We can’t believe it’s been four whole decades since Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby, was born in Bristol, England. But Brown, who paved the way for countless infertile couples to have babies, does indeed turn 40 on July 25, 2018. To mark the milestone, Brown posted a special message to her late mother on Twitter, writing, “My mum, Lesley Brown, who deserves all the praise for being the first woman to have IVF.” As Louise celebrates her special day — and her beloved mother — it’s worth taking a look back at how far we’ve come since the historic birth.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is the process of extracting eggs, retrieving a sperm sample, and then manually combining an egg and sperm in a laboratory dish. The practice is common and (for the most part) widely accepted today, so it’s hard to recall how controversial it once was. IVF pioneers Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards knew it best: The two brilliant scientists were once regarded as outcasts even among their peers. Scientists, politicians, and the public criticized the idea for being strange and even an insult to nature. But then, the adorable Louise Brown was born in 1978 — and some people began to call her birth a miracle.
“There aren’t many people that can say they were world famous within hours of being born,” Louise Brown wrote in her autobiography, Louise Brown: My Life As The World’s First Test-Tube Baby (Amazon, $28.56).
But that fame came with a price. Brown later revealed in a 2015 interview with The Telegraph that her parents, John and Lesley Brown, were bombarded with hate mail — some of which was splattered in blood — in the months following her birth. They had tried for nine years to conceive naturally before they were treated by the IVF doctors, only to come home later to hate.
Louise Brown said, “It was menacing and scary and considering the time the people must have taken in putting this thing together then sending it across the world to a three-month-old baby I would say a completely sick act by some sick minds. Imagine how worrying this was for Mum.”
At the same time, her family received quite a bit of fan mail as well, especially from childless couples struggling to conceive. But as Louise Brown puts it, her parents were just happy to have her as their child — like most wonderful parents out there. In an interview with iNews, she said, “My mum just wanted a baby, and no matter what, she would have done it.”
Louise Brown, who is now a mother of two and works in a shipping office, had to take some time before she became comfortable with her fame. But these days, she’s more than happy to use her platform to raise awareness and help other people like her parents who struggled with fertility — and this includes speaking to the European Parliament about equality of IVF treatment accessibility across the entire continent. It seems like much of her work is paying off.
“A few months ago I was in the supermarket with my husband and sons and I heard footsteps running up behind me,” Louise Brown said in a recent interview with Time magazine. “It was a woman and she had a 4 year-old — the same age as my son — and a tiny baby in a pram. She said that she’d always wanted to thank my mum and me because without us she’d never have had those two. It makes you tear up.”
Obviously, much has changed since 1978. At least one million babies have been born through IVF and other assisted reproductive techniques in the United States alone. Worldwide, the total number has been estimated to be much higher, at five million or even six million. And as Louise Brown demonstrates, babies born through IVF can survive and thrive, and lead very fulfilling lives.
Furthermore, high-profile figures have spoken up about using the practice as well. You may recall that model and author Chrissy Teigen has given birth to her beautiful children with the help of IVF. Although she has dealt with some critics, that hasn’t stopped her from firing back when necessary — giving other less-famous folks struggling with fertility a voice and a chance to speak up as well.
Brown hopes that someday, everyone will have an equal chance to become a parent. Although it will take a lot of work, we’re sure she’ll do everything in her power to help other people’s dreams of having children come true.