Louise Joy Brown ‘Favorited’ My Tweet
Some 500 million Tweets transpire per day but one stopped me in my tracks. Fate conspired with Twitter to introduce me to the world’s first ‘test tube baby.’
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the lives of Louise Joy Brown (now 37-years old and residing in Bristol, England) and mine, outside San Francisco, finally intersected.On July 25, 1978 when this blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby girl’s birth made headlines the world over I was 15-years old and living in the Detroit suburbs. It was hard to miss the heated debates surrounding her creation. Raised in a Catholic household, I recall being both astonished and a little freaked out about what led to her arrival — but not for long. I had other teenager things on my mind. I was consumed with worries about my latest growth spurt. Would my one serviceable pair of jeans become dreaded ‘flood’ pants? Would my best friend and I be assigned the same lunch period in the fast-approaching new school year?
I didn’t give Louise another thought for 15 years.
She materialized again in my consciousness as I fretted over the first of what would turn out to be many years of maddening doctor appointments, prescriptions and medical interventions: a diagnostic exam of my Fallopian tubes. Suddenly Louise became very real to me. How exactly had she been conceived? How many and what types of hormones flooded her mother’s body? How were the egg cells suctioned out of the ovaries? What substance were they fertilized in? These questions and more overwhelmed me as I sat anxiously on a worn, faded chair in a doctor’s waiting room. Nothing in the dog-eared magazines strewn around could hold my attention. Later, while shivering under a flimsy paper gown, I wondered why the syllabus committees hadn’t incorporated more on human reproduction when devising school biology curriculum.
At the same time I began to associate Louise’s middle name, Joy (the doctors involved in her conception suggested it), with one elusive idea: a positive pregnancy test that would lead nine months later to the successful birth of a baby. The grainy black and white embryo photos from our ultrasounds came alive in my imagination. I envisioned a playful child combining the Mediterranean skin and kind heart of my husband with our collective curiosity and sometimes impish personalities.
This pursuit of pregnancy joy dominated a decade of our lives. As fertility treatment interventions grew more complex I not only wanted to know what needed to go right on the biological front I also wanted to know more about what could go wrong. Bioethics questions haunted me. What I didn’t fully grasp at the time — surrounded by frequent headlines trumpeting advancements fueling a fast-growing fertility industry — was how often the science involved in assisted reproductive technology failed and that failure’s fallout.
Aside from deconstructing what had now become a full-blown physical mystery, our ‘unexplained infertility,’ I fought to stay sane amid the emotional, social swirl of the mommy and me movement. The intensifying siren song of fertility clinics and the emergence of the baby bump as the newest status symbol conspired to inflict their own unique torture.
With each successive month at-home pregnancy tests revealed negative results. Joy was snuffed out of my life. It was replaced, for an extended period, by pervasive despair. I turned to the internet driven by a hunger for some sign of hope that my life wouldn’t be forever mired in longing, sadness or anger. Online I discovered what has since become a vibrant community of women worldwide chronicling the trauma that accompanies failed fertility treatments. Collectively we’ve begun to fill the void left by fertility clinics more intent on upselling new treatments than on responding to the emotional devastation they helped to create within their often vulnerable customer base.
I have also uncovered a few reports and panels signaling troubling indications on the long-term physical effects of fertility medicine. It has been difficult to learn exactly how in vitro fertilization (IVF) and related cell manipulation may impact the children conceived because, as one scientist noted, “If problems emerge from epigenetic changes they may not be apparent until adulthood or middle or old age.”
Now a dozen years beyond our failed IVF cycles I hadn’t given much thought to Louise until I learned this past month about her autobiography, which will soon be on my night stand. Reports of her book led me to do a few searches about her and her family. Lesley Brown, Louise’s mother, died in 2012 at 64 after an undisclosed illness. I also discovered Louise has bravely gone on the record saying that treatments have “gone too far,” adding, “I worry about IVF mums being pumped full of hormones.”
I worry about that, too. It seems Louise and I and many others will learn together what the long-term effects of fertility medicine have in store for us.