Today is my 40th birthday. Like most people, I would probably rather keep that fact to myself.
But, around the world, the celebration of my birthday will also see celebrations that mark the 40th anniversary of IVF – the procedure that led to my birth.
New research released last month claims there have been eight million people born through IVF since its invention. An exhibition at the Science Museum, London, talks of six million – nobody is really sure of the exact numbers as there are babies being born every day now through assisted reproductive techniques.
When I was born, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, the two men who came up with the technique, suggested my middle name be Joy. They said my birth would bring joy to so many people.
Forty years, and millions of babies later, many will agree they were right.
IVF in its many forms brings hope for people in despair that they will never have a child. So many things have changed in the decades that have gone by, but the desire for couples to have babies has not.
My mum, Lesley Brown, went to the doctor suffering from depression. At the heart of it was her inability to have a child with my dad, John.
When they heard about this experiment it gave them hope. Even though it had never worked before it was something to cling on to – and happily led to me being born.
Later it worked for them again, with my sister Natalie being born in 1982 – by then the 40th in the world.
That same journey is there for couples today and thanks to the pioneers the road is easier to travel than ever.
Of course, there are arguments about the success rates of the different techniques.
Heartbreakingly things don’t work out for everyone. The moral debate about how far science should go in genetics rages on. IVF is now a multi-billion pound worldwide industry and it depends on where you live as to what help is available – and at what cost.
Every day women and men start out on this journey. First they have to pluck up the courage to say things aren’t working for them in the most intimate part of their lives. They must share their troubles with doctors and specialists. Some hide it from their closest friends and family.
They may need something simple or they may need operations – as my mum did – before IVF can even be attempted. These days there are diets, drugs, computer printouts and even robotics used, and it is difficult for someone at the centre of all of this to keep focused on their real desire – to be able to cradle their own baby in their arms.
Sadly, the pioneers – my mum and dad, Patrick Steptoe, Robert Edwards and let’s not forget their amazing assistant Jean Purdy, who stayed up all night to watch the cells that became me divide in a petri dish – have all passed away.
Certainly, my mum would never have imagined what my birth would lead to.
Forty years on, other scientists are pushing the boundaries, embryologists are inventing new techniques and moral questions are still being raised. IVF is playing a huge role in the changing shape of families, with same-sex couples now able to be parents.
I’ve seen IVF grow from just me in a small room in Oldham with my mum and dad, to a world-changing procedure.
To the men and women going through IVF I say: “Never give up hope.” To the doctors and embryologists I say: “Keep up the good work.” And to all those involved in getting IVF to this stage I say: “Thank you for all you have done on behalf of the millions of babies.”
Once I was the only one in the world. Now, there are millions of us and we can no longer be ignored.
‘Louise Brown: 40 Years of IVF’, a special anniversary edition of ‘My life as the world’s first test tube baby’, is out in paperback and available to buy here.
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