable. Thanks for reading.

  9. Carol
    Western WA
    April 11, 2013, 11:33 pm

    I found this article to be very interesting and thought provoking. I truly had never thought of the two sides of IVF or of other ways to increase the chance of bearing a baby.

    I’m a woman who was blessed to have two children with no trouble. I loved being pregnant and even laboring and delivering! I loved being a parent of two children that we could watch grow into themselves while still have characteristics of their families. The gift of seeing those change over the years is priceless. We are now grandparents to 4 wonderful GRANDS! I also have 3 nephews and 1 niece (my sister passed away several years ago) and I have so enjoyed watching them become adults who have so far produced 6 girls and 1 boy – my GREAT GRANDS. All were born with no assistance. Each child clearly resembles someone in our family, be it parent, uncle, aunt, Grandparent or GRAND aunt. I would never ask anyone to give up that joy because of adding more humans to our already burgeoning population.

    BUT I am also very supportive of those who chose to adopt and even those who become foster parents. In my mind, there is a place for each of these ways to create a family. BUT, the author also raises an important question about the future of our planet and the growing population, especially in some parts of the world. I have no logical answer, just that of my heart.

  10. Liz Joyce
    Washington State
    April 11, 2013, 11:06 pm

    I find it ridiculous to focus on IVF as a reason the environment is bad. What about all the women out there that are having baby after baby on welfare? They are sucking the resources dry. A family that is paying ten-thousand dollars each IVF procedure is more likely to have jobs, health insurance, and not be on DSHS (public assistance).

  11. Isha Ray
    April 11, 2013, 7:49 pm

    But the option of adopting / sponsoring poor children etc is available to everyone of means — even those who can conceive in what the author calls the old-fashioned way. There are many unanswered questions about assisted technologies, to be sure, but why should couples who cannot old-fashionedly conceive have a special responsibility to spend their resources “better”, or to feeding “starving children” elsewhere? If all couples had fewer children, especially in high-consuming cultures, whether by assisted means or not by assisted means, that would seem to be a more even-handed approach to what the author sees as the population-environment problem. Assisted tech-seeking would-be parents almost never have more than 1 or 2 children.

  12. Kim
    April 11, 2013, 7:25 pm

    And a secondary side note, simply adoption instead of going through IVF is not nearly as easy as people would like to believe it is. Adopting from third world countries or countries who discard disabled children still costs tens of thousands of dollars, often much more than IVF does. And not everyone can pass a home study. Take an antidepressant recently? Be prepared to be grilled about it. Telling infertile couples to adopt instead also minimizes adoption as the first choice for many families, making it seem like a lesser choice than biological offspring.

  13. Kim
    CA
    April 11, 2013, 7:22 pm

    I’d like to point out a few things:

    1) IVF does not produce “test tube babies”. This is a misnomer, and continually using the phrase gives a false sense of what IVF actually IS.

    but more importantly,
    2) Nobody in the IVF process actually IMPLANTS anything in a woman’s uterus. Embryos are transferred, and the distinction is important because implantation creates a clinical pregnancy, IVF transfer does NOT. Embryos are transferred in the hopes that one will implant and grow into a baby. While the distinction may seem slight to those who haven’t been through IVF, for those of us who have, it’s a major issue in getting people to understand what IVF actually is and why it isn’t always a panacea.

  14. Andrew
    April 11, 2013, 4:59 pm

    I’d also point out that while IVF has become common and widely accepted, there are still major ethical objections to the fact that for every baby born, several other viable embryos are killed, used in research, or frozen indefinitely.

    “Parenting” did a good piece on it: http://www.parenting.com/article/the-fate-of-frozen-embryos

    • Brian Clark Howard
      April 11, 2013, 5:04 pm

      Interesting, hadn’t thought of that aspect.