Heather Tilton and her brother, Todd Tilton II, are ordinary siblings with an extraordinary message. The first twins born in America through in vitro fertilization, they want people to know that their parents’ refusal to take “no” for an answer is as relevant today as it was when they were conceived in a laboratory 25 years ago this month.
“We’re here to extend the message that there is hope,” said Todd Tilton, who appeared with his sister on TODAY on Tuesday.
“Throughout our lives, the message of ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ has resonated,” added Heather Tilton, who works for a New York financial firm.
With them was their mother, Nan Tilton, 56, who had been told that she and her husband, Todd Tilton, Sr., would never have children and should quit trying. She was 30 years old in 1982 and the couple had been married for eight years and been trying to conceive for six.
But her fallopian tubes were blocked and his sperm count was low, and even after five surgeries between the two of them, their chances of conceiving were still virtually zero.
“We tried every technique and were told we would never have a child,” she told TODAY’s Ann Curry. That news was, she said, “absolute heartbreak.”
A Quaker, Nan Tilton prayed for guidance and felt strongly that she should not surrender to medical opinion. “I felt very strongly that if we tried and never gave up, it would work,” she said.
There was one chance, and it was a slim one at the time. It was a new and controversial technology called in vitro fertilization that generated massive media coverage in 1978 when the first child, Louise Joy Brown, was born in England.
The embryologist who performed the procedure, Robert Edwards, was condemned by the Vatican, which called the procedure “unnatural,” a view shared by many commentators at the time.
But Nan Tilton thought it might be a way for her to have a child. Drs. Howard Jones and Georgeanna Seegar Jones, founders of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Va., successfully performed the procedure for the first time in the United States in 1981, resulting in the birth of Elizabeth Jordan Carr.
Procedure common nowThe Tiltons went to the clinic the following year, and on July 12, 1982, their twins were conceived in the Jones Institute. They would be the first twins born of the procedure in the United States and the third in the world after sets born in Australia and Canada.
Today, a week after the Tilton twins celebrated their 25th birthday, the procedure has a success rate of at least 30 percent per cycle, but, Nan Tilton told Curry, when she went to the clinic in 1982, the success rate was in single digits. Of all the women in the cycle she was in at the clinic, only she conceived.
There never was a test tube involved in the procedure; fertilization instead took place with medical assistance in a laboratory vessel called a Petri dish. But the offspring so conceived were dubbed “test tube babies” by the media and for years the name stuck.
Today, in vitro fertilization is just one of a number of procedures known collectively as assisted reproductive technology, or ART.
California leads the nation in such births, followed by New York.
In 1982, medical insurance did not cover in vitro fertilization and the Tiltons paid the $2,500 cost of the procedure from their own pockets. Today, one cycle of the procedure averages about $12,500, and a number of states require insurance carriers to cover the cost.
Today, in vitro births are so common they go without notice. But Todd and Heather were the focus of intense media coverage after their births and their parents even wrote a book about their experience.
Both twins said that their parents insulated them from the attention and the then-extraordinary means of their conception did not affect them while they were growing up.
Todd, a gifted, self-taught musician who is due to graduate from Fordham University in May with degrees in business and communications, said he and his sister aren’t special at all, but their parents are.
“I’m just thankful that my mother and my father both had the determination to go through everything they went through, being told no at every turn and still not relenting,” he said.