Photo Credit: Kiyoshi Takahase Segundo/ IstockThe scientific achievement led to the birth of over four million babies. So why aren't more people celebrating its co-developer?
By Briana Mowrey
British biologist Robert G. Edwards, who co-developed in vitro fertilization therapy along with gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, has just been awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine. With his help, the first "test tube baby" was born in 1978, and since then, about four million babies have been conceived using IVF. Considering that the fertilization of human egg cells outside of the body was a breakthrough treatment for infertility, (which according to the Nobel Assembly's press release is a condition that afflicts "more than 10% of all couples worldwide"), you'd think everyone would be celebrating the doctor's long-overdue recognition. Right? Not so much.
When it was introduced, the procedure was a hot-button issue that raised religious, moral, and scientific concerns. Now it's more scientifically accepted, and long-term studies of IVF children confirm that they're as healthy as other kids (it's been noted that many have since gone on to have children of their own), but the religious and moral issues linger. To wit, some reader comments on the NYT piece about the news raised concerns about global overpopulation ("Like the world is not overpopulated enough") or debated the merits of choosing IVF over adoption ("I don't understand why a couple would choose IVF when there are so many children waiting for adoption; it seems selfish").
One person who is unreservedly happy about the news is Dr. Geoffrey Sher, co-founder and Executive Medical Director of the Sher Institutes for Reproductive Medicine (SIRM). Early in his career, Sher traveled to England to study the new IVF techniques from Edwards and Steptoe themselves. When he returned in 1982, he established America's first private IVF clinic in Reno, NV. Since then, Sher's been credited with assisting in more than 16,000 successful conceptions and births, but said "none of this would have happened without the constant picking up the phone and calling Bob Edwards for help and support."
"[Edwards is a] fearless, very honorable man. I laud Edwards - he deserves it. He marches to his own moral, ethical, and political drummer," said Sher via phone today. So, then, what of the detractors' points?
"In the very first USA Today piece about IVF, I was having an argument with the Pope. [The Vatican has condemned bio-science like IVF for "violating human dignity" and divorcing the act of human procreation from the conjugal union - Ed.] And there was the question of whether or not IVF babies would be stigmatized - none of that came to pass. Many of the things we fear are skeletons that don't ever come out of the closet."
And the adoption question? "Adoption is a phenomenal option because it solves a fertility and social problem in one, but it can't be forced on anyone," Dr. Sher said. "It's not our job to tell people what to do - it's our job to give people information, so they can make their own choice. As long as what they choose to do doesn't interfere with their health, or conflict with the Hippocratic Oath, ("Do no harm"), then it's our job give them safe passage. And I'm glad because I've seen so much joy."
"This has been the joy of my life. If I had to pay to do what I do, I would do so. It makes me happy to see the joy I bring into other people's lives. I have four kids, and six grandkids. I know I wouldn't be the same without them," said Sher.
It seems the Nobel Assembly voters agree. The last line of their press release? "Today, Robert Edwards' vision is a reality and brings joy to infertile people all over the world."
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.