The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to Robert Edwards, for his work on developing IVF. (Edwards' partner, Dr Patrick Steptoe, died in 1988 and is thus not eligible.) Immediate reactions were, overall, strongly favorable: "You would have to be a very determined killer of joy — or a Vatican priest — to begrudge Professor Robert Edwards his Nobel Prize." Soon, however, the announcement became the basis of wider speculation and analysis.
Rob Stein's article in the Washington Post was one of the first to include a broader view:
"The impact on society has been profound," said Lori B. Andrews of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, who studies reproductive technologies. "The creation of a child outside the body for the first time has had scientific and personal implications far, far beyond the 4 million children who have been born through in vitro fertilization."
Arthur Caplan (quoted in several articles) added: "Edwards unleashed a social, ethical and cultural tsunami that he could not have predicted and I don't think anyone at the time could have anticipated." He also speculated:
"In the 20th century, I would argue the biggest debate in America in terms of reproduction has been abortion. I believe in the 21st century, Edwards's discoveries will make the issue of designing our descendants — that is, trying to create children who are stronger, faster, live longer, that sort of thing — that's going to become the biggest issue in the first half of the 21st century."
Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor also focused on "the controversies behind IVF." Patrick Tucker, of The Futurist, commented:
"The ramifications of Edwards's breakthrough have really only begun to be felt, because the race for biomedical enhancement will be in the 21st century what the space race was in the previous century. I don't think we'll get to the point of permanently changing the human genome, but we will be manipulating ourselves at a genetic level ... and IVF allows us to do that."
Without being very specific, Nita Farahany, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, told Jonsson that IVF "could raise issues that may be relevant to the work of the commission."
Robin Marantz Henig published an Op-Ed in the New York Times that cast a rather rosy light on these possibilities:
It has also opened the door to new controversial concepts: "designer babies," carrying certain selected genes; pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which allows the possibility of choosing the baby's sex; and human cloning. ...
Science fiction is filled with dystopian stories in which the public blindly accepts destructive technologies. But in vitro fertilization offers a more optimistic model. 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.
Edwards, it seems certain, would agree. Unfortunately, he is now too ill even to understand that he has received the award, but in 1999 he said:
"Soon it will be a sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children."
In 2003, he told the London Times that he supported reproductive cloning, as long as it was safe, and sex selection, and stood by his long-standing admiration for the maverick Italian Severino Antinori. (He has enthusiastically supported the purported cloner Panayiotis Zavos as well.) His most provocative quote deliberately extended the agenda:
"It was a fantastic achievement but it was about more than infertility. It was also about issues like stem cells and the ethics of human conception. I wanted to find out exactly who was in charge, whether it was God Himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory."
And what did he conclude? "It was us."
That's eerily reminiscent of the unscrupulous, and eventually jailed, fertility doctor who claimed "God doesn't make babies, I do" (quoted on p. 78 of Lori Andrews' The Clone Age). It also brings to mind the "Octomom"
controversy, which led to some calls for tightening regulations. And
the push last year to sell the selection of physical traits such as eye color.
Undoubtedly the achievement of Steptoe and Edwards is worth celebrating, for the many otherwise infertile people who have benefited. But a sober assessment of the implications, and the potential for abuse, is essential for context. This is not just a dual-use technology; it's already one with multiple applications, and some of them involve serious complications, both for the people directly involved and for society at large.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Assisted Reproduction, Eugenics, Genetic Selection, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Reproductive Cloning, Sex Selection
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