The test-tube girl next door

After a miraculous start, America's first in-vitro baby is a supremely normal teen

By Bella English
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 1999

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WESTMINSTER—People constantly ask Elizabeth Carr whether she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. It's an obvious question for America's first "test-tube baby" -- after all, medical science brought her into the world.

But there's one problem. Elizabeth is, in her words, awful at math. Science isn't her thing, either. "I wouldn't make it through medical school," declares Elizabeth, who recently turned 17, has her driver's license, and is looking at colleges. What does interest her is broadcast journalism. She should have one heck of a resume, having endured countless interviews and sat before many a television camera, starting when she was just a fetus.

But not just any fetus: When she made her entrance into the world, on Dec. 28, 1981, it was standing room only in the stuffy hospital room, the thermostat cranked up to 94 degrees to accommodate this special delivery. A team of doctors, nurses, and medical students had crammed into the small space. The clinic secretaries showed up. A "Nova" camera crew was on hand to record history. Outside, TV trucks lined the curbs. Even the National Enquirer sent a dozen red roses, in hopes of snagging the first print interview. (It didn't work.)

Within minutes of the delivery, at 7:46 a.m., Dr. Howard Jones held a jubilant press conference at the Eastern Virginia Medical School at Norfolk General Hospital, where Elizabeth was born. "We are delighted to announce the arrival of Elizabeth Jordan Carr," he said. "She is a normal, healthy baby, 5 pounds 12 ounces." He had quietly torn up the other press release he had prepared just in case, the one that talked about "a disappointing day."

Since that day, Elizabeth Carr has done anything but disappoint. She is an almost abnormally normal kid: good grades (except for math), a peer leader, natural athlete, devoted daughter.

It is as if someone sprinkled fairy dust into that petri dish, along with Judy Carr's egg and Roger Carr's sperm. Or, as Jones, now 88 years old, says of his star patient: "I would think central casting couldn't have done any better."

The parents' trials

When Judy Dalton met Roger Carr at the University of Maine at Orono, it was an instant take. He was two years older, a quiet young man, so much more mature than the showoff jocks who hung out in loud groups. She was a buoyant freshman whose playful personality complemented Carr's serious side. They were married upon his graduation; she completed her degree, then they started on the big family they just assumed would follow.

But it wasn't to be. Three ectopic pregnancies later, Judy's scarred fallopian tubes were removed. The Carrs, who come from large, close families, were devastated. "We both loved children and couldn't imagine going through life without them," says Judy. When her doctor mentioned that he'd just attended a seminar about a small cutting-edge fertility clinic in Virginia, the couple jumped at the chance.

Despite the acclaimed medical facilities in Boston, in vitro fertilization -- the egg and sperm are fertilized in a dish and then transferred to the woman's uterus -- was illegal in Massachusetts at the time. Conservative forces were vociferous in their opposition to "tampering with God's work." Judy, a fifth-grade teacher in Fitchburg, and Roger, a young engineer, boarded a plane for Norfolk to begin the journey that would lead them to Elizabeth.

The procedure was new in this country -- the world's first test-tube baby, Louise Brown of England, had been born three years earlier -- and the stakes were high. The lone egg that was harvested from Judy was sent to the petri dish. Miraculously, Judy's pregnancy test came back positive. Then the long wait began.

December 28, 1981, was cold, foggy, and rainy in Norfolk, the perfect kind of day to stay inside, lie back, get waited on -- and make history. Judy's family came down from Maine, Roger's from Delaware, to await the blessed event.

It wasn't your mother's delivery. It was more like a military operation. The entire wing of the hospital was sealed off. Relatives needed special photo IDs to enter the sacred ground. While protesters picketed outside, Elizabeth Carr, blue eyes and a full head of dark hair, made her wailing way into the world, delivered by a planned caesarean section. Tears, sighs of relief, cheers, and applause greeted her, as if she were some kind of princess.

"Mommy and Daddy, where do babies come from?" The Carrs had been expecting that question from their precocious daughter, and when it came they were ready. There was none of this cabbage patch and stork nonsense. There was, instead, a tape of a "Nova" documentary popped into the VCR.

"When she was 2 or 3, she didn't understand much about it," says Judy. But when the question came again, in the second grade, she and Roger took Elizabeth to see Dr. Jones, who watched the "Nova" program with her, explaining each step in 7-year-old terms. Her parents cushioned the clinical words with their own thoughts. "I told her that Mommy and Daddy still used all of our own parts but we needed very special doctors to put it together," says Judy Carr.

In the fifth grade, Elizabeth's teacher gave the girls a "facts of life" lecture about how babies are made. Elizabeth raised her hand and said, "It's not always like that." She proceeded to explain how she came into the world. ("I wasn't a test-tube baby," she notes. "I was a petri-dish baby.")

The Carrs have always been open with their daughter about her genesis. "There has never been any secrecy or embarrassment about it, ever," says Judy. In fact, hanging prominently in the living room is a framed Life magazine cover with a picture of Elizabeth, 8 months old, sitting in the lab where she was conceived.

