“My mother just wanted to have a child and she would go through anything to get one... and when I was born she received endless congratulating postcards from all over the world, mostly from women with fertility problems.”
This was part of a recollection that Louise Brown, the world’s first tube baby, shared with a medical audience in Cairo on 25 April during the Ain Shams University Conference for Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Infertility.
In an interview with Ahram Online, Brown, who was born in the UK to great international attention on 25 July 1978, said she was in Egypt to remind “everyone really” that every woman has the right to have a child and that treatment of fertility problems is “a right” that should be made available for every woman.
In her talk before the conference, Brown expressed a lot of admiration for the medical team who helped her parents go through the necessary preparation for the first successful in vitro fertilisation (IVF) by British gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and scientist Robert Edwards, who had begun their pioneering collaboration a decade earlier.
Before giving birth to Louise, Lesley Brown had suffered years of infertility due to blocked fallopian tubes. In November 1977, she underwent the then-experimental IVF procedure.
In her statement before the conference in Cairo, Brown recounted the ordeal of cumbersome travels and medical tests and preparations that her mother had to go through so patiently and so willingly just to have a child.
Speaking to Ahram Online, Brown said that when her mother passed away in 2012, she realised that the only two people involved in this experiment left alive were herself and one of the assisting members of the medical team.
Then, Brown, who works as a nurse, decided that it was her duty and responsibility to tour the world and tell her story to keep alive the memory of a pioneering medical team and the bravery of a woman yearning for motherhood.
Brown's efforts, she added, have another purpose: “to assert that all people that need IVF should have access to it.”
Over four decades after her birth, Brown said, millions of children have been conceived thanks to the IVF treatment, but there are still so many couples who wish to have a child but have no access to this treatment, either because it is too far away or because they cannot afford it.
This, she argued, is not just the case for people in poorer countries, but even in developed countries, “simply because fertility problems are mostly not covered by the national or private health care programmes.”
When Louise Brown was born, the world questioned the ethics of the IVF technique and wondered about the fate of the child who was announced to have been born healthy through a caesarean section.
“My mother even received some hate mail, including a letter that came from California calling my birth unnatural,” she said.
Brown told the audience that Time Magazine featured a cover story about the fate and chances of the first ever tube baby – and whether or not it was a good thing for couples to pursue IVF.
But at the end of the day, the commotion over the birth of the first ever tube baby was mostly positive, as the procedure promised an end to the agony of millions of women with fertility problems.
Lesley and Peter Brown were in fact unable to take Louise back home for 12 days because of the hubbub around the extraordinary event.
Several years later, the couple had their second IVF child, Natalie.
In 1999, Natalie was the first IVF baby to give birth to a child of her own, through natural conception. Louise herself was a few years later to give birth to two healthy boys, also through natural conception; Cameron, now 12 years old, and Aiden, now five.
John, her husband, was in fact a neighbourhood kid who came to the house of the Browns along with other children to see the newborn Louise.
But it was only some 25 years later that Louise actually met John in a local bar and they later decided to get married.
“When I was growing up it was not such a big deal that I was born through IVF. My mother told me about it when I went to school, but it was not something we obsessed about… my parents wanted me to have a natural life,” Brown said.
Brown is very grateful for the memory of her parents, whose endurance, especially that of her mother, made it possible for IVF experiments to bear fruit.
In 2010, the Nobel prize for physiology was awarded to the British scientist who pioneered IVF, a procedure that had by that point helped in the conception and birth of 4 million people around the world.
Brown is committed to eventually writing her memoires to pay respect to the medical team and her parents.
For now, however, she is convinced that the best thing she could do in their memory is continue touring the world to remind people that no woman should be denied the right to motherhood, that many people still cannot get treatment for fertility problems and that couples should not be fearful of pursuing new treatments to have a child of their own.