WASHINGTON — Robert Edwards was credited this week for some 4 million people that would not exist today were it not for a groundbreaking technique he developed.
But others pointed to the untold numbers of embryos that perished and hundreds of thousands in frozen preservation because of it.
It was announced Oct. 4 that Edwards would receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The British biologist and clinician, with his physician colleague Patrick Steptoe, developed in vitro fertilization.
Louise Brown — the world’s first “test-tube baby,” born in 1978 — applauded Edwards’ achievement. But Catholic bioethicists and some researchers and clinicians challenged the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to honor Edwards, noting that his innovation resulted in the destruction of millions of human embryos and ushered in a “brave new world” of anonymous sperm donors and “surrogate mothers.”
While honoring one of the inventors of in vitro fertilization with the Nobel Prize for Medicine recognizes his contribution to human reproduction, it ignores the ethical consequences of his opening “the wrong door” in the fight against infertility, said the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Msgr. Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said he recognized that Edwards “ushered in a new and important chapter in the field of human reproduction in which the best results are visible to everyone, beginning with Louise Brown.”
However, “without Edwards there wouldn’t be a market for oocytes (immature egg cells), without Edwards there wouldn’t be freezers full of embryos waiting to be transferred in utero or, more likely, to be used for research or to die abandoned and forgotten by everyone,” the monsignor said in a written statement released by the Vatican Press Office Oct. 4.
The written statement came after Msgr. Carrasco spoke with the Italian news agency, ANSA, and said the Nobel committee’s selection of Edwards was “completely out of place.”
“Awarding a Nobel Prize to the scientist who made it possible to create human children in a dish reflects our culture’s questionable moral commitments,” said Stephen Napier, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “Children should be the result of a loving act between a husband and wife. Instead, the IVF industry has left us with thousands of frozen children — approximately 500,000 at last count.”
A slew of commentators suggested that early ethical concerns regarding IVF centered on whether laboratory fertilization could produce healthy babies, which has largely been resolved. But critics argue that IVF raises a host of issues — moral, medical, cultural and financial — that still haven’t received adequate public scrutiny.
Elizabeth Marquardt, a social researcher and author based at the Institute for American Values, notes that news stories about IVF often focus on the fulfillment of parental dreams, while ignoring a host of inconvenient truths, including websites established by adult children yearning to meet sperm-donor fathers and half siblings.
“Today, those who continue to focus only on the point of view of parents, would-be parents and fertility industry professionals are making a choice to frame IVF and reproductive technologies as an issue of adult rights without regard for the needs of offspring (as children, and when they grow up),” said Marquardt.
Yet the scientific community joined in the public celebration of Edwards’ feat. “Very few scientists can say that 4 million people are alive because of their work, but Robert Edwards is one of those few,” stated a news story posted on the website of Nature, the prestigious science magazine.
Nature described IVF as “a safe technique that is 20%-30% effective.”
Need for Regulation
Experts in the field of assisted fertility technology and embryo-killing stem-cell research acknowledge the critical importance of Edwards’ basic research and clinical trials.
In a 2001 article in Nature, Edwards noted his early delight in the regenerative properties of embryonic stem cells. Decades ago, he reported, he encouraged colleagues at Cambridge University to pursue research with embryonic tissue.
More recently, after President George W. Bush placed limits on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, Edwards suggested that many political leaders in the U.S. and the U.K. had adopted a morally inconsistent stance — given the rapidly expanding field of reproductive technologies that drew little public attention from policymakers.
“Stem-cell ethics are minor when compared with the issues raised by gamete donation, surrogate pregnancy, embryo cryopreservation, research on early human embryos, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and adult cloning,” wrote Edwards.
Yet, Edwards’ defensive posture acknowledged that even as the majority of scientists in his field appeared to have set aside ethical reservations, innovations in reproductive technologies continue to stir public unease.
At present, the public debate centers on lethal stem-cell research and the specter of human cloning — not IVF, which is largely unregulated in the United States.
“It is long past time there was limiting regulation in this field. It was unregulated IVF that led to the creation of hundreds of thousands of ‘excess’ human embryos in cryogenic storage in IVF clinics,” said William Saunders, senior vice president at Americans United for Life. “This tempted scientific entrepreneurs to try to find ways to ‘use this resource.’ This led, in turn, to the tragedy of human embryonic stem-cell research and the possible future specter of the mass production of human beings in the lab, through cloning, for the purpose of being destroyed for research.”
Dr. Thomas Hilgers, director of the Omaha-based Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and developer of pro-life NaPro Technology, believes it is past time for physicians dealing with infertility to re-evaluate their tendency to promote IVF. Instead, he argues, they should treat the medical conditions that lead to infertility.
“IVF is a technology that destroys life to create life. It does not look for or address the underlying causes of infertility. On both counts, it’s the wrong approach and a lot of people have suffered as a result,” said Hilgers, an obstetrician, gynecologist and specialist in reproductive medicine and surgery.
More than three decades after Louise Brown’s birth on the 10th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, notes Hilgers, IVF procedures have yet to exceed a 30% success rate for achieving pregnancy. Still, women are encouraged to pay tens of thousands of dollars for several cycles of treatment and undergo invasive medical procedures.
The brutal truth, said Hilgers, becomes clear in this “mind-blowing statistic”: There are “9.5 million women in the U.S with reproductive problems, and, in a given year, 99.5% of those women will never have a baby using IVF.” For many women, the legacy of their gamble with IVF is “mistrust and regret.”
Media accounts of Edwards’ Nobel Prize noted that the Catholic Church remains the primary opponent to IVF and other forms of assisted fertility treatments that create human life outside the marital act.
However, Michael Hanby, assistant professor of biotechnology and culture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, notes that the Church’s repudiation of IVF is not solely concerned with the death-dealing that often accompanies a procedure that routinely discards genetically defective embryos and freezes “spare” embryos.
Catholic sexual ethics arises from the Church’s understanding of who and what the human person is, a body-soul unity called to make a total self-gift in love, said Hanby.
“When the Church states that fertility treatment must respect the three fundamental goods of the right to life from conception, the integrity of marriage, and the unity between the conjugal act and its fruitfulness, it is this vision of the human person that underlies and unites these goods,” Hanby noted. “And it is our humanity that is ultimately put in jeopardy by IVF and associated technologies.”
By separating procreation from the conjugal act, Hanby concluded, “IVF divides and reduces the person; love becomes a mere affection or sentiment and the body a mere mechanism subordinate to the designs of the will. And the child conceived via IVF is necessarily treated from the very first not as a child — not as a person and gift with an inviolable being all his own — but as matter to be selected and worked upon.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.
This article was updated on Oct. 12.