Hope in a Glass

Forty years ago, on July 25, 1978, the world’s first “in vitro fertilization (IVF) baby” was born to Lesley and John Brown in Oldham, United Kingdom. For millions of people who have created, or are in the beginning stages of creating, their families via IVF, Louise Joy Brown’s 40th birthday is cause for global celebration, hope, and wonder, not to mention a testament to the huge scientific advances assisted reproductive technologies (ART) have made since Louise’s birth. As Brown recounts in the Independent, “I’ve seen IVF grow from just me in a small room in Oldham with my mum and dad, to a world-changing procedure.”

Since 1978, an estimated eight million babies have been born through IVF, and my beloved 16-month-old daughter Lucinda is one of those incredible babies. While I imagine Ms. Brown did not want the initially negative (“Frankenbaby” or “A Brave New Baby”) and often sensationalized (pro tip: IVF does not involve a test tube, folks) media attention, as a person who tried for many years to have a child, I am forever grateful Louise Brown exists.

Sure, the Vatican 40 years later still considers IVF to be immoral, even “evil,” with a rigid “begotten, not made” logic. The kind-hearted nun who came to visit me in the hospital a day after my daughter’s birth was not flustered when I told her I knew, as a long-lapsed Catholic, that the Church saw what I had chosen to do with my husband as a sin. The nun paused and looked at me and our sleeping daughter, and finally said, “There are men who make rules who do not know the pain of wanting a child. Perhaps I will be struck down for this, but I believe God forgives and loves you and your child.” Later, privately, I would cry in gratitude for her kind words.

Others decry assisted reproductive technologies (ART) for the access they give to same-sex and/or transgendered couples, but why? Why not “stay in your lane,” as the kids are wont to say? Why not heed the words of Dr. Briana Rudick, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia Medical University and Director of the Fertility Program for Female Same Sex Couples at the Center for Reproductive Care? “[T]he love and attention children receive is ultimately more important for their psychological well-being than the presence of a mother and a father.”

Jean Purdy, the world’s first embryologist who stayed overnight when Drs. Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards finally went home and witnessed the cell division of the embryo that would become Louise Brown, died at the young age of 39, long before she would be recognized for her ground-breaking work and for her pivotal role in establishing Bourn Hall, the world’s first and very much thriving IVF clinic. Imagining Purdy looking “in [the] glass,” the Latin translation of in vitro, to see the world’s first blastocyst humbles and astonishes me. I have a very similar photograph of a gorgeous embryo who became my daughter taped carefully in a pregnancy journal I thought I would never get to keep.