On November 10th 1977, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards performed a procedure which was to result in the world’s first IVF baby. Almost nine months later Louise Brown was born and since then more than five million babies have entered this world after being conceived with the help of medical intervention.
Happy 40th birthday In Vitro Fertilisation.
I was first introduced to the concept of IVF twenty years later in 1997. I was a teenager, doing A Levels, and I remember it well as a debate in my Religious Studies class. Back then that’s all it was though, a debate, a concept, not something tangible that truly existed, and definitely not as something which would go on to shape my life, in the way that it has. At that point in time I didn’t know about infertility, I didn’t understand that people couldn’t get pregnant naturally. We were spending our school days putting condoms on bananas and being taught how not to get pregnant, no one ever raised the question: “What if I can’t?” Of course, that was partly our age and partly ignorance of the age we were living in, when infertility wasn’t spoken about and IVF was deemed as a controversial way in which to conceive, when, if couples didn’t have a child it was, most probably, thought that the woman was “barren” and no one was talking about male infertility.
The same thing then happened 14 years later during my wedding preparation course; we were asked to share with our partner our hopes and dreams of a future family. We were told how important it is for couples to be in agreement about wanting children and how exciting, yet life-changing, having a baby actually is. Infertility didn’t get a mention, and that was only six years ago.
Perceptions are changing though and certainly for the better. Celebs now do it, and talk about it, family friends have done it, and spoken out, aunties and uncles do it and it’s known that currently 1 in 6 couples are experiencing infertility, on some level. We’ve also discovered that men can be infertile too, and will talk about it, with male infertility counting for around 50% of cases today. We have come far but not yet far enough.
Ignorance is still rife. Phrases such as ‘Just adopt’, ‘Just relax’ and other “well meaning” platitudes are still uttered, along with infertility myths, and when was the last time you had a conversation about involuntary childlessness? Controversially IVF is pushing harder at ethical boundaries; NHS funding is regularly in the press, genetic testing takes place and donors are used to help same sex and heterosexual couples, and individuals, conceive; a lot has happened in the 40 years since that first embryo transfer.
Whether you agree with all aspects of it, a few, or none, it cannot be denied that IVF has indubitably changed the world. Throughout the past four decades the medical science surrounding fertility treatments has improved dramatically, and research in to infertility has increased: Being infertile is now, no longer, wholly synonymous with being childless.
I’ve often felt that infertility has the ability to strip couples of choices which were once taken for granted. We don’t get to decide when to have a child and choosing whether to have a larger family comes with added complications. After our first failed cycle, I became aware that IVF doesn’t always work but, invariably felt that at least it gave me that element of choice I had been so desperately craving.
Infertility cuts deep in to the soul. It plunges a knife in to your heart and can leave you questioning whether you want to live. It consumes you and takes over rational thinking and logic. It makes you investigate everything, looking for the reason as to why this is happening to you. I spent months trying to work out what I was being punished for when, in reality, there was no castigation; it was, for us, simply life. There’s also the guilt. Guilt that with every failed cycle you’re continually letting everyone down, guilt from whichever party is medically responsible for the infertility and guilt about the feelings experienced throughout the whole process; jealousy being the main culprit.
I had always wanted a family. I’m a good mother and have a lot of love to give. Whilst, one day, we may have decided to adopt or foster, I wanted to be pregnant more. To feel my baby moving and growing inside of me, to give birth, create life and to know my child from that very first magical cry. I wanted to be, and felt I had a right to be, like every other mother who can conceive naturally. And IVF gave me that right.
IVF isn’t easy. It’s a tough medical process and emotionally it leaves you in tatters. For some it’s incredibly difficult deciding whether to even go ahead and start the procedure, let alone being faced with the harsh reality that it doesn’t always work and it might be time to stop.
In many ways I have a love / hate relationship with IVF. I love that my prayers were, finally, answered but I hate that I had to have IVF and experience everything it encompasses. During our cycles I regularly had to remind myself that no matter how tough IVF was, for me, infertility was tougher. Yes, it can be addictive, yes, it is expensive but yes, it can work. IVF gives hope and it can make dreams come true.
Determination can only get an infertile so far but combine willpower with science and therein lies the potential to change the world. I’m proud my son is an IVF baby; I’m in awe of how he was created, and with 300,000 other IVF babies, just in the UK, I can rest assured in the knowledge, that as he ventures on his journey throughout life, he will meet many more little miracles of science, like him. Other children who also began their lives in a petri dish, whilst anxious parents-to-be awaited phone calls, further medical procedures and finally, hopefully, that confirmation of a pregnancy which, in some cases, took years to come.
There is no shame in infertility, no embarrassment in IVF and no taboo. For me; there is simply pride and I am, forever, indebted to those pioneers behind In Vitro Fertilisation, and the scientists who continue in this field. Thank you IVF, and happy birthday.