Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, was born 35 years ago today, revolutionizing the field of reproductive medicine and giving infertile women hope that they could become mothers.
Now, the procedure is so common that more than 5 million around the world have conceived babies through in vitro fertilization or IVF.
Brown was born at Oldham General Hospital in Britain on July 25, 1978. Her mother had blocked fallopian tubes, still one of the most frequent causes of infertility in women. But Brown herself, who has a 6-year-old son, never required IVF and just revealed she is expecting a second child.
Infertility affects 7.3 million people in the U.S, or one in eight couples, according to RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association.
Today, thanks to the efforts of British Nobel Prize winners Dr. Patrick Steptoe and biologist Robert Edwards, who pioneered the procedure with the birth of Brown, IVF is performed successfully around the world.
Live birth rates using non-donor eggs are as high as 40 percent in couples under the age of 35, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART).
ART accounts for slightly more than 1 percent of all U.S. births, more than 61,000 births in 2008, the last year for which there are statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But despite advances in medical technology, society still stigmatizes women who cannot conceive, according to RESOLVE’s president and CEO Barbara Collura. Insurance coverage varies from state to state, and infertility is often treated as a non-medical condition.
“We’ve had really amazing medical breakthroughs, but I don’t think that 35 years later the discussion of infertility is much more mainstream,” said Collura. “That’s because public understanding is not quite there.”
“A lot has changed,” she said. “But a woman being told right now that she’s having trouble conceiving is going to have the emotions and feelings of loss.”
Many women do not have access to IVF because insurance companies do not cover the costs or they require riders that result in higher premiums. That’s because in many policies it is considered an elective procedure, like plastic surgery.
TRICARE, the company that insures active duty soldiers, and the Veterans Administration (VA) only cover treatments leading up to an infertility diagnosis.
Two bills are currently pending in Congress to bridge the gap for couples who cannot afford the price of IVF. One would allow couples a tax credit, much like the adoption credit for out-of-pocket costs.
A second bill would require the VA to provide IVF and adoption assistance to those whose wounds have rendered them infertile.
One cycle of IVF, which includes medications and all procedures, including cryo-preservation of embryos, can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $20,000, according to Collura.
Using a donor egg can be as much as $35,000 to $40,000. Surrogacy, which in some states includes compensation for the carrier as well as her health care, can exceed $80,000.
Since the 1980s, 15 states have passed laws that require insurers to either cover or offer coverage for infertility diagnosis and treatment, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
Amanda Dodson lives in Dayton, Ohio, a state that does not mandate coverage of IVF. The 29-year-old suffered from several miscarriages due to polycystic ovary disease, and her husband has abnormal sperm.
Thanks to IVF, they now have a 2 1/2-year-old son, Elijah. But the procedure cost upward of $16,000. She works in home care and her husband is a call-center supervisor, so money is tight.