“I would hope that within a very few years … instead of this being a seven-day wonder this will become a fairly commonplace affair.” Those prescient words were spoken by Robert Edwards, a 52-year-old Cambridge physician on July 25, 1978, when he announced the wondrous birth of baby girl who was the first to be conceived outside the body. Louise Joy Brown, born healthy and screaming at 5 pounds 12 ounces, made headlines around the world and gave new hope to infertile couples everywhere.
Scientists “hailed it as a momentous medical achievement,” according to the New York Daily News. “The jubilation was tempered, however, by warnings over the morality and ethics of producing human life in the laboratory.”
Her father, John Brown, a truck driver, declared “there is no difference between her and any other little girl. We just helped nature a bit, that’s all,” according to People in a follow-up story when Louise Brown was almost 6. The magazine reported: “She attends a primary school in the neighborhood and, like other kids in the middle-class area, makes a stop at the candy store on the way home.”
Today, Brown, who also goes by her married name, Mullinder, turns 40, and in vitro — or literally “in glass” — fertilization is a standard medical procedure that is the cornerstone of the multibillion-dollar fertility industry. It has led to the birth of an eye-popping 8 million babies.
Speaking this week to reporters in London, Brown recounted she was 4 when she found out she was conceived via IVF, and her mother showed her video footage of the birth.
“I was more mortified because you see me as a baby being picked out of my mum, and it’s weird to think that was you,” she said, according to the Telegraph.
Brown's mother was one of around 280 women who were part of the experiment, according to the Daily Mail. Only five of them became pregnant, and Brown was the sole birth.
The increasing popularity of IVF and other forms of assisted reproduction come at a time when the U.S. fertility rate has hit historic lows — partly because fewer teens are having babies, but also because many people are waiting until their late 30s or 40s to have children. In 1800, the typical American woman had a whopping eight children, according to Clemson University economics professor Robert Tamura. Today, it is 1.8 children per woman.
Given the importance of birthrates to a country's economy and to the human race's future more broadly, IVF has become more important than ever. Happy birthday, Louise.
Fertility Frontier Special Report:
Docuseries: Should I freeze my eggs? Episode 1: Biological clock | Episode 2: The pelvic tour | Episode 3: Family planning | Episode 4: 2nd opinion | Episode 5: Eggcyclopedia-Everything you need to know about freezing your eggs
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