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Sen. Tim Kaine’s State of the Union guest: America’s first IVF baby

Elizabeth Carr entered the world as a 5-pound, 12-ounce earthquake, making medical history and unleashing furious controversy in 1981 as the first American conceived in a lab.

Born in Norfolk with a “Nova” documentary crewin the delivery room and armed guards in the hall, America’s first IVF baby is 42 today and no longer a novelty.About 2 percent of U.S. births and an estimated 12 million people worldwide are products of in vitro fertilization.

But Carr still stands as potent symbol of that now-commonplace — but newly threatened — way to make a baby. And that’s why Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has invited Carr to be his guest at Thursday’s State of the Union address, highlighting his support for IVF in the wake of an Alabama state Supreme Court ruling last month that imperiled access to the technology in that state and elsewhere.

“I am really kind of the spokesbaby for hope, which is what ultimately … all these reproductive technologies represent,” Carr said in an interview with The Washington Post last week.

As President Biden delivers the night’s main message, every member of Congress hopes to telegraph one of their own with the oneguest each gets to invite. Last year Kaine’s plus-one was James Gibbs, a third-generation coal miner from Bristol who helped the senator make a point about the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and job training programs. His past invitees include the National Air Traffic Controllers Association president (a nod to controllers hurt by a government shutdown) and a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet (who underlined Kaine’s efforts to reclaim Congress’s constitutional duty to weigh in on matters of war and peace).

Kaine chose Carr this year as he faces reelection and the future of IVF is clouded by the ruling by Alabama’s Supreme Court, which found that frozen embryos are people and that someone could be held liable for destroying them. In the aftermath, some of the state’s clinics stopped all IVF treatments; others halted just the practice of discarding unused embryos.

The ruling drew cheers from antiabortion groups and fierce pushback because of IVF’s wide popularity. In the aftermath, Alabama legislators have rushed to pass legislation to protect IVF. The national group leading the GOP’s efforts to flip the U.S. Senate next year is urging its candidates to support the procedure.

Kaine is co-sponsor of a bill, proposed by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), to protect in vitro fertilization and other assisted reproductive technologies. He said his support for IVF sets him apart from the eight Republicans vying for the right to challenge him in November.

“I believe most of my opponents have taken the position that life begins at conception, and it should be legally protected from the moment of conception and that the criminal law should be used against anyone who interferes with a pregnancy from the moment of conception,” Kaine said. He said that stance would outlaw not just abortion, but also some common forms of birth control and IVF.

Two of the more prominent candidates seeking the GOP Senate nomination in Virginia — Hung Cao and Scott Parkinson — have said they believe life begins at conception. But they have also said they support IVF.

“I am prolife and support the sanctity of life, including life brought about from IVF treatments,” Parkinson said in a statement to The Post, in which he also claimed that Kaine and other Democrats “are lying when they say Republicans want to ban IVF treatments.” Cao’s campaign pointed to his post on X last month, which said former president Donald Trump “hit the nail on the head” with a statement supporting the availability of IVF in every state.

Neither campaign responded when asked whether Cao or Parkinson supports Duckworth’s bill, which a Republican senator from Mississippi blocked from coming the floor last week.

Kaine happened to be in Birmingham last month when the University of Alabama announced it was halting IVF services because of the court ruling.

“It was like a lightning bolt had hit the community, like, ‘Wow, are you kidding?’” Kaine said. “And I think the reason it was just so palpable and emotional was everyone knows someone who has either been born via IVF or has accessed IVF to become a parent. I mean, I know multiple families who have done this.”

Kaine had a vague recollection that the first IVF baby had been conceived and born in Virginia, so as he traveled back home from Birmingham he dug up that history on his iPad. He came across Carr’s remarks for a Boston public radio station after the Alabama ruling.

“I saw she gave a very poignant interview where she said … ‘I feel like an endangered species,’” he said. “And I just I found that kind of chilling.”

Kaine extended the invitation to Carr, who lives in Massachusetts and, used to the spotlight on all matters IVF, readily agreed. Carr was 3 days old at her first news conference and still in diapers when she graced the cover of Life. “Test-Tube Baby Boom,” read the headline, using a term that Carr says was always a misnomer. (Conception takes place in a petri dish, she notes; test tubes are not involved.)

“Any time there’s a major development in the reproductive field, they’ll haul me out: ‘Let’s bring that IVF kid out,’” said Carr, a former Boston Globe health, science and wellness reporter who now works for a company that does genetic testing on embryos created for IVF.

Even as a host of fertility treatments gained mainstream acceptance, Carr was asked to weigh in on occasional controversies, such as the one over “Octomom,” the woman who delivered octuplets in 1998 after taking fertility drugs.

Carr’s parents, Roger and Judy Carr, hoped to have a big family. Judy got pregnant three times, but in each case the fetus implanted in one of her fallopian tubes. After the third ectopic pregnancy, which nearly cost Judy her life, her doctor discovered the problem was scar tissue on her tubes, the result of a botched appendix surgery when she was a girl.

She had the tubes removed, seemingly ending any chance of carrying a child of her own. At a follow-up visit, however, her OB/GYN said he’d just returned from a medical conference where he’d learned about a successful fertility program in England — the one that had produced Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby, in 1978. Something similar was starting up in Virginia, the doctor said.

Norfolk was more than 500 miles from Westminster, Mass., the tiny town where Roger was an engineer for GE and Judy a teacher. They traveled back and forth, spending thousands of dollars each month, to seek help from a husband-and-wife team of reproductive doctors — Georgeanna and Howard W. Jones Jr. — at their clinic at Eastern Virginia Medical School, then housed at Norfolk General Hospital.

More than a dozen IVF babies had been born around the world by then, many of them in Australia, but none in the United States. The Joneses, Johns Hopkins researchers who wound up in Norfolk after reaching Hopkins’s mandatory retirement age of 65, expanded upon that technology by developing a hormone protocol to boost the number of eggs the woman produces.

Judy produced two eggs. One of them, mixed with her husband’s sperm, formed a healthy embryo that was transferred to her body. The embryo attached itself to her uterus. She was pregnant.

Carr said the controversy around the Alabama court ruling seems like a throwback to the days when IVF in any form was widely viewed as dangerous science fiction.

“It’s incredibly sad and incredibly frustrating because we had come so far in crushing the stigma around infertility,” she said, adding that IVF is also used by people who want to preserve their eggs or sperm before undergoing cancer treatment, and by same-sex couples who want to have children with donor sperm or eggs.

Kaine said Carr’s history is “a timely story. A lot of people don’t know that Virginia was at the lead of this back when it seemed like unattainable science fiction. And yet it has had this amazing set of human consequences that have been very positive.”