In the 1990s, I co-authored a book on infertility and IVF, a tad ironic given my tendency to produce many children. Fertility was never an issue for me, but it was for others I knew, and most importantly, I could totally understand the burning desire for a child, as I’d been there, I’d felt it. More than once! I changed from someone who had never wanted children, who marched for abortion rights for women (I still would) and to whom sterilisation sounded like a healthy option, to someone I didn’t recognise, who had her reproductive light switched on in her late twenties. And when it switched on, it was enough to power the Blackpool illuminations in its intensity. It didn’t switch off again until my 40s.
So, yes, I got that bit of the situation – that overwhelming, desperate desire to have a baby.
Visiting couples to interviews for the book (and a few magazine articles to boot) was an education in itself; they were shockingly frank and honest. I stayed with one couple for most of the day. She talked, he talked, they talked, they argued, he made me lunch (cheese on toast – delish) and we all talked some more. Little did I realise beforehand what a tough situation the whole IVF process was. I met women desperate for babies, and men who felt used and wanted only for their sperm.
Writing the book now, I’d do it differently, because none of this humanity really came across, yet it is the most amazing part of it all.
At that time, I was lucky to live not too far from Oldham, where I interviewed one of the ‘IVF pioneers’, a proud lady called Marcia. She never did have a child and the pain was still raw many years on. IVF had to start somewhere, and Oldham was the place where women were so desperate for a child that they allowed themselves to effectively be experimented on.
The birth of IVF was popularly seen as the landmark so-called test-tube birth of Louise Brown in 1978, which brought the whole IVF process to people’s attention. However, research was ongoing well before then, using human guinea pigs. Prior to the dramatic medical breakthrough by the pioneers, Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, couples suffering infertility had little hope of satisfactory treatment. Virtually all investigation centred on the woman (sperm count was rarely checked) and then mainly consisted of laparotomy (later laparoscopy) and D & C. (dilation and curettage). If a patient, like the mother of Louise Brown, had no fallopian tubes or they were blocked, then adoption was probably the only path open to her.
So, experimental though it was, ‘breakthrough’ is not too strong a word for the day when Steptoe secured an egg from the ovary of Lesley Brown, and Edwards managed to use her husband’s sperm to fertilise it in the laboratory. Louise arrived nine months later on 26th July, delivered by Caesarean section. It all sounded so easy, but it wasn’t and even today, IVF still has a high failure rate. The birth of Louise Brown was the result of ten years of persevering research and some trial and error. Lesley Brown was a willing guinea pig, and rights to her story went for an alleged £300,000. IVF raised lots of ethical issues in those early days: selling one’s story, cloning, and what to do with frozen eggs which were unwanted. Ann Oakley raised the feminist point that IVF allowed men to achieve certainty and proof of fatherhood.
Enter Marcia. Marcia was one of Mr Steptoe’s experiments. It was a while until she felt able to really talk, and throughout the interview, she was very emotionally contained. It seemed she needed to be, as tears brimmed just below the surface. She explained:
He suggested I was put with his ‘special ladies’. His team tested my husband’s sperm; there was no problem with that. I was given 96 tablets and four injections per month to stimulate my egg production after a laparoscopy couldn’t find anything wrong with me.
Mr Steptoe was a very fatherly man, patient and understanding. He was aware of the mental pain that infertile women suffered, and was sympathetic. He was wonderful. Looking back, it seemed that being a pioneer was my job. We offered ourselves, we ladies, hoping it might work for one of us. I was in a group of six. He just said he was going to try something different with us. Slowly, it dawned on me what he was saying. I was excited but felt very safe; I knew he wouldn’t do anything to harm me, so I had absolute confidence and trust. I was a bit bothered about what would happen, as we were given very little information. I didn’t ask. You didn’t in those days. I was rather in awe of him; although unassuming, he was charismatic.
Marcia was given tablets to take every month. She didn’t know what for. She also had to save all her urine.
I had to take the container everywhere – work, shopping – and dropped it off each day at the cottage hospital. I don’t know what they did with it. Mr Steptoe sent for me three days before I went into the hospital. I had to take three tablets and felt very sick. My bag was always at the ready to go in. I had lots of blood tests. The technician who was taking the blood was very rough – he wiggled the needle in the vein. It upset me and I fainted and threatened to tell Mr Steptoe. I fainted again when Mr Steptoe walked into the room. when I came round, he was stroking my hair and said: “what these girlies will do to have babies.” When I stirred, he moved away and was back to normal.
I went to the theatre and they took two eggs from me. My husband gave a sperm sample. Robert Edwards was there. Then my legs were put in stirrups and the fertilised eggs were put back inside with a catheter-type thing. It was physically uncomfortable. I had to stay for 24 hours with my legs slightly raised. The timing was very important.
Two weeks later, I had my period. I was devastated, crying and crying. Mr Steptoe said: “I’ll try again”. I needed time to pull myself together. We pioneers knew he was on the brink of success and it could be any one of us. He was desperately short of funding, as people accused him of playing God, so things had to be kept quiet. We were in the hospital with other people around who were dying; it was quite traumatic and we were trying to keep quiet. The nursing staff weren’t nice, but on the whole, Mr Steptoe’s team looked after us. We weren’t made to feel welcome.
When I heard about the Louise Brown success, I was so pleased he’d done it but wished it could have been me as well. He then moved to Bourn Hall, Cambridge. By then I was nearly 40 and we let it go as I had promised my husband I would. I later discovered there was nothing in my notes regarding my IVF with Mr Steptoe – he was considered a law unto himself and he kept the notes he took privately. There were no records. This is typical. He was protective of us and didn’t want anyone to know about it. I had no regrets; I’d have regretted it if I’d not tried.
These days, no one ever mentions the pioneers – they never talk about those who made it possible for others. People maligned Steptoe because of ignorance and lack of knowledge. Dr Edwards was also very nice. I wrote to him when Mr Steptoe died. Steptoe himself called us his ‘special ladies’. You have to have a certain percentage of women who’ll have a go, and I have a bit of pride that I did something for society. It is a nice feeling that I contributed something, and I can’t speak too highly of the doctors.
Marcia is right that the pioneers are never mentioned but now it is also alarming that so little information was given to women prepared to try this experimental treatment, that they were purposefully kept uninformed.
She was a patient in the days when doctors were not questioned and even husbands and wives didn’t fully discuss such things. But at the end of the day, she was an experimental guinea pig.
Now, that would at least merit an explanation.