On the 40th an­niver­sary of the world’s irst “test-tube” birth, Mar­garet Am­brose meets Australia’s pi­o­neer IVF kids, and thanks them for blaz­ing a trail that al­lowed her to be­come a mum.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

Australia’s pi­o­neer­ing IVF ba­bies 40 years on

When Candice Thum has a mile­stone birth­day it makes na­tional head­lines – but noth­ing like the day of her ac­tual birth, when she was on the front page of ev­ery ma­jor news­pa­per in Australia and her par­ents gave an ex­clu­sive bed­side in­ter­view to The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly. On June 23, 1980, Candice was born Australia’s rst IVF baby. She made a some­what dra­matic en­trance, a pos­te­rior pre­sen­ta­tion, ve days pre­ma­ture, fol­low­ing a rough-and-tumble Mel­bourne tram ride. But “she did it her­self”, said her proud mum, Linda Reed. “It’s just mirac­u­lous,” added ob­ste­tri­cian Dr Ian John­ston.

Re­becca Feather­stone Je­len was also one of Australia’s rst IVF ba­bies, as­sisted by Drs Step­toe and Ed­wards, the in­ven­tors of IVF who brought the rst “test-tube baby”, Louise Brown, into the world, in 1978, through their work at Bourn Hall, UK.

At the time, the world was si­mul­ta­ne­ously ex­cited and terri ed about this new tech­nol­ogy. IVF was greeted with a mix­ture of hope from those strug­gling with fer­til­ity, and fear, which came in the form of dooms­day pre­dic­tions, paint­ing a pic­ture of a brave new world where mass-pro­duced hu­mans could be made to form great ar­mies or ll work­forces.

Although pas­sion­ate de­bate was rag­ing in the wider world, ac­cord­ing to Re­becca, it wasn’t a big topic of conversation at home. “When I was about 12, my mum and dad sat me down and told me about how I was cre­ated,” she re­mem­bers. “At rst, I had vi­sions of Bun­sen burn­ers and Petri dishes, but then they ex­plained to me the his­tory of Bourn Hall and how the in­ven­tors of IVF had cre­ated me, and I was proud. I didn’t re­ally tell many peo­ple be­cause I had just started high school and there were other things that were more im­por­tant to me. Peo­ple I did tell were ei­ther ex­cited for me or didn’t be­lieve me.”

As Australia’s rst IVF baby, it was harder for Candice to y un­der the radar.

“I grew up in a small com­mu­nity in ru­ral Vic­to­ria and ev­ery­one was re­ally pro­tec­tive,” she re­calls. “Mum re­mem­bers that, if there were me­dia in the street, the neigh­bours would run out and shoo them away.

All my friends knew be­cause, from time to time, it would be on the news.”

Do you have a belly but­ton? Will you be able to have chil­dren? Th­ese were the ques­tions the rst IVF kids were of­ten asked, and Candice got her fair share. “I’d just make jokes and say, ‘oh it’s lucky you can’t see the scar on my neck where the other head was re­moved’,” she laughs. “Be­cause I grew up in a ru­ral com­mu­nity, there was a lot of ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion of cows go­ing on, and I re­mem­ber be­ing asked if this was like how I was cre­ated.

“On my 10th birth­day, there was a big party to cel­e­brate IVF and it was on the news. I was a shy kid and be­ing in­vited to a party in the city with all th­ese other kids was over­whelm­ing. They wanted me to come up on stage and cut a cake, and as much as I un­der­stood why, it was bizarre.”

Although they had al­ways known about each other, Candice and

Re­becca nally met when Re­becca was 19 and Candice 22. Both women were work­ing for Ac­cess Australia, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that sup­ports fam­i­lies of IVF and ad­vo­cates for so­cial and leg­isla­tive change.

“We just clicked,” says Re­becca. “And we have been best friends ever since.” They say they are united by the bond of be­ing rst “IVF-lings”.

Now, Candice and Re­becca have joined together to form Fer­til­ity Mat­ters, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that is devel­op­ing re­sources to help schools ed­u­cate young peo­ple about fer­til­ity.

