ON July 25, 1978, Louise Joy Brown, the world's first successful "test-tube" baby was born in Great Britain.
Although the technology that made her conception possible was heralded as a triumph in medicine and science, it also caused many to consider the possibilities of future ill-use.
Every year, millions of couples try to conceive a child; unfortunately, many find they cannot. The process to find out how and why they have infertility issues, can be long and arduous. Before the birth of Louise Brown, women who were found to have Fallopian tube blockages (approximately twenty percent of infertile women) had no hope of ever becoming pregnant.
Usually, conception occurs when an egg cell (ovum), in a woman is released from the ovary, travels through a Fallopian tube, and is fertilised by a man's sperm. The fertilised egg continues to travel while undergoing numerous cell divisions. It then rests in the uterus to grow.
Women with blocked Fallopian tubes, cannot conceive because their eggs cannot travel through their Fallopian tubes to get fertilised.
Dr. Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologist at Oldham General Hospital, and Dr. Robert Edwards, a physiologist at Cambridge University, had been actively working on finding an alternative solution for conception since 1966. Although Steptoe and Edwards had successfully found a way to fertilise an egg outside a woman's body, they were still troubled by problems after placing the fertilised egg back into the woman's uterus. By 1977, all of the pregnancies resulting from their procedure (about 80), had lasted only a few weeks.
Lesley Brown became different when she successfully passed the first few weeks of pregnancy.
Lesley and John Brown were a young couple from Bristol who had been unable to conceive for nine years, due to Lesleyâ€™s blocked Fallopian tubes. Having gone from doctor to doctor for help to no avail, Lesley was referred to Steptoe in 1976.
On November 10, 1977, Leslie underwent the very first in vitro ("in glass")fertilisation experiment. Using a long, slender, self-lit probe called a "laparoscope," Steptoe took an egg from one of Lesleyâ€™s ovaries and handed it to Edwards, who then mixed Lesley's egg with John's sperm. After the egg was fertilised, Edwards placed it into a special solution that had been created to nurture the egg as it began to divide.
Previously, Steptoe and Edwards had waited until the fertilised egg had divided into 64 cells (about four or five days later).
This time, however, they decided to place the fertilised egg back into Lesley's uterus after just two and a half days. Close monitoring of Lesley showed that the fertilised egg had successfully embedded into her uterus wall.
Then, unlike all the other experiments in vitro fertilisation pregnancies, Lesley passed week after week and then month after month with no apparent problems. The world began to talk about this amazing procedure.
Lesley Brown's pregnancy gave hope to hundreds of thousands of couples not able to conceive. Yet, as many cheered this new medical breakthrough, others worried about future implications.
The most important question was whether this baby was going to be healthy. Had being outside the womb, even for just a couple of days, harmed the egg? If the baby had medical problems, did the parents and doctors have a right to play with nature and thus bring it into the world? Doctors also worried that if the baby was not normal, the process would be blamed regardless of whether or not it was the cause.
Another concern was that If human life begins at conception, are doctors killing potential humans when they discard fertilised eggs? (Doctors may remove several eggs from the woman and discard some that have been fertilised.)
Is this process a foreshadowing of what is to come? Will there be surrogate mothers? Was Aldous Huxley predicting the future when he described breeding farms in his book Brave New World?
Throughout Lesley's pregnancy, she was closely monitored, sing ultrasounds and amniocentesis. Nine days before her due date, Lesley developed toxaemia (high blood pressure). Steptoe then decided to deliver the baby early by Caesarean section.
On July 25, 1978, at 11:47pm, a five-pound, 12-ounce baby girl, was born. The baby girl, named Louise Joy Brown, had blue eyes and blond hair and seemed healthy. Still, the medical community and the world held their breath wondering whether Louise Brown had any abnormalities that have been undetected at birth.
But the process had been a success! And although some wondered if the success had been more a matter of luck than science, continued success proved that Steptoe and Edwards had accomplished the first of many "test-tube" babies.
Today, in vitro fertilisation is considered commonplace and utilised by infertile couples throughout the world.
The Worldâ€™s First Test Tube Baby