05 October 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 822
Louise Brown: My Life as the World's First Test-Tube Baby
Written and researched by Martin Powell
Published by Bristol Books
ISBN-10: 1909446084, ISBN-13: 978-1909446083
Buy this book from Amazon UK
Like many people who work in the fertility sector, I have Louise Brown's Birthday in my diary. Why? She isn't a friend or relation. In fact, I haven't even met her. But we all wish her a happy birthday every year, usually in a public way, to promote our charity, IVF clinic or other fertility-related service.
Louise Brown is famous just because she was born – she was a world first, the first IVF baby. Her autobiography 'My Life as the World's First Test-Tube Baby' is a must-read for anyone who works in this sector – especially those who are too young to remember the circumstances around her birth. And I don't just mean the ground-breaking medical achievement, but also the media attention and the ethical debate that surrounded it.
The Browns were an ordinary family. They didn't want to be celebrities, and this was the late 70s – a bygone era when it wasn't a national obsession to become a 'celeb'. Instead they took a pragmatic approach to the media attention and used it to their financial advantage – they didn't get vast sums of money but, by doing exclusives, they hoped to have some financial security and limit (or control) the media attention. They didn't have media training or image consultants. It is to their credit that they didn't become rent-a-quotes, commenting on every new technique or ethical debate.
The Daily Mail secured the exclusive for Louise's birth but that didn't stop the rest of the media trying to get in on the act. One journalist even telephoned the hospital saying that there was a bomb to try and get photographs of Lesley Brown. Inevitably, the media turned on the elusive Browns and accused them of being greedy. Arguments about cheque-book journalism were bandied about as media outlets had little else to say about them.
One sentence in particular resonated with me early on in the book:
'My birth seemed to bring out the worst in all the journalists. This was hardly a story that needed sensationalising.'
IVF-related stories are still being sensationalised some 37 years later, although now, it isn't always the journalists who are solely to blame, and people working in the sector with a new product to launch or a book to sell must take some of the responsibility. The media's antics around Louise's birth made me worry for what may happen to the first family who undergo mitochondrial donation treatment.
This book is an easy read and, while it won't win any literary prizes, I would still recommend it for its unique insight into the events before and after the birth of the first IVF baby.
There are a lot of interesting facts in the book. One that surprised me was that Louise's dad had children from a previous relationship – something which precludes many couples from accessing fertility treatment on the NHS nowadays. Another was that the Browns paid for IVF treatment when they wanted a sibling for Louise – they were lucky it worked first time and her sister Natalie was born. Their attempts to have a third child failed.
Louise could have decided to use the circumstances of her birth to seek fame and fortune, and perhaps even meet her idols Take That, but she didn't. Like the rest of us, she went to school and got a job. And that's what makes her autobiography interesting – her life has been so normal but, at times, extraordinary, such as having her wedding featured in OK! magazine or going on a family world tour.
A passage in the addendum from Martin Powell encapsulates this juxtaposition. When looking through the collection of letters and cards which Louise's mum had kept, he found a letter from CNN requesting an interview, and on the back of the envelope was a handwritten note:
'Mum. I'll see you at Asda. Lou.'
Copies of Louise Brown: My Life as the World's First Test-Tube Baby will be available at the discounted price of £15 at the following Progress Educational Trust events in London:
Beating the Biological Clock: Should You Freeze Your Eggs? (Wednesday 21 October)
10 Years Since the End of Donor Anonymity: Have We Got It Right? (Tuesday 3 November)
From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing: The Science and Ethics of Engineering the Embryo (Wednesday 9 December).
You can also buy the book from Amazon UK.