Martyn McLaughlin: IVF still transforms lives

Scotland's first IVF baby Alastair MacDonald with Dr Bob Edwards in 1981. Picture: Contributed

Scotland's first IVF baby Alastair MacDonald with Dr Bob Edwards in 1981. Picture: Contributed

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AS ONE of Scotland’s leading fertility clinics prepares to mark its 30th anniversary, IVF remains a powerful lottery of joy and sorrow, writes Martyn McLaughlin

Each and every one of Bobby Low’s children has an uplifting story to tell, but the unique circumstances which gave rise to a chosen few of his brood provide a mesmerising testimony of the mastery and mettle involved in in vitro fertilisation.

There is the case of Daniel, a young father who, having broken up with Jenifer, the mother of his son, entered into another relationship. Eager to start a family, he discovered his new partner, Ellie, had suffered premature ovarian failure at the age of 30. Jenifer, keen for her boy to have a genetic sibling, donated her eggs, in doing so granting her ex and his partner their wish.

Or there is Angelina, who endured many years of anguish only to fall pregnant on the cusp of her sixth decade, thanks to an egg donation from her younger sister. She was 48½ when she arrived fully dilated at the front door of her local maternity unit. Two coughs later and she was a mother at last; two years later, her sibling had a child of her own.

In the 37 years that have passed since the pioneering birth of Louise Brown, the remarkable legacy of IVF treatment continues to have a transformative effect. Across the UK, around 2.2 per cent of all babies born are conceived as a result of the technique, constantly adding to a small yet appreciable population which stands at more than 220,000 strong.

Around one of 45 of those children, many of them now parents themselves, still know Low as “Uncle Bobby”. As the architect of the Nuffield, one of Scotland’s leading private fertility clinics, he helped conceive thousands of babies and delivered the vast majority of them. Now 75, he has an extended family so large he would be forgiven for making a start on writing his Christmas cards sometime around Good Friday.

At the weekend, I wrote a story revealing plans for a mass reunion of the thousands of people whose lives began in the Nuffield. Word of the event reached me through my longstanding friends, Andy and Iona, former patients at the Beaconsfield Road centre who drew on inexhaustible reserves of moral courage to battle seemingly insurmountable odds in their quest to have a family.

After much heartache and soul searching, science at last bent nature to its will when, last year, they became parents. Like others who passed through the Nuffield before them, their gratitude to the clinic and its staff is incalculable, but if there is one man credited above anyone else with bringing happiness to so many, it is Uncle Bobby.

Low’s name may not be known to those spared the torment of infertility, but he has been an instrumental figure in Scottish circles for decades. He helped deliver Alastair MacDonald at Stobhill on 14 January 1979, in doing so bringing the world’s first IVF boy and Scotland’s first IVF baby into the world.

MacDonald’s mother, Grace, conceived with the help of Dr Patrick Steptoe and Dr Robert Edwards, the trailblazers who first created a fertilised human embryo under laboratory conditions. As the years went by, other patients followed the MacDonalds south to Oldham General Hospital. Though he held Steptoe and Edwards in the highest regard, Low, a champion for his home city, grew impatient. “Glasgow was ahead of the world with the likes of ultrasound at the time, but there were only a few places in the UK doing IVF,” he told me last week. “I thought, ‘Bugger this, we should have a unit here, in Glasgow’.”

Low’s restless energy was channelled into a major fundraising drive which secured £250,000. Come the summer of 1985, the Nuffield was open for business, the first public private partnership of its kind. “If we hadn’t got the money, there wouldn’t have been any funding for the university or the NHS,” Low says. “The way the clinic worked was the private patients helped pay the salaries of folk like the biochemists and registrars, it helped the NHS and Glasgow.”

It took just months for the Nuffield’s first arrival to make an appearance when, in 1986, Louise Marshall was born. Now on the cusp of her 29th birthday, she will be attending next month’s reunion, with many more invites extended to those who followed in her wake, such as the 13 sets of triplets Low helped create.

The sheer size of the guest list – around 6,000 babies have been conceived at the Nuffield in the past 30 years – will doubtless gain more publicity as the 16 August date draws closer, but in many ways, it will be unusual to see IVF presented in the media through the prism of nostalgia.

It is a fine thing that the stigma surrounding the technique is far less prevalent today. The procedure itself is, if not routine, then unexceptional by the frenzied pace at which modern science progresses. Yet its normality means we too often fail to appreciate how its impact on ordinary lives remains just as metamorphic as it was decades ago, bringing elation to some, sorrow to others.

For all the 220,000 success stories in Britain today, there are many more would-be parents who tried only to be denied their miracle. The stigma may have rescinded but the despair of infertility cuts as deep as it ever did, fooling people into believing it was they, and not the procedure, who failed.

Childnessness and the unfulfilled longing for a family, a desire which colonises and destroys not only dreams, but marriages and lives, remain topics few are able or willing to discuss in the open. Low, now 75 and retired from the Nuffield, is keenly aware that grief need not be an emotion heralded by death. “In the early days, there were far more tears of sadness than joy,” he admits.

Next month’s anniversary is a time to remember of all those who have passed through the Nuffield, a place where science, medicine and hope come together.

• The names of patients and their families have been changed.

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