She’s come a long way, baby.
Few newborns enter the world with the kind of fanfare and controversy that greeted Elizabeth Carr — with a PBS film crew holed up in the delivery room and protesters raging outside the hospital.
It was Dec. 28, 1981 in Norfolk, Va., and the country’s first in vitro fertilization (IVF) baby was about to be born. “There was always media attention – so I knew I wasn’t born like everyone else,” Carr told The Post from her home outside Keene, NH, days before her milestone 40th birthday on Tuesday.
In fact, she first learned about her groundbreaking entrance into the world when she was around 6 or 7, at her doctor office with staffers watching the NOVA special on her birth. “My doctors were on each side of me, screening the documentary of my own birth with me — and explaining the science.”
That science was something of a mystery at the time, even to Carr’s own parents. Judith and Roger Carr, a teacher and engineer both in their 20s, were devastated after multiple failed attempts at starting a family. Judy could get, but not stay, pregnant: she had three ectopic pregnancies, in which the fertilized egg grew outside the uterus, each one ending in miscarriage and forcing doctors to ultimately remove her fallopian tubes.
Back then, IVF research in the US was dogged by fear and ethical concerns, with Louise Brown — the first baby born via in vitro fertilization — delivered in 1978 in the UK (she turned 43 this past July). While Judy’s doctor knew little about this new fertility science, he procured a flyer from a recent medical conference and suggested she try IVF, saying, “It hasn’t been tried here yet, but they’ve had some success with a birth in England — maybe you want to look into it.”
They turned to husband-and-wife doctor team Howard and Georgeanna Jones, who founded the first fertility clinic of its kind at the Eastern Virginia Medical School. “My parents flew from Massachusetts, where IVF was illegal, to Virginia, in order to have me,” Carr said.
In vitro, which means outside the body, combines a woman’s egg and a man’s sperm in a laboratory dish. Even though the Joneses considered it research and didn’t really charge any formal fees yet, Carr estimated that the young couple shelled out around $5,000 for hospital bills. That’s a pittance compared to today’s cost-prohibitive treatments, which can run up to $30,000 for a single IVF cycle, and can require multiple cycles.
“They didn’t have cycles back then. You went in and harvested whatever they could get and implanted one egg. And here I am — that was it,” said Carr of the nascent fertility science that’s grown exponentially in the past 40 years, with an estimated 8 million IVF babies born worldwide, as of 2019.
Within hours of her birth, the National Enquirer sent a telegram offering her parents payment for exclusive rights to baby Elizabeth’s story, along with a dozen roses. “Basically, no way is that happening,” Carr said.
Judy sent back a delicate note: “Thank you very much for the roses.”
Still, people had venomous responses to her family’s story. “There were definitely people who had terrible things to say – and still do – even as far as we’ve come,” said Carr, adding that her parents ultimately decided against staying anonymous in the interest of public education.
“My parents had the option of staying private so they could live a ‘normal’ life, but they really wanted people to know this is an option and that I came out normal and healthy, that this is so important to people who are dealing with infertility.”
Carr wears being the country’s first IVF baby with a badge of honor — just don’t call her a “test tube baby.”
“My baby books have all these headlines from around the world about the first ‘test tube baby in the US,'” she recalled sharply. “Luckily that vernacular died a slow death — it’s a wildly inaccurate term because actually there are no test tubes used at all.”
Indeed, dealing with misconceptions and derision about the way in which she came into the world has always been a part of her life. “The biggest thing was that people just didn’t understand what IVF was. I had to learn the elevator spiel very young.”
One scathing criticism wound up coming close to home. Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe columnist, Ellen Goodman, went to town on Carr in a column — before she was even born. “It was a a very, very nasty column that IVF is terrible and that we’re going to have an army of these identical babies running around, saying that it’s tampering with God,” said Carr, who later went on to a journalism career at the Globe for more than six years.
When she left the Globe in 2014, Carr couldn’t let the chance to finally say something pass her by: she wrote her now-colleague Goodman a goodbye e-mail and called her out on the disparaging column from all those years ago. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry about that,'” Carr recalled, letting her off the hook: “I said, ‘You’re a columnist, you have an opinion and that’s part of the game.'”
She and her parents, who never tried for another child, learned how to accept the perennial fascination with her life. “It was basically year-round media attention, but on birthdays especially,” she said, recalling a memorable 10th birthday in 1991. “I remember going to New York and being on one of the morning shows and coming home to a request on the answering machine from the booker of the other morning show,” she said, noting the long drive from Massachusetts to NYC during the holiday crush. “It’s like, ‘OK, we have to go around and go right back to New York.’ It was my 10th birthday — I just wanted to stay home and play with my stuff.”
And with that attention came scrutiny — a relentless burden for Carr: “I was always aware that I was the spokesbaby and so I needed to behave properly, be articulate, be able to communicate effectively. I couldn’t just be a rebel and a jerk. I knew that people would look at anything I did,” she said.
She even had an entourage during homecoming in the form of a local news station’s camera crew following her during the teenage rite of passage — “Talk about awkward.”
But instead of being turned off by the press, she embraced it, joining its ranks for years as a writer. “I’ve been an expert subject my whole life – I‘ve been interviewed since birth,” said Carr, a health journalist who also considers herself a fertility patient advocate.
Carr was excited to become a mom herself one day. “I always knew I wanted to have a family. Of course the running joke in my family was that the headline would read, ‘Test tube baby has test tube baby.’” But son Trevor, now 11, was born naturally, without any issues, with her first husband in 2010. (She is remarried.) Still, the pregnancy was stressful. “I was aware, just because of my mother’s history, that at any point something could go wrong.” And while the media sharks started to circle, angling for a story, Carr prevailed upon them to back off until she delivered.
Today, the middle-schooler is slightly baffled by all the attention on Mom. “He doesn’t totally understand the fanfare all the time. Mom’s just Mom – not a big deal.”
To many people who meet her, Carr represents the life that paved the way for millions more to be born. She said listening to people’s stories of extreme hardship is a “privilege,” even if she’s not totally sure she deserves it. “My running joke is, ‘OK, folks, I really didn’t really do anything — my parents and doctors did the heavy lifting — I just showed up.'”
Still, her life has been filled with unique experiences, like having her baptismal gown on display at the Smithsonian Institute and addressing the UN at age 19. Her forthcoming book, “Under the Microscope: The USA’S First IVF Baby” (out Jan. 7), got its title from an inside family joke. “It’s a wink-wink about the first photo proof of me was under a Nikon microscope at three cells old,” she said. “I want people to get an inside look of who I really am … ‘Elizabeth Carr, first IVF baby’ is not the full story or picture of who I am as a human being.” (Her mother, now 68, is alive to fête the upcoming publication, while her father passed away this past June.)
In honor of her 40th, she’s hoping to raise $40,000 for Resolve, a national infertility association to provide critical access for everyone.
She doesn’t think there’s any one right way to bring a child into the world. “There are so many different paths now to building a family and it’s up to you what you have for a vision of what your family will be.”
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