In November 1977 Lesley Brown underwent a radical procedure, a method invented by the cooperation of two English doctors that won a Nobel Prize in Medicine 33 years later. This procedure is called IVF, or in vitro fertilization. On the 25th of July 1978, Louise Joy Brown was born. She was a healthy infant of 2.608 kg and the world's first test tube baby.
IVF is the process of fertilizing an egg with sperm outside the human body. "In vitro" means in glass. The process involves taking single or multiple eggs from a woman's ovary and fertilize them with sperm in the lab. Then these eggs are kept to be nurtured for two to six days before being transferred into a woman's uterus. Once the receiver of the fertilized egg is pregnant, the procedure is considered successful. IVF could be performed on the egg bearer herself, or a surrogate. It is one of the most effective methods against infertility and very widely used around the world.
Louise Brown with her parents, 1978.
Ethical debates always surround IVF and surrogacy. When Pope Paul VI was interviewed on the birth of Louise Brown, he expressed concerns about the possibility that the technology could turn women into "baby factories". Surprisingly, he did not criticize Louise Brown's parents. Criticisms from the society to the miracle baby were much more fierce: "A parcel arrived addressed simply to "Louise Brown, Test Tube Baby, Bristol, England" it had been posted in San Francisco and the customs sticker on it said it contained a novelty item. Inside, mum found a small jewellery-style box with the words "Test Tube Baby" printed on a sticker with an image of some baby footprints. There was one suggesting that you could keep a test tube baby in a toilet bowl or fish tank. It was menacing and scary and considering the time the people must have taken in putting this thing together then sending it across the world to a three-month-old baby I would say a completely sick act by some sick minds. Imagine how worrying this was for mum" said Louise Brown.
Louise's parents took her on a world tour following her birth, including Japan.
According to a research conducted by World Health Organisation in 2010, 48.5 million couples (around six times the population of The Netherlands) are having difficulties conceiving. Since the birth of Louise Brown, there had been over five million babies born with IVF till 2013, with more than 61.000 in the US alone. The demand grows. Today, IVF and surrogacy is a global market. Private clinics around the world are offering chain services in IVF and surrogacy for parents. This caused some shadier sides in some developing countries due to lack of established laws and regulations regarding surrogacy motherhood. While a private clinic in California would cost over 20.000 for such procedure, it only takes 1/5 of that in a well-conditioned facility in Mexico. That translates into 70% savings, effectively solving one of the biggest problems of IVF for parents, the expensive price.
Now it is hard to say if IVF contributed in objectifying women even further, reducing the image of a woman into a baby machine. But it is undeniable that this technology is life changing. When something as fundamental to a society as procreating transforms, no one stays untouched. Technology holds the ability to suppress but also to empower. We hope to see the latter coming to life.
This article is part of the Artificial Womb research project by NNN. The goal of this project is to develop thought-provoking scenarios that facilitate a much-needed discussion about the way technology radically alters our attitude towards reproduction, gender, relationships and love in the 21st century. We highly value your feedback or input, contributions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.