Test tube babies

Louise Joy Brown was born on July 25th, 1978. Her name is not widely known in popular culture, but her claim to fame is that she was first baby born by in-vitro fertilization. This is a procedure that involves monitoring (and sometimes stimulating) a woman's ovulatory process, and removing an egg or eggs to be fertilized externally in a liquid in a laboratory. After fertilization, the fertilized egg undergoes embryo culture for 2-6 days before being implanted in the uterus of the same, or another, woman to set a pregnancy under way. The glass vessel used in the fertilization gives us the "vitro" of the procedure's name, as well as the nickname "test tube baby."

The first successful case took place in Oldham, where Robert Edwards, Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy developed the procedure. Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010. Steptoe and Purdy would have shared the prize, but unfortunately both had died, and the prize is not awarded posthumously.

Like many scientific breakthroughs, IVF has brought choices and chances to people who had previously been denied them. In the 40 years after that first success, it is estimated that eight million children have been born worldwide using IVF and other assisted reproduction techniques. While the optimal woman's age is 23–39 years at the time of treatment, the technique has enabled older women, including those past the menopause, to bear children successfully. A woman unable to carry her own children can have a surrogate mother carry the fertilized egg of herself and her partner, and bring it to term. IVF has enabled couples in gay or lesbian relationships to become parents and bring up children.

Developments in cryogenics has enabled first embryos and later unfertilized eggs to be frozen for subsequent use. This has been important for those about to undergo medical treatment that might render them infertile. The outcome from using cryopreserved embryos has uniformly been positive with no increase in birth defects or development abnormalities.

Recent advances have enabled couples who carry genes that can cause life-damaging conditions (such as muscular dystrophy) in a child, to select for implantation an embryo that does not carry them. This eliminates the defect not only for the child, but for its offspring. More recently still, has come the opportunity to remove or even repair defective genes before implantation.

Ethical issues have been raised by the process and its subsequent developments, and there were those who voiced alarm and opposition when Louise Brown was born. The Catholic Church opposes all kinds of assisted reproductive technology, but there is no consensus in religion, science or philosophy on when a human embryo should be recognized as a person and have the rights pertaining to that status. For those who believe this happens at the moment of fertilization of the egg, there are ethical issues when multiple eggs are fertilised, begin development, and only some of them are implanted, with the remaining ones discarded.

Some people are concerned that IVF makes it possible to select for the sex of the child, as Monique and Scott Collins did in 1997, when they chose to have a daughter to balance their family. Others are concerned that people will choose "designer babies" for their intelligence, looks, athletic, musical or mathematical skills. The suggestion is that rich parents will choose to bear children that have vastly improved chances of worldly success and achievement. Still others suggest that the more people that can do this, the more people will enter the world capable of improving it for everyone.

In the absence of a single world authority to impose universal rules, some countries will be more ready than others to allow experiments, innovation and advances, allowing would-be parents denied opportunities in one country to seek them in another. Few people who suffer from crippling hay fever or a life-threatening nut allergy would want their children to endure the same if they could prevent this. And the same is more obviously true for more serious life-limiting conditions. On a more general level, many people, if not most, would want a world that gave humans the chance to enjoy better lives. The genie came out of the bottle when Louise Brown came out of the womb, and it is not going back.