Nobel-Laureate vindicated for researching childlessness
Posted on October 13th, 2010

By Philip Fernando, former Deputy Editor, Sunday Observer Sri Lanka

This year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine rightfully but belatedly went to Dr Robert Edwards, the British biologist who amidst intense criticism enabled couples otherwise fated to be childless bear children. In vitro fertilization triumphed as being authentic. What sweet vindication!

 IVF has produced nearly four million test-tube babies worldwide. The word is used so often it is almost slang. But in 1978 Dr Edwards was reviled when Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby was conceived.

 All hell broke lose. Some even felt it was the greatest threat to humanity since the atomic bomb. What nourishing satisfaction it must be for Dr Edwards!

Even the usually liberal scientists suspected that the first test-tube baby might be born with monstrous birth defects. Many said “do not mess around with eggs and sperm in a Petri-dish.” This would lead to serious chromosomal mischief they argued. Thirty-two years later IVF is mainstream.

Criticism was a mismatch

Why? Attitudes changed. The propelling mismatch between what was deemed grotesque and the end result of a much sought-after phenomenal pregnancy was too obvious.

 The public accepted the procedure as babies came out normal and healthy. It is true of all technology. When the first steam-powered locomotive traversed through rural England some wrote letters to the Editor that hens were laying fewer eggs due to train engine vibrations.

 The history of in vitro fertilization proved that getting acceptance was a matter of time. The public has pooh-poohed all the predicted nightmares of this procedure. Caution vanished as millions embraced the technology.

 The debate about pursuing promising yet controversial medical advances in genetic engineering tended to go that way.

Dr Edwards and his collaborator, the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, who died in 1988, became notorious after they announced that they had fertilized a human egg outside the mother’s womb. In England, reporters camped out outside the prospective parents, Lesley and John Brown, for weeks before the baby’s due date.

 When Mrs Brown checked into Oldham General Hospital, outside Manchester, to give birth took precaution to use an assumed name when checking in. Many reporters somehow sneaked past security dressed as plumbers and priests in hopes of getting a glimpse of the mother-to-be.

 The two scientists faced severe criticism and even bodily harm. Attitude towards the pregnancy grew increasingly extreme. Religious groups led the charge. Many asked should doctors be allowed to play God. This is the slippery slope towards anatomical aberrations and there would be artificial wombs and baby farms they predicted.

 Fortunately, Louise Brown was born a normal child-a healthy, 5-pound, 12-ounce blond baby girl with no defects what so ever. IVF had passed the test? There was nothing to fear.

Blessing for interfile couples

The birth of the “ƒ”¹…”baby of the century’ in 1978 augured well for millions of infertile couples – nearly four million babies worldwide have been conceived with the procedure.

There were some side issues that came up. Many immediately raised new questions like would single women or gay couples use the technology? Would it be all right for couples to create and save excess embryos to be used in later attempts if the first try failed?

 Some even said that there would be an increase in “ƒ”¹…”designer babies,’ carrying certain selected genes; pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which allows the possibility of choosing the baby’s sex; and human cloning. So the debate went on.

Optimistic model for technology

Science fiction is reportedly filled with dystopian stories in which the public blindly accepts destructive technologies. But in-vitro fertilization offers a more optimistic model. Dr Edwards proved that as we continue to develop new ways of improving upon nature, the slope may be slippery, but that’s no reason to avoid taking the first step. Dr Edwards himself noted in the early 1970s, just because a technology can be abused doesn’t mean it will be. Electricity is a good thing, he said, regardless of its leading to the invention of the electric chair.

 The debate still goes on as there are some naysayers arguing that technology must be harnessed in a cautious manner. Procuring sperm or eggs, is subject to scrutiny. Couples look for eggs as if you’d go shopping for a house or a car.

Buying ova from an accomplished undergraduate, or sperm from a 6-foot-8, athletic, blue-eyed movie star or a common or garden Joe takes time. Today a person selling you the right to bear and rear their biological offspring can do so anonymously, with no future strings attached at all.

 The most important thing is to ensure that the interests of the child, not the desires of the would-be-parent be treated as paramount throughout.

 Sperm donations generate between 30,000 and 60,000 conceptions every year and roughly 6,000 children are conceived through egg donation annually as well.

About a million American adults, if not more, are the biological children of sperm donors.

 The IVF technology is in full swing thanks to the pioneering work of Dr Edwards.

One Response to “Nobel-Laureate vindicated for researching childlessness”

  1. Wickrama Says:

    Earth is now seriously overpopulated causing problems in many areas such as food, shelter, employment etc. Time to stop IVF and other fertility tratment and start compulsory family planning.

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