Exhibit A herself is sitting cross-legged on a chair in the red colonial in this small Central Massachusetts town, a home her parents purchased shortly before she was born. It's late December, and this is her time of year. Four days after Christmas, one day after her birthday. On her finger is a sapphire ring from her parents. Last night, her boyfriend had taken her to dinner and the movie "Patch Adams." Tonight, some friends are planning something, but she's not sure what. The telephone keeps ringing and plans keep changing. Jones has called, as he does every year on her birthday, to check on his "favorite teenager."

His favorite teenager giggles. "He's trying to get me to go to Amherst [College], where he went to school," she says.

Over the years, she has fielded a lot of dumb questions, and her poise is striking. "Do you feel different?" reporters always ask, and it always amuses and exasperates her.

Well, does she? "I never know what to say. I don't have antennae growing out of my head or thorns growing out of my hands. I'm just a normal, everyday, average child. The only time I really think about it is when we go to Virginia for the reunions. There are thousands of [high-tech] babies, and I'm the oldest. I get to hold the babies on my lap." Even Jones has lost count: He thinks that about 2,500 high-tech babies have been born at the clinic, which was recently renamed after him and his wife, Georgeanne, 86, an endocrinologist.

But he will never forget his first big success. "I feel paternal toward Elizabeth, in a way," he says. "The two of us represent something very special."

Leading her peers

A junior at Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham, Elizabeth was chosen last year to be a peer leader, an upperclassman who educates other youth about sex, drugs, and peer pressure. "We try not to be too preachy," says Elizabeth, who takes her job seriously and has strong views. On drugs: "Stay away from them." Drinking? "It can mess up a lot more than you think." Sex? "Don't go any further than you have to." Her mother winces slightly. "You should wait," Elizabeth adds. "If you're going to do it, you should do it safely."

Last year, when she was cocaptain of the field hockey team, Elizabeth and some players drank from a water bottle supplied by a teammate during a game. To their surprise, it wasn't water at all, but vodka and orange juice. Elizabeth was furious. She went home and asked her mother what she should do.

"I knew the fallout was going to be big," says her mother. "I told her to do what she thought was right. It wasn't a decision I could have made myself."

Elizabeth went to the dean of students and told the story. The entire team, including Elizabeth, was suspended from playing for two weeks. "I knew I was doing the right thing," she says today. "That girl showed no remorse." She adds, "Some people got mad at me, but not my real friends." Eventually, a letter of commendation showed up in Elizabeth's student folder, from the grateful school administration.

The path ahead

Thoughts these days are turning toward college, and during February vacation, Elizabeth and her parents will do the college-tour thing: She wants to attend a small liberal-arts school in the Northeast. She's been named to "Who's Who Among American High School Students"; she's involved in the drama club, the high school chorus, and the select choir; takes swing dance lessons; and is an avid rock climber. For the past couple of summers, she has worked in Bangor at a YWCA camp for children with behavioral and medical problems. Sometimes after school, she helps out at the preschool her mother owns in town.

"I'm not spoiled," she declares. "I don't get everything I want."

Adds Judy, pointedly: "She doesn't have her own car."

The Carrs have always made it apparent to Elizabeth that she isn't special because she was the country's first test-tube baby. She's special because she's herself, Elizabeth Carr.

"They've always told me that the special ones are the doctors who helped me be born," Elizabeth says. "I have a whole second family, a whole second set of grandparents, the Joneses."

Though Judy was only 28 when her baby was born, she opted not to push her luck a second time. "I'd had enough doctors, enough surgery, enough close calls," she says. "We had this wondrous gift and I didn't want to rock the boat."

Roger Carr, an unassuming man whose vivacious daughter is the image of him, smiles. "I keep telling Judy it's not too late." Judy Carr, 45, rolls her eyes. "That's not funny."

The Carrs, all three of them, are at a loss to explain the ongoing vocal opposition and the pope's periodic edicts against in vitro fertilization. "I don't like it when people say you're playing God. My parents worked so hard to try to have this child," says Elizabeth, as if she is speaking of someone else. "They spent a lot of time and a lot of money. It was a huge commitment. I don't really understand why it's so controversial."

Adds her mother, laughing: "It's really like bypass surgery." She sobers. "I think it's sad when parents have to hide something like that in order to practice their religion. They're supposed to go forth and procreate, and that's what they're doing."

Since Elizabeth's birth, of course, reproductive technology has become increasingly sophisticated, with surrogate mothers, donor eggs and sperm, and frozen embryos and octuplets. The Carrs wonder where it will all end. "It's a personal decision," says Roger, "but sooner or later, society is going to have to draw a line in the sand. I don't know at what point I'd say it was going too far."

His daughter interrupts. "Remember when I was 10 and Jay Leno made a joke? He said, `America's first test-tube baby is one-quarter of an inch wide and 3 inches tall,' which are the dimensions of a test tube. I laughed and said a test tube wasn't even used."

When the time comes, Elizabeth Carr would love to have a baby of her own. She hopes she doesn't have to go the high-tech route, but "it worked for my parents, I don't see why it wouldn't work for me." Truth to tell, though, she shudders at the thought of the headline: "First test-tube baby has test-tube baby."

"I really would like to have things a little more normal than that," says this normal teenager from Westminster, Mass.

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