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.
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.”
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.