Just over a year ago a "miracle" took place in the little town of Oldham, England. Heralded by a host of rapacious newspaper reporters and magazine writers, it brought fame, fortune and trauma to the humble couple (and the team of gynecologists) responsible for the event. Now test-tube-baby Louise Brown has her first gospel account: her parents' personal story as told to professional scribe Sue Freeman.
For nine years, the Browns -- both with unhappy childhoods behind them, their marriage stormy -- had struggled to have a child. Lesley was 29 when she went to Patrick Steptoe, the doctor who told her, "Don't worry. You're just the right age for my purpose."
Steptoe's test-tube baby technique is now well known. In this procedure, the woman's egg is extracted from the ovaries and fertilized with the man's sperm in the test tube. A few days later, the fertizlied egg is implanted back inside the woman to grow into a baby as if it had been there all the time. The objective is to bypass the woman's Fallopian tubes which have become blocked, a major cause of infertility in couples.
Both parents were ordinary people. "Why were Les and me chosen to have this baby?" asks John. "Having a miracle was a lot to live up to," comments Lesley. Steptoe had told the expectant parents: "This will be a very important baby -- not just to you . . . but to the rest of the world."
The Browns signed a contract with the London "Daily Mail" for exclusive rights to the story. At least baby Louise was going to be rich.
What is most extraordinary in this book is the behavior of the British press. Reporters hounded the Browns for scraps of copy. They had to change their name. Medical records in the hospital were forged. Security guards were posted everywhere. A couple of reporters apparently dressed up as nuns, another as a priest, and asked to come in and comfort Lesley. One American reporter started a bomb scare in hopes of springing the miracle mother loose when the maternity wards were evacuated. Newpapers tried to bribe security guards for tips; neighbors made money selling pictures and so did relatives.
What if the British press had been in Bethlehem for the first miracle birth? Lights and cameras zooming in on the creche. "I'm now standing outside the stable in Bethlehem" -- to paraphrase the words of a television reporter who stood outside the Brown's kitchen window. "It's a little place that looks as if it hadn't had a coat of pain for years," he continues. "What a tatty place," remarks another reporter. "Go out and belt them," the new mother says to her husband.
Miracles need mystery, not to mention dignity, and there's no mystery here. In fact, the Browns suffer from overexposure. In this way, they fall into the same media pit as the astronauts a decade ago who also signed a contract, giving their true story to Life magazine, but such coverage put the public to sleep with a plethora of authorized details.
The Browns were pawns in their miracle. Certainly as we inch towards a brave new world of quality control conception and surrogate maternal incubators, the first successful test-tube fertilization and implant mark a new age of reproductive possibilities.