When Louise Brown was born at Oldham Hospital near Manchester, England, in July 1978, the world reacted as if she were a creature of science fiction. The first child conceived by in vitro fertilization—that is, by uniting sperm and egg in a glass container—she was instantly known as the test-tube baby. Such was her notoriety that after leaving the hospital she had to be fed at midnight in a car on an empty street near the family’s home in Bristol, since throngs of reporters made it impossible to reach the front door. For years neither she nor her working-class parents, Lesley and John Brown, could escape the global spotlight. The unrelenting scrutiny once prompted Brown, now a preschool nurse in Bristol, to admit, “Sometimes I wish it wasn’t me.” Despite the attention, she has emerged as a healthy, happy young woman.
“Our duty to Louise was to get a thousand others so she wouldn’t be alone,” says scientist Robert Edwards, who with his late partner, gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, masterminded that first successful IVF procedure. They were true to their word. “Within four years,” says Edwards, “we had a thousand babies at Bourne Hall [their clinic].” Indeed, 20 years after Brown’s birth, 500,000 children around the world owe their lives to the once-revolutionary procedure. Though one round of IVF—ovulation induction, egg retrieval, insemination, fertilization, embryo culture and embryo-transfer into the womb—costs about $10,000, the growing popularity of the technique has been phenomenal: In 1985 there were 257 IVF births in the U.S.; in 1995 there were 11,342. There are now about 320 fertility clinics across the country, and the directions in which they have taken assisted reproduction are staggering, involving the freezing of embryos, postmenopausal motherhood and gender selection. Says Dr. Masood Khatamee of the Fertility Research Foundation of New York: “There is no limit to where we can go.”
As the first generation of IVF children enters adulthood, PEOPLE looks at where we have been and how far we have come.
America’s IVF pioneers
Howard and Georgeanna Jones keep scrapbooks of photos of their babies. Not just their own—they have three, and seven grandchildren—but also the hundreds they’ve helped bring into the world through their IVF expertise. Beginning with America’s first test-tube baby, Elizabeth Carr, born on Dec. 28, 1981, the two Norfolk, Va., physicians have helped couples give birth to more than 2,000 children so far. Says Jones, 87, of the work he and his wife, 85, have done at Eastern Virginia Medical School: “It’s fun, but there is more than the sheer joy of doing it. You have the feeling that you are doing something to make things a little better for everybody.”
For the Joneses—who grew up in Baltimore, followed their fathers into medicine, met at medical school and married in 1940—the birth of Louise Brown was a watershed. Soon after, Howard Jones told a reporter there was no reason the same IVF technique couldn’t be applied in the U.S. Their phone at the clinic now named after them—the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine—started ringing the next day as infertile couples sought help.
Three years later, Carr was born, and the Joneses still keep a picture of her—sort of—on their wall. It is a black-and-white framed photo of three cells nestled together. “That’s the way she looked before we transferred her,” says Howard Jones, like the proud grandfather he is.
In the U.S. she became No. 1
When Elizabeth Carr was just 3 years old, she asked the question many parents prefer to evade: “Mommy, where do babies come from?” Since her daughter, born in 1981, was the first IVF child in the U.S., the task facing Judy Carr, now 45, was even more daunting. “But at no time did we want to gloss it over,” says Carr, a preschool administrator, who turned to IVF after her fallopian tubes were removed. “We wanted to make it clear we were blessed and honored to be part of this historic technology.”
Judy and her husband, Roger, 47, a mechanical engineer, succeeded admirably: At 16, their only child is thriving and entirely comfortable with her origins. “We count our blessings every day,” says Roger. So does Elizabeth. “I knew from the moment they had me I was loved,” says the Westminster, Mass., high school student who hopes for a career in broadcast journalism.
She may have thought about her birth more often than most, but to her that’s no problem. “It forces you to be a little more well-adjusted because we have to become comfortable with who we are and why we are that way,” says Elizabeth. She and her family have attended several reunions of IVF babies conceived through the Virginia clinic of Drs. Howard and Georgeanna Jones (who call her every birthday). “The last time, I got to hold babies 1,000 and 1,001,” says Elizabeth. “I’m the big sister of the group.”
For the Kehs, it wasn’t too late
Arceli Keh and her husband, Isagani, had always had a happy marriage, but as they neared the age when most people are planning retirement, the couple knew something was missing from their Highland, Calif., home. “You get lonely as you get older,” says Arceli. “We wanted to have a family.”
And Arceli was determined to have one. Finally, on her fifth attempt at in vitro fertilization, using an anonymous donor’s egg and Isagani’s sperm, she became pregnant. On Nov. 7, 1996—just three months shy of her 64th birthday—she gave birth to 6-lb., 4-oz. Cynthia Solis, making Arceli the oldest woman ever to bear a child. “This is a miracle baby,” she says. “Without the help of God it would not have happened.”
