Wednesday, 21 November 2018 07:31

Normalizing the Petrie Dish: The Legacy of IVF

It sounds rather perverse and archaic today to call a child born by IVF a “test-tube baby”. The technique of assisted reproduction has become so widespread and normalised, more than 6 million babies down the road, that there’s nothing so remarkable or stigmatising in having been conceived in a petri dish (“in vitro”means in glass, although test tubes were never involved). In many countries worldwide, 3-6% of all children are now conceived this way.

Given how much scepticism and opposition IVF faced when it was still an untried and somewhat speculative field of research in the late 1960s, it’s surprising how quickly it became accepted. The technique was pioneered by the Cambridge physiologist Robert Edwards, working with obstetrician Patrick Steptoe of Oldham general hospital, who first reported successful fertilisation of a human egg cell in vitro in 1969. The pair faced immense opposition. Eminent biologists and doctors, including Nobel laureates, dismissed their work as scientifically worthless, unnecessary and ethically questionable, and the Medical Research Council would not fund it. Physiologist Martin Johnson, Edwards’s graduate student in the 1960s, admitted that he was initially reluctant to join him and Steptoe because “it was quite unsettling … to see the sheer level of hostility to their work”. Nevertheless, after achieving conception in a petri dish, the researchers refined the method for clinical use, culminating in the birth of Louise Brown in Oldham on 25 July 1978. Edwards was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine or physiology for his work in 2010, but Steptoe died in 1988.

The birth of Louise Brown transformed public opinion. People could now see that a “test-tube baby” was like any other. Newspapers that had previously warned how IVF threatened human welfare and dignity suddenly became sentimental baby-worshippers, announcing the “baby of the century”. “She’s beautiful”, said the Daily Express, “ – that’s the test tube baby.” After their dystopian forecasts, the media was confused by the normality of it all. Witness the cognitive dissonance in Newsweek’s headline: “She was born at around 11.47pm with a lusty yell, and it was a cry round the brave new world.”

By Phillip Ball Guardian

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