“Ev­ery­one has the right to have a baby,” says Re­becca. Yet lack of ed­u­ca­tion is rob­bing many women of that op­por­tu­nity. “A lot of peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the very ba­sics about fer­til­ity health and preser­va­tion. They don’t un­der­stand that age plays a huge role in fer­til­ity, and many think, ‘oh it’s okay, we will just do IVF’, not re­al­is­ing that IVF doesn’t al­ways work … In Australia, we’ve come a long way with IVF treat­ment but not so far with ed­u­ca­tion. And Candice and I are per­fectly placed to talk about th­ese is­sues.”

Both women say they feel in­cred­i­bly lucky to have been born through IVF, but don’t think of them­selves as spe­cial. “My par­ents were very brave, and the doc­tors were bril­liant, but I kind of feel, ‘what have I done? I was just born’,” Candice says with a shrug.

By the 1990s, as­sisted re­pro­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy was im­prov­ing and the suc­cess rates climb­ing. Clin­ics were ac­tively re­cruit­ing sperm donors to keep up with de­mand. Donors were some­times paid and do­na­tion was quick, sim­ple and anony­mous.

When Hay­ley Smith was old enough to un­der­stand, her par­ents sat her down and told her about their strug­gle to have chil­dren, her fa­ther’s in­fer­til­ity and their de­ci­sion to use a sperm

“There were peo­ple out there I didn’t know but was re­lated to, and there was a cu­rios­ity about that.”

donor. Hay­ley had been con­ceived by in­trauter­ine in­sem­i­na­tion (IUI), a process where the donor sperm is placed in­side a woman’s uterus, rather than in vitro (or out­side the body).

“At rst, it was just an in­ter­est­ing quirk about who I was and my fam­ily’s story, and it didn’t change things a great deal,” she says.

“But there was a nig­gling thought that there were peo­ple out there I didn’t know but was re­lated to, and there was a cu­rios­ity about that.”

The older she got, the more Hay­ley felt that her lack of knowl­edge about her donor was hav­ing an im­pact on her sense of iden­tity. “I can only de­scribe it as a sense of loss,” she ex­plains. “Peo­ple are in­nately cu­ri­ous about who they are and where they have come from.” The laws at the time gave her no right to iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion about her donor, so it seemed un­likely she would ever nd the miss­ing piece of her puz­zle.

A vol­un­tary registry, op­er­ated by Births, Deaths and Mar­riages, al­lowed donors and donor-con­ceived off­spring to en­ter their case num­bers into a data­base, and if there was a match, they were connected. “Un­for­tu­nately, in my case, there was no one on there,” says Hay­ley. “But that move did lead me to sup­port groups, which re­ally changed my life. Sud­denly I had other donor-con­ceived peo­ple to talk to, and they un­der­stood what I was feel­ing.”

Hear­ing their sto­ries in­spired Hay­ley to cam­paign for the le­gal rights of chil­dren to know their bi­o­log­i­cal his­tory. In 2015, the Vic­to­rian gov­ern­ment passed laws al­low­ing all donor-con­ceived chil­dren ac­cess to iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion about their donors. It was a con­tro­ver­sial move be­cause many donors had not in­di­cated whether they wanted to be con­tacted.

In 2017, Hay­ley con­tacted the Vic­to­rian As­sisted Re­pro­duc­tive Tech­nol­ogy As­so­ci­a­tion (VARTA), the gov­ern­ment body charged with pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion and sup­port to those in­volved, and asked for help lo­cat­ing her donor. The hos­pi­tal where she had been con­ceived had kept records, so VARTA sim­ply searched for the donor’s name on the elec­toral role.

“The process was ex­cep­tion­ally emo­tional,” Hay­ley re­mem­bers. “With anony­mous do­na­tion, you have to pre­pare for all sit­u­a­tions. You have to be pre­pared for some­one to not want you to have made con­tact, and to be an­gry. They might have for­got­ten, and they might have not told their part­ner. It’s emo­tion­ally tax­ing – hav­ing to pre­pare for the worst while hop­ing and dar­ing to dream of a happy out­come.”

Within a week of con­tact­ing VARTA, Hay­ley re­ceived a call: the donor was happy she had reached out and wanted to make con­tact. At rst, Hay­ley and her donor ex­changed emails, then they Skyped, and later met in per­son. Since then, she has met his wife and son.

“He was ex­ceed­ingly open and wel­com­ing,” says Hay­ley. “I couldn’t have hoped for any­thing bet­ter.” In get­ting to know her donor, she says, she has learnt more about her­self. “There are all th­ese things that sud­denly make sense. He stud­ied ge­ol­ogy as his rst de­gree, I stud­ied sci­ence with a ge­ol­ogy mi­nor. He’s a na­ture lover too.”

