The Baby MakersBMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7215.1011 (Published 09 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1011
- Khaldoun Sharif, consultant and director of assisted conception services
Channel 4 Books, £14.99, pp 176
Baby making is supposed to be fun and—judging from this overpopulated planet—straightforward. Not so for the one in six infertile couples, an estimated 80 million worldwide. Their devastation may be like that of Rachel, the barren biblical character, who said: “Give me a child else I die.” Enter the baby makers; those who have dreamt of, and achieved, the revolutionary breakthroughs and advances in assisted conception.
Probably the most memorable date in the history of assisted conception is 25 July 1978, when Louise Brown, the world's first in vitro fertilisation baby, was born in Oldham. This was made possible by the collaboration of the scientist Robert Edwards and the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe. Since then, in a relatively short time, the technique has spread considerably, with over 150 000 cycles reported worldwide every year. This has led some people to consider in vitro fertilisation as the most important medical advance of the 20th century. Probably the hundreds of thousands of babies born as a result of in vitro fertilisation would agree.
Jack Challoner recounts the struggles, both practical and political and moral and ethical, that led to this event and explains the development of many other assisted conception techniques. This is a rapidly changing subject, but he manages to include recent developments such as cloning, ectogenesis, and microsort sex selection. His explanations are precise and clear for lay people, and he has the gift of being simple without being simplistic. I, for one, have learnt from this book better ways of explaining to my patients what happens behind the closed doors of the in vitro fertilisation laboratory.
This is also an intensely human story with strongly opinionated opponents and proponents. Challoner manages to put the arguments for and against objectively—so much so that you cannot tell his own position and you may start to question yours. The historical background, scientific facts, future developments, and ethical arguments are blended together by a master storyteller.