Married in 1980, when she was 47 and he was 44, the Kehs—who met in 1969 in their native Philippines and came to the U.S. in the early ’70s—had found it impossible to conceive a child. But four years ago, Arceli learned that a fertility program at the University of Southern California would consider patients as old as 55. “I was desperate, so I lied,” says Arceli, then 60, who gave her age as 50. When he learned the truth, Dr. Richard Paulson, who runs the USC program, took the news in stride. “Most women in this age group want grandkids and want to relax,” he says. “Sometimes life deals you a different hand.”
Now, while her contemporaries contemplate lives of leisure, Arceli spends her days delighting in Cynthia, who says Mommy, Daddy and Nanay, the Filipino term she uses to refer to her maternal grandmother, 86, who lives with the family. “Sometimes we wish we were 20 years younger,” says Arceli. “But we get used to it.” At 62, Isagani still works the night shift at a machine shop. “I will probably retire in another couple of years,” he says. “Then I can stay home and take care of the baby.”
Eggs for sale: meeting a need
Carrie Specht is a young Los Angeles movie producer struggling to get by on hard work and big dreams. “I think, eat and sleep film. It’s my first love,” says the 31-year-old Santa Cruz native, who lives with her husband of four months, actor Jorge Urzua, 33. “But my bread-and-butter work comes from producing commercials and music videos.”
Three years ago, while Specht was studying at New York University’s graduate film school—and paying high rent, tuition and the costs of making movies—she resorted to an unorthodox means to make ends meet: On four separate occasions, she went to a Manhattan fertility clinic, where Dr. Hugh Melnick used an ultrasound-guided needle to harvest eggs from her ovaries. Each retrieval yielded from 10 to 15 healthy ova. The eggs were then fertilized in vitro and implanted in infertile women.
Specht earned up to $2,500 for each of the painful procedures, which were preceded by weeks of daily hormone injections. “I felt proud of what I was doing,” she says. “I provided something precious to couples who needed it.”
She occasionally wonders about the children her eggs have produced—and hopes to meet one or more of them someday. “They might have health questions or family questions or just be curious,” she says. She also hasn’t ruled out having her own babies. But for now her creative focus is on the movies she produces, including one short film, Bleach, that won a Student Academy Award. “My films are my children,” she says. “That’s what I live for.”
A full house in Michigan
When Bobbi McCaughey gave birth to septuplets in 1997, little Veronica L’Esperance told her mother, “We’re not famous anymore because that other woman had seven babies.” But Michele L’Esperance would have none of that. “I told her they would always be famous and very special to me,” says the 45-year-old dental assistant from Davisburg, Mich. Indeed, Veronica, her sisters Alexandria, Danielle and Erica and their brother Raymond will forever remain the first IVF quintuplets born in the U.S.
The five infants were born two months prematurely on Jan. 11, 1988. Michele, who has two children from a previous marriage, and husband Ray, a deputy sheriff who has a son from his first, had turned to IVF because Michele had had her fallopian tubes removed after the birth of her second son. Seven embryos were placed in her womb, and six weeks later the couple learned from an ultrasound that quints were on the way. Recalls Michele: “I was really frightened that I would lose them—that was my only concern.”
Last year, aided by news clippings and a diary, the couple told the quints how they had been born. “They accepted it at face value,” says Michele. So what’s it like being a famous quintuplet? “You always have someone to play with,” says Danielle. “But,” adds Alexandria, “you get less ice cream.”
Cold storage, happy returns
After enduring two miscarriages and four years of arduous, expensive and fruitless hormone therapy, Katherine Canfield was overjoyed when doctors invited her and her husband, Tom, to gaze through a microscope at the embryo that would grow, once implanted in Katherine’s womb, into their healthy daughter Emma. “To see your child as a couple of cells—there are no words to describe that,” says Katherine, 41.
A decade ago she and Tom, an architect, were close to despair in their quest to have a baby. Then they contacted Dr. Michael DiMattina at the Dominion Fertility and Endocrinology clinic near the couple’s home outside Washington, D.C. He suggested the then novel approach of cryopreservation. DiMattina started Katherine on drugs to stimulate ovulation, then removed eggs and fertilized them with Tom’s sperm. But instead of implanting the embryos in her uterus, DiMattina froze them in liquid nitrogen—and waited until the drug-induced chemical imbalance in Katherine’s body had abated. “The drugs may have made an unfavorable environment,” says DiMattina, “that could have interfered with implantation.”
So far the frozen embryo transfer process has worked twice for the Canfields: Emma was born in 1990, and her brother Tommy followed two years later. The Canfields are expecting a third child in January, this time with the help of nothing more than standard hormone treatments. “After all this, we’re getting a chance to see what a more normal pregnancy looks like,” says Katherine. “It’s great.”