Go Back in Time
You’re considering using assisted reproductive technology to start your family. At first, you were just thinking about your own body, which procedure(s) you might need to help you get pregnant, and how you would pay for it. But as you dig in, you might get interested in how assisted reproductive technology got started and how it’s changed over time. Why not take a few minutes to learn a little history? You might teach your friends something — and maybe even your doctor!
How Assisted Reproductive Technology Got Started
The desire to have children is one of the most basic human desires. Throughout human history, people have craved their own children, and if a woman couldn’t get pregnant, she sought to do whatever she could to change that. For centuries, this was limited to activities like prayer, rituals, astrology, and other religious practices; certain herbs were sometimes consumed, often without effect. There was very little that medicine could offer to infertile couples, until scientists understood how human reproduction actually happens.
Is It the Stork?
Throughout history, people have had a variety of ideas about how a baby comes into being. Although people easily connected the act of sexual intercourse to reproduction, and understood that semen was somehow important, they couldn’t see the microscopic and internal process of conception, and sought to explain it in a variety of ways. Many of these explanations were quite…imaginative.
Aristotle believed that semen contained extremely small “seeds” of new humans, which grew in the “soil” of a woman’s womb. Other ancient Greek philosophers argued that babies resembled both mothers and fathers, and believed that women produced semen internally, which mixed with the man’s semen to somehow create the baby. Whether the baby was a boy or a girl, and whether more than one baby grew at once, was believed by many to be determined within the uterus. (We now know that it’s the sperm, rather than the egg, that carries the sex-determining chromosome.) Ancient Middle Eastern doctors believed that semen remained within the womb for forty days; after this point, the fetus was formed, and it was at this time that it would be determined whether it was male or female.
How semen was produced was a mystery as well. Galen believed that it flowed down from his brain via his spinal cord. (This continued to be the belief of many physicians for more than a thousand years after Galen’s death.) Others argued that it was created from the blood, which was believed to contain a person’s essence. Still others believed that the semen contained small particles from each body part (heart particles, brain particles, left arm particles, and so on), which came together to form the baby.
The discovery of sperm in 1678 by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a microscopist, opened the door to ART. For the first time, scientists could see and study the cells that produced pregnancy. Because van Leeuwenhoek couldn’t see human eggs, he assumed that sperm alone were responsible for pregnancy; he called the cells that he saw “animalcules” (as in “animals” plus “molecules”), and presumed that extremely small fetuses were contained within them.
Artificial Insemination Gets Things Started
Once scientists began to study spermatozoa, it was perhaps only a matter of time before physicians began attempting to use the new knowledge to cause pregnancy. The first documented example of artificial insemination was reported by John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon, in the late 1700s. He was treating a patient with severe hypospadias, in which the tube through which semen are ejaculated exits the penis near the base, rather than the tip, meaning that the sperm don’t effectively enter the vagina. Hunter advised his patient to collect the escaped sperm into a warmed syringe and inject it into his wife’s vagina immediately after intercourse. This resulted in a successful pregnancy. The era of medically-assisted reproduction had begun.
It took nearly a century for a physician to report a pregnancy being successfully achieved through the use of donor sperm in artificial insemination. This is probably not because the idea is technically difficult to understand, but because of the complex social issues raised by the use of donor sperm. In many parts of the world, the use of donor sperm remains highly controversial, and in some countries is illegal.
Once physicians understood the process of fertilization well, they began to experiment with fertilization outside of the body. The first instance of in vitro fertilization of a human ovum was reported in 1944. It took decades longer to figure out how to successfully support the fertilized egg and transfer the embryo to cause pregnancy. In the mid-1970s, the first pregnancy was reported; unfortunately, it ended in miscarriage. In 1978, the first IVF baby was born in England. Seeing photos of a cute, healthy baby assuaged many of the public’s fears about “test-tube babies,” and IVF quickly soared in popularity.
Other technologies built on and extended the success of IVF. 1984 was a banner year for ART, seeing the first live birth from a frozen embryo and the first live birth from a donor egg. The first pregnancy using artificial fertilization (intracytoplasmic sperm injection, or ICSI) was reported in 1992. The technology continues to advance.
Today, You Have Many Options
Doctors have spent many years developing assisted reproductive technology, using newer and better techniques and materials. Today, you have a variety of options to help you conceive your child. So if you’re frustrated because you’ve been trying to get pregnant and it isn’t working, there’s reason for much hope! Assisted reproductive technology could be the key that unlocks the door for your family.