For ages, the prospect of conceiving a human being in a laboratory seemed ripped from the pages of science fiction. Then, in 1978, everything changed.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Test Tube Babies, from filmmakers Chana Gazit and Hilary Klotz Steinman. This one-hour documentary tells the story of doctors, researchers, and hopeful couples who pushed the limits of science and triggered a technological revolution in human reproduction. In so doing, they landed at the center of a controversy whose reverberations continue to this day. “The battle over in vitro fertilization (IVF) drew in scientists, social activists, religious leaders, lawmakers and everyday Americans,” says Gazit. “More than a scientific debate, it was a philosophical and moral struggle.”
When the first human egg was fertilized in a lab in 1944, the news spread like wildfire; the press quickly coined the term “test tube baby.” Many Americans were horrified. “The idea that you could take a human embryo which you’ve created in the Petri dish, and then take that embryo and put it back into a woman’s uterus and have a baby born, was appalling to most people,” says geneticist Lee Silver.
But for decades after the early scientific advance there was little real progress; researchers could not keep the fertilized eggs alive. Moreover, their efforts were entangled in a national moral debate. “There was a fear of the slippery slope,” explains bioethicist Arthur Caplan. “If it would work for infertile couples, then maybe people would start to say I’d like to have a smart baby, or an athletic baby. It was about making super-babies.” Despite the controversy, one maverick scientist at New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital refused to give up his pursuit.
The determined researcher, Dr. Landrum Shettles, was relentless in his experimentation, and in 1973 agreed to help a couple from Florida who had exhausted all other fertility treatments. John and Doris Del-Zio arrived in New York ready and willing to be the first couple to conceive a baby outside the mother’s body. But what the Del-Zios considered a private decision placed them squarely in the middle of an emotionally charged debate and a very public lawsuit against Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Under intense scrutiny and tremendous pressure not to cross the line into human experimentation, hospital administrators stopped the Del-Zios’ procedure and fired Shettles.
The issue was further complicated in 1973 by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which inextricably tied IVF research to the question of when life begins. “A number of fertilized ova must be there and of course only one will go through the process of embryo transfer into the uterus,” comments Father Richard McCormick, a Roman Catholic priest. “What will you do with these discards? What are they?”
In Washington, lawmakers placed a moratorium on federal funding for IVF research, bringing progress in America to a standstill. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, British researchers were racing toward the same goal Shettles had been forced to abandon — to successfully create the world’s first test tube baby.
On July 25, 1978, while all eyes in the States were trained on the Del-Zios’ controversial court case, a healthy baby girl, Louise Brown, was born in England — the first child ever to be conceived outside the womb. “She was on the cover of every magazine and every newspaper,” says author Robin Marantz Henig. “People had been sure she was going to be a monster. When she turned out to be this chubby-cheeked, blonde newborn, there was so much relief.”
“The fact that the first test tube baby was born in England, not the United States, was a testament to the politics that were at play,” says filmmaker Hilary Klotz Steinman. “The same pattern is playing out today in the world of stem cell research.”
England’s success spurred American scientists into action and privately funded research gained momentum. In early 1980, America’s first in vitro fertilization clinic opened its doors in Norfolk, Virginia; immediately, thousands of couples clamored for treatment. Finally, after more than a year of trial and error, Elizabeth Carr, America’s first test tube baby, was born on December 28, 1981.
Since then, more than 400,000 babies have been born in America as a result of in vitro fertilization, and more than two million around the world. “IVF revolutionized reproductive science,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels. “It has changed the lives of thousands of Americans and offered new hope for families around the globe.”