China's first 'test-tube baby' adjusts life as newsmaker

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A year before Zheng Mengzhu was born, her mother, a schoolteacher in Northwest China's Gansu province, and her father, a crop farmer, came to Peking University No 3 Hospital. The couple had long failed in their attempts to bear a child.

Zheng Mengzhu, China's first human to be born through assisted reproduction at the Peking University No 3 Hospital in Beijing. Provided To China Daily

But they heard on radio that the Beijing facility had set up a special laboratory where "baby-making" trials were ongoing.

Helmed by the gynecologist Zhang Lizhu, who is now a 95-year-old retiree, the Test-Tube Baby Lab as the unit was called in the 1980s, was mixing human eggs and sperms in petri dishes to create embryos, which would be transplanted into the wombs of women seeking to get pregnant through such assistance.

The experiments were unsuccessful.

Even so, Zheng's mother, then aged 37, entered the in vitro fertilization program. She and her husband rented a house in Beijing for a year, and cooked their own meals and paid frequent visits to the hospital.

The pregnancy progressed, raising not just their personal hopes but also the aspirations of a country that was looking to be counted in world science.

Zheng, China's first IVF baby, was born in 1988, a decade after Britain's Louise Brown, the world's first.

Children conceived through IVF are commonly described as "test-tube babies" although in many cases a shallow tray instead of a test tube is used for the procedure.

"They wanted to check it out, if it were possible to have a baby that way. And, it happened," Zheng tells China Daily of the time her parents opted for assisted reproduction.

During an interview at the hospital where she was born and now works, Zheng, 28, says that while her birth brought immense joy to her immediate and extended family, she was ill at ease with the public attention she received in her childhood. Her celebrity status meant being under photographers' flashlight at birth.

It also led curious reporters to her doorstep in Longnan, a prefecture-level city in Gansu, for years after her parents took her home from Beijing. Zheng's mother stayed at the hospital for 40 days after her daughter was born. The doctors wanted to ensure that the child received full care in her early days, other than monitoring her height and weight.

Many people in her hometown, with scant knowledge of assisted reproduction back then, saw Zheng as a "freak" when she was growing up.

Her progressive parents and a loving grandmother though tried to shield her from the insinuations, she says.

Zheng's confidence started to grow in 2008, when the Center of Reproductive Medicine, formerly the Test-Tube Baby Lab, invited her to Beijing to participate in celebrations marking 20 years of the country's successful association with IVF.

That year she realized why the spotlight often fell on her.

"I thought I should be open to it," Zheng says of people's interest in her. "I'm better at handling it now."

In the '80s, the Peking University No 3 Hospital had only 20 couples visiting for the purpose of IVF, according to Liu Ping, deputy director, Center of Reproductive Medicine.

Liu, who was a member of the doctors' team credited with Zheng's birth, estimates at least 10,000 babies were born at the hospital through assisted reproduction since 1988.

Following her school years in Longnan, Zheng joined Xijing University in Xi'an city, the capital of neighboring Shaanxi province, for graduation studies.

She began to learn English on campus but wasn't interested enough to pursue it, she says.

In 2009, she moved to Beijing with a job in the information section of the Center of Reproductive Medicine, where her role today involves managing hospital files.

Zheng lives the life of a busy, single woman in a big city, in contrast to her earlier countryside stay in Longnan. She meets her aging parents on Chinese New Year or Tomb-Sweeping Day yearly.

She is open to marriage and having children if she finds love.

"I'm waiting for Mr Right," Zheng says.

But it may be difficult for men to accept her strong personality, she adds, with a self-effacing humor and a seemingly feminist streak both lacing the conversation.

The modern Chinese woman is possibly at crossroads - trying to find a balance between their careers and motherhood - she continues on a more serious note. Her daily experiences at the hospital suggest rural women are still getting married early and becoming mothers in their 20s, while many from the cities are pushing parenthood to a decade later.

Zheng also dwells on the social stigma attached to assisted reproduction despite the passage of more than three decades since Chinese hospitals launched the measure.

"They may thank doctors and nurses in private for helping them have babies, but they are unlikely to openly talk about it," she says of even some young couples that undergo IVF.

In China, societies usually overemphasize the loss of face and it can transcend any number of areas from guest relations to fertility.

Fearing the worst for their fetuses, some women also tend to stay in bed for most part of their pregnancies, bringing to halt all normal activities. And in some cases, children born through assisted reproduction, end up feeling isolated owing to the parents' overzealous attitude in protecting them, according to Zheng.

"This bird-in-a-gilded-cage syndrome is unhealthy for a child," she says, adding that it can make young adults afraid of failures in the real world and too dependent on their parents.

Unrelated to Zheng's analogy, which is specifically in the context of assisted reproduction, some analysts have previously commented that the country's one-child policy since the '70s (revised last month) may have unintentionally resulted in creating families that excessively fuss over their children.

Zheng parents had little understanding of processes such as IVF or intrauterine insemination when they arrived in Beijing desperate for a baby, she says.

But in the past two decades, much has changed in the field of assisted reproduction. For instance, childless couples today are able to do the research online before getting actual medical help.

With modern lifestyle, including high levels of stress taking a toll on the fertility of Chinese, the popularity of assisted reproduction will only grow in the coming years, Zheng says.

"More test-tube babies will be born."

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