Before in vitro led to the births of four million humans, we feared the procedure's inhumanity.
By the time she turned 30, Brown and her husband, John, had been trying for nine years to conceive. As they tried, the doctors Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards were making strides in in vitro fertilization -- the process that brings the egg and sperm together in a lab setting, implanting the embryo after fertilization. The procedure -- as one doctor put it, "an incredible leap into the unknown" -- had never led to a full-term pregnancy. By the late 1970s, however, Steptoe, a gynecologist, and Edwards, a biologist, were getting close. When Brown and her husband volunteered for in vitro, the process was -- finally -- successful. Brown delivered a daughter, Louise, on July 25, 1978.
Given the number of babies that have now been conceived through IVF -- more than 4 million of them at last count -- it's easy to forget how controversial the procedure was during the time when, medically and culturally, it was new. We weren't quite sure what to make of this process that, on the one hand, offered hope to infertile women and, on the other, seemed to carry shades of Aldous Huxley. People feared that babies might be born with cognitive or developmental abnormalities. They weren't entirely sure how IVF was different from cloning, or from the "ethereal conception" that was artificial insemination. They balked at the notion of "assembly-line fetuses grown in test tubes." In press coverage of Brown's pregnancy, "test tube baby" -- a phrase that reflects both dismissal and fear, and which we now use mostly ironically -- was pretty much a default descriptor. (That's especially noteworthy because Louise Brown was conceived not in a test tube, but a petri dish: "In vitro" simply means "in glass.")