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|by Yvonne Barlow|
Her birth spawned millions of others and newspapers dubbed her a 'miracle' and a 'test-tube baby'. Louise Brown's birth through the in vitro-fertilization (IVF) technique gave hope to couples around the world. Newspapers provided intimate and intricate details about the English parents, Lesley and John Brown, whose egg and sperm had been united in a laboratory dish. Louise Brown is married now and in July 2006 she announced that she was expecting a baby - without the aid of fertility treatment.
Since her birth in 1978, couples struggling to have babies the old fashioned way have clamored for IVF. Around three million babies have been born this way and, according to numbers provided by the British Fertility Society, 30,000 women a year in the UK attempt this rigorous procedure along with millions more worldwide.
In the most basic cases, women are injected with high levels of hormones to stimulate the production of several eggs, rather than the single egg normally produced each month. The eggs are removed using ultrasound for guidance and placed in a laboratory dish with the partner's sperm in the hope that fertilization will take place. When it does, two or three healthy fertilized eggs are placed in the woman's womb.
However, success rates are low. Depending on the reason for the infertility and the age of the woman, 28 per cent of women under the age of 35 will get pregnant. For women over 40, the success rate drops to 10 per cent, according to figures from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.
Sheila Hopkins was in her early 30s when she went through two attempts at IVF and both failed. "It was so hard - especially the second time. We knew we were only going to try it twice - so I really felt the pressure to succeed," she said. "I cried for weeks after it was over. I hated to even see a pregnant woman. I felt like such a failure."
Maria Gormez only gave IVF one attempt because the drugs she had been given to stimulate egg production made her feel ill. "I was bloated and nauseated so much," she said. After it was all over and her body had rejected the eggs, Gomez and her husband decided to try adoption. She and her husband will travel to China soon to meet their baby daughter. "I can't tell you how happy I am to be receiving this child. I've always wanted a baby - ever since I myself was a little girl. I was devastated about the IVF and how it made me feel. I felt like I'd been marked as not a real woman."
Profound disappointment is not the only risk when undergoing IVF.
The high level of hormones given to stimulate egg production can cause Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS). The disorder occurs in around six per cent of the women undergoing IVF and, so far in the UK, five women have died.
However, there have been suggestions of cancer links with IVF. Several high profile women have blamed their cancers on the hormones they received during IVF. Liz Tiberis, former editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar magazine, had nine attempts at IVF. She developed ovarian cancer and wrote extensively about her illness, blaming it on the high dose of hormones she received while undergoing IVF. She died six years ago.
British radio producer Sarah Parkinson blamed her breast cancer on IVF therapy, also launching a tirade in the press before she died in 2003.
Hopkins says she worries about future cancer risks. "With new studies showing that the contraceptive pill is linked to breast cancer, and hormone replacement therapy now also showing a connection, why shouldn't all those high levels of hormones we received in IVF also cause cancer?"
Studies have been inconclusive. Several reports show slightly higher rates of cancer among those treated by IVF. However, a spokesperson at the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which licenses and monitor IVF clinics in the UK, said studies also show a link between infertility and high rates of ovarian and uterine cancer, regardless of whether IVF was used.
A 2004 study by Cornell University in New York, in fact, showed that women who had become pregnant through IVF had a lower rate of breast cancer than untreated infertile women.
The jury, it appears, is still out on the question.
The majority of British people appear to be in favor of IVF, though. A November 2005 study by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Association showed that 59 per cent of the public supported using science to treat infertility.
But some fertility experts still urge caution. Lord Winston, Head of fertility treatment at Hammersmith Hospital in London and a member of the medical team who pioneered IVF, has written several medical papers highlighting concern about the thawing process that takes place when fertilized eggs have been frozen for storage. According to him, the process could damage the genetic structure of the eggs. (European Journal of Human Genetics and Natural Cell Biology; 2002)
Conservatives have reacted with dismay. "At a time when we are deploring the problems for families where there are no positive male role models, we now seem to be going out of our way to create families where there is no father," said Opposition Member of Parliament Gerald Howarth.
Additional controversy has been stirred as older women have used fertility treatment to have babies. In July 2006, a 62-year-old British woman became this country's oldest mother. But the world record goes to a Romanian who gave birth at age 66.
Meanwhile, Louise Brown, the world's first 'miracle baby' prepares to give birth. Five years ago, her younger sister, Natalie, also born by IVF, was the first test-tube baby to have children of her own. She is now the mother of two
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