On July 25, Louise Brown turned 40. On October 3, Kanupriya Agarwal “Durga” will turn 40. The two, figuratively, are bound by a test tube. Brown is the world’s first test tube baby — as babies born out of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) were known in the early days — and Agarwal is widely regarded as India’s first. The latter is thanks to the efforts of a doctor who had initially credited with India’s “first IVF baby” — born in 1986 — but who worked towards ensuring that the recognition was finally given to the doctor responsible for the 1978 delivery.
Brown was born in Oldham General Hospital in 1978 when artificial insemination and IVF had just crossed over from science fiction to reality. Brown, delivered by a C-section, was the first baby conceived outside the body — conception essentially being understood as the union of the sperm and the ovum. Post fertilisation, the embryo is transferred back into the womb where it grows to term. In those days, many felt such a “radical” process was essentially playing God. Today, while opponents remain, ballpark estimates suggest that more than a million babies may have been born through artificial means since then.
Kanupriya and Harsha
For years, credit for India’s first IVF baby was given to doctors at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital where, on August 6, 1986, Harsha Shah was delivered through the efforts of Dr Indira Hinduja and Dr Kusum Zaveri. Also in that team was Dr T C Anand Kumar, then director of ICMR’s Institute for Research in Reproduction. It was due to the efforts of Dr Kumar and a group of scientists in Kolkata that belatedly, in 2002, the Indian Council of Medical Research finally recognised Kanupriya — whose birth was chronicled in medical journals as Durga because of her parents’ insistence on anonymity — as India’s first test tube baby. Her “scientific father”, as Kanupriya chooses to call him, was Dr Subhash Mukerji.
In fact, Calcutta Doordarshan had flashed the news of the birth of India’s first test tube baby at 11.44 am on Tuesday, October 3, 1978. However, Dr Mukerji’s claim was not only questioned by his peers but rejected by an expert committee formed by the West Bengal government.
In an article in Current Science on April 10, 1997, Dr Kumar wrote: “… I have no doubt that Mukerji did produce a test tube baby. He and his colleagues were obviously working on their project at the same time as R G Edwards and Patrick Steptoe were working in England. These two groups were oblivious of each other’s work… Unlike Edwards and Steptoe who got kudos for their achievement, Mukerji and his associates were ridiculed by the medical fraternity and victimised by the bureaucracy. Both these humiliating experiences led him to put and end to his life (in 1981).”
IVF in India today
Fertility care, including IVF and surrogacy, is a booming market in India and could be nearing Rs 500 crore, according to some projections. Individual procedures can cost anything between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 40 lakh depending on the services, with surrogacy the most expensive.
That is why there have been efforts in the past few years at regulation through the Assisted Reproductive Technology (Regulation) Bill, 2017. While the ART Bill proposes to regulate the field through registration of all IVF clinics and sperm banks, segregation of ART clinics and gamete banks etc, the government has been more keen on a surrogacy Bill to put an end to commercial surrogacy.
Ballpark estimates by the Indian Council for Medical Research attribute 2,000-odd babies per year to commercial surrogacy, when a woman is paid for renting her womb. CII figures say surrogacy is a $2.3 billion industry fed by a lack of regulations and poverty. The Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare has “strongly recommended” that the two Bills should be brought together and not in isolation.