by Iris Waichler, L.C.S.W.
Time Magazine recently reported that since the birth of Baby Louise who was born in 1978 there have been approximately 5 million babies born as a result of assisted reproductive treatment. For those of you that may not know Louise Brown was known as “the test tube baby.” She was the first child born with the help of in vitro fertilization. Sadly this news was coupled with the news that her mother, Lesley Brown, just died at age 64.
Lesley Brown and her husband John were true pioneers and in my mind real heroes. My daughter was born because of in vitro fertilization. I couldn’t help thinking that all of those babies, their families, and the children yet to be born owe the Browns a true debt of gratitude.
Atlantic Magazine also featured an article about Lesley Brown. What many may not be aware of is what a courageous act it was for Lesley Brown to volunteer to be the first woman to allow herself to undergo this radical new treatment. She put herself, her baby, and her treatment in the public eye. This was a huge personal risk because at that time, many people felt it was an immoral act. The Browns were forced to move from their home because of a death threat. They had to purchase a home with a hidden back yard that offered some measure of privacy from the media. John and Lesley Brown were willing to take this risk after struggling for 9 years to conceive a child. They later had another daughter, Natalie, using IVF treatment.
The Browns were pioneers. There was no way of knowing if IVF treatment would result in any kind of medical problems or birth defects. I was 24 and can clearly remember when Baby Louise was born. I had no knowledge or understanding of the personal sacrifices the Browns had to make to build their family. I recall thinking this was not the way people were supposed to have babies and indeed wondering what birth defects Louise would suffer as she grew up. The term “test tube baby” was a favorite of the media and evoked many negative and frightening images for people.
There has been much progress made since the birth of Baby Louise yet, in some areas little change has occurred. The Atlantic article describes concerns in 1980 sprouting from this new scientific procedure. New York Times reporter Ann Taylor Fleming described fears “babies will gestate in laboratories and where the question of abortion ethics pales in the face of an even more complicated question –the ethics of manufacturing human life.” The article goes on to site the message of the Catholic Church today which says “IVF violates the rights of the child: it deprives him of his filial relationship with his parental origins and can hinder the maturing of his personality.” Today Catholic men and women facing infertility must sometimes have to choose between their faith and their desire to build a family.
Those of us who desperately struggled to have a child have a deeply personal understanding of how strong and overpowering that urge to parent becomes. We are fortunate today to have more treatment options, higher success rates, and more reproductive endocrinologists and clinics to turn to in hopes of making our parenting dreams a reality. The culture we live in today allows us to be more open about how we conceive our children which I believe is a good thing. We read about more public figures and celebrities sharing information about how they built their families. That implies more acceptance in the larger community about IVF and other types of family building. I don’t believe that we are where we need to be yet. More education is needed to help others understand choosing to undergo infertility treatment is not a decision made lightly. Whether people decide to undergo infertility treatment or to adopt a child from here or any other country these very personal family building choices should be accepted and supported. In the meantime take a moment to remember and honor the memory of Lesley Brown and the legacy she has left us. Universal acceptance of infertility treatment would certainly be a fitting way to pay her and the tribute she deserves.
Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW, has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and has been a licensed clinical social worker for over 30 years. She has done workshops, individual, and group counseling with people experiencing infertility. Ms. Waichler is the author of Riding the Infertility Roller Coaster: A Guide to Educate and Inspire. She currently writes freelance infertility and health related articles.