Happy birthday, IVF: ‘Inconceivable’ mom looks back at first ‘test tube baby’

Carolyn Savage knows more than most about the moral and ethical quandaries of in-vitro fertilization. An IVF clinic mistake left her impregnated with another couple’s child; she carried that child to term and gave him up to his biological parents, knowing that would have to be her last pregnancy for medical reasons. Later, she became the mother of twins through a surrogate. The mom of five reflects on how much has changed, and how much hasn’t, since the first „test tube baby” was born 34 years ago today.

By Carolyn Savage

I remember when the first “test tube baby” was born on July 25, 1978.  Even though I was only 9 years old at the time and didn’t know a thing about the “birds and the bees,” I knew enough about where babies came from to understand that the birth of Louise Brown in Oldham, England, was a big deal.

When TODAY Moms asked me to watch the original story of the first child conceived through in-vitro fertilization, I was curious to see how the technology was viewed. I expected the first IVF to be reported with a science fiction aura, but aside from the use of the term “test tube baby,” I was pleasantly surprised to see how accurate and thorough Tom Brokaw’s story was. Surprisingly, it was not the tone of the 34-year-old TODAY report that struck me but, instead, the realization that some of the thornier moral, ethical and religious issues surrounding IVF in 1978 still exist today.

Since the birth of the first IVF child, the field of assisted reproductive technology has made remarkable advances. In-vitro fertilization has been proven to be safe and long-term studies have determined that children conceived through IVF live physically and emotionally healthy lives. Meanwhile, the advancement of embryonic cryopreservation allows pro-life infertile couples to give all of their embryos an eventual chance at life.

Unfortunately, none of these accomplishments seem to matter to people who accuse couples using IVF of being selfish for not adopting, irresponsible for over-populating the world, or just plain sinful for circumventing God’s plan. I would have hoped that over the course of the past 34 years people would have come to understand that assisted reproductive technology is merely a medical treatment for a health condition that is hindering conception.  Unfortunately, society isn’t quite there.

Of course, I can’t ignore the fact that along with the strides made in the field of assisted reproduction, serious moral, legal and ethical issues have arisen. Embryo quality grading scales are not consistent from clinic to clinic, sometimes leaving patients confused as to whether or not an embryo is viable. Decisions regarding the handling of human embryos are often left in the hands of physicians who are occasionally more worried about their published success rates than whether or not they might be mistakenly discarding what the parents consider a potential human being. Insurance coverage for fertility treatments is almost non-existent, causing patients to make decisions about how many embryos to transfer based on finances instead of safety.  And of course, there’s me: Due to a very rare mistake that has happened to a handful of women, I became pregnant with somebody else’s genetic child.

These are all issues that weren’t even remotely mentioned in 1978 and I’m sure, as the technology of assisted reproduction continues to advance, there will be more issues that I can’t even begin to anticipate.

When I watched the original TODAY report on the birth of the first IVF baby, I smiled. In 2010, Dr. Robert G. Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his role in the birth of in-vitro fertilization.  At that time, according to the Nobel committee, nearly four million children had been born as a result of Dr. Edwards’ work. As the genetic mom of three IVF daughters, and the de facto surrogate mom of a very loved little boy, I will be eternally grateful to Dr. Edwards and all of the other ethical physicians who have followed in his footsteps.

Carolyn Savage is the co-author of „Inconceivable: A Medical Mistake, The Baby We Couldn’t Keep, and Our Choice to Deliver the Ultimate Gift.” She lives in Sylvania, Ohio, with her husband and five children. You can follow her constantly evolving story at Mama On The Fly.