Hay­ley is par­tic­u­larly thank­ful to her par­ents. “They have been sup­port­ive, but I think it has been chal­leng­ing,” she muses. “Thirty years ago, there was no sup­port or coun­selling, and some cou­ples never even told their kids they were donor-con­ceived. I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate that my par­ents told me, and they are so happy for me that it has turned out the way it has.”

Mar­garet’s story

There are a few things I know about the donor who helped me cre­ate my daugh­ters, Greta, seven, and Rori, ve. I know his height, cul­tural back­ground, ed­u­ca­tion level and pro­fes­sion. I know this be­cause I picked him out of a long list of po­ten­tial donors. When my daugh­ters reach 18, though, they will be given all the iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion about him and be able to re­quest con­tact if they wish. He, who­ever he is, is to­tally ne with that be­cause he has un­der­gone com­pul­sory coun­selling and has signed the nec­es­sary con­sent forms.

With im­prove­ments in tech­nol­ogy and a grow­ing so­cial ac­cep­tance, the num­ber of chil­dren born through IVF in Australia has sky­rock­eted. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est sta­tis­tics, 13,344 ba­bies were born fol­low­ing IVF treat­ment in Aus­tralian clin­ics in 2015 – an in­crease of about 6 per cent on the year be­fore. IVF is sub­sidised by Medi­care, mak­ing it avail­able to more peo­ple, and leg­isla­tive changes mean IVF and donor con­cep­tion are now avail­able to same sex cou­ples and sin­gles.

I am one of an in­creas­ing num­ber of Aus­tralian women who have not let their sin­gle sta­tus pre­vent them from ful lling their dreams of moth­er­hood. Fol­low­ing the end of a long-term re­la­tion­ship and in my late 30s, I chose an IVF spe­cial­ist and a donor, and now I have two beau­ti­ful daugh­ters. In my im­me­di­ate cir­cle of friends are two sin­gle women who chose to go down the same path. My fam­ily is thrilled that I have been able to ex­pe­ri­ence moth­er­hood and my mum, in par­tic­u­lar, is very in­volved in the kids’ lives.

Cur­rently, it is es­ti­mated that one child in my daugh­ters’ class­rooms will have been con­ceived via IVF or as­sisted re­pro­duc­tion, so they are cer­tainly not alone. Thanks to pro­grams such as Candice and Re­becca’s Fer­til­ity Mat­ters, I can be con dent that an un­der­stand­ing of how my daugh­ters were con­ceived will be taught well and re­spect­fully in their schools. And thanks to the hard work of donor-con­ceived kids such as Hay­ley, I know their iden­tity will never be in ques­tion.

How­ever, the IVF de­bate rages on. The dis­cus­sion is no longer so much about whether IVF is a good thing as it is a ques­tion of ac­cess and re­pro­duc­tive rights. Should IVF be cov­ered by Medi­care? Should we al­low su­per­an­nu­a­tion to be used to fund treat­ment? Some ar­gue that tax dol­lars should not be used to sub­sidise treat­ment for women who de­cide to de­lay par­ent­hood, and that peo­ple who can’t af­ford to fund their treat­ment prob­a­bly can’t af­ford to fund chil­dren. On the other side are those who be­lieve ev­ery woman has the right to be­come a mother.

In­creas­ingly IVF re­search is fo­cus­ing on the elim­i­na­tion of ge­netic ab­nor­mal­i­ties. Last year, the world’s rst ‘three-par­ent’ IVF baby was born in the US. In a process called mi­to­chon­drial re­place­ment ther­apy, some DNA from a sec­ond woman’s egg was im­planted into an em­bryo to re­place ad­versely af­fected cells.

The con­tro­ver­sial pro­ce­dure has reignited the de­bate about the ethics of IVF and a brave new world of en­gi­neered hu­mans. So per­haps not much has changed after all.

Greta and Rori are too young to un­der­stand is­sues of tech­nol­ogy and ethics or know that they are in any way spe­cial. The girls know they bring un­told hap­pi­ness and ful lment to their fam­ily, and that they are just as unique and in­di­vid­ual as ev­ery other kid in their play­ground.

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