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By Mike O'Sullivan
12 December 2008
The first baby produced through in vitro fertilization was born in Britain 30 years ago, July 25, 1978. Since then, more than three million children have been born around the world using the technique. The procedure remains controversial for some, but for one American mother and her 18-year-old sons, it was a godsend.
In July 1978, the first so-called "test tube baby," Louise Joy Brown, was born in Manchester, England. She had been conceived through an experimental procedure outside of her mother's womb, when gynecologist Patrick Steptoe and physiologist Robert Edwards mixed an egg from her mother and sperm from her father in a laboratory. The term "in vitro" means "in glass" because the procedure is done in a test tube or petri dish.
The first in vitro baby in the United States was born in 1981. Dr. Mousa Shamonki, who directs in vitro fertilization at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, says there was excitement and fear at the time.
"There were those that thought the breakthrough was incredible and that it was an appropriate advancement of science," said Dr. Mousa Shamonki. "And then, of course, there were those that had legitimate concerns that perhaps we were meddling a bit more into medicine than we should be."
Some people had moral concerns about the fertilized embryos that were discarded. Others feared the procedure could lead to a higher-than-average rate of birth defects.
Dr. Shamonki says some studies have raised concerns, but that most have found in vitro fertilization to be a safe procedure. Researchers say the most serious concern is the widespread birth of twins, and sometimes triplets or higher multiple births. This happens because physicians usually implant several fertilized embryos to increase the chances of a successful pregnancy.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control say half of all births through in vitro fertilization in the United States are multiple, most often of twins. The centers note that multiple births increase the risk of premature delivery, which can put the child at greater risk of health problems.
In vitro fertilization can also be expensive, when the costs of drugs and tests are added to physician fees. And it is far from fail-proof, often requiring repeated tries to achieve a pregnancy.
But Shelley Humphrey, who lives near Los Angeles, says the procedure was a blessing. She was infertile as a result of a drug that her mother took during pregnancy, and Humphrey says she wanted children more than anything.
"I think at that point in my life, I was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen," said Shelley Humphrey. "For me, there was not even a question."
|From left: Peter, Shelley and Alex Humphrey|
Eighteen years ago, she gave birth to twin boys, and today they are in college.
Humphrey's physician, David Diaz of West Coast Fertility Centers in Orange County, California, has helped bring three thousand children into the world through in vitro fertilization. He says he shares the joy of his patients as they learn that they are pregnant, and keeps in touch as the children grow.
"We've had occasional reunions where the patients come in with the children, and I've had a chance to watch them grow up and become toddlers and then enter in their teen years," said dr. Diaz. "But it's just incredible that that much time has gone by where they are now graduating high school and going off to college. And it's a wonderful feeling to have been a small part of that."
Peter Humphrey, now 18, says that he and his brother, Alex, have known since they were young how they were conceived, and that it has never been an issue in his family.
"I figure, I have loving parents," he said. "They're great parents and I'm glad they brought me into this world, and it shows that they love me enough to actually have the procedure and take the time and go through it, and risk a lot and spend quite a bit of money to do this - just so they could have kids. And I knew, that meant a lot to me."
He says that without the once-experimental procedure, he and his brother would not have been born, and that today he strongly supports stem cell research and other cutting-edge medical technologies.
But many criticize in vitro fertilization as unnatural, and others question whether women past menopause, who are in their 50s and 60s, should be helped to give birth. But over the years, the procedure has become more routine. And today, it accounts for one in every 100 births in the United States. Dr. Mousa Shamonki of the University of California, Los Angeles says it is a wonderful option for many infertile women if they are willing to bear the emotional, physical and financial costs.