In Vitro Fertilization Was Once As Controversial As Gene Editing is Today

The scientists who pioneered it were regarded as pariahs, even within their own universities

Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) is a more modern form of IVF. Wikimedia Commons

It was too strange. It was unnatural. It was science meddling where it shouldn’t. That’s what many people said before the successful birth of children whose mothers had been implanted with eggs that were fertilized outside the body using in vitro fertilization. Some have even continued to say it after.

But Robert Geoffrey Edwards, born on this day in 1925, and his collaborator Patrick Steptoe persevered. Millions of families for whom IVF was the only chance to have a child are glad they did. Edwards and Steptoe started working to develop IVF in the late 1960s and it took them a full decade to have a success–a decade where their work was surrounded with controversy.

“As IVF moved from the hypothetical to the actual, some considered it to be nothing more than scientists showing off,” wrote Robin Marantz Henig for Scientific American in 2003. “But others though of IVF as a perilous insult to nature. The British magazine Nova ran a cover story in the spring of 1972 suggesting that test tube babies were ‘the biggest threat since the atom bomb’ and demanding that the public rein in the unpredictable scientists.”

In 1971, the pair had been rejected for public funding by the UK’s Medical Research Council, according to an article published in Human Reproduction. The stated reason: “the ethical prospects of the proposed investigations” and the fact that preliminary attempts at IVF had not been conducted on other primates before turning to humans. But in Edwards and Steptoe's memoir about IVF, A Matter of Life, the pair wrote that they were also confronted by the "belief that infertility should not be treated because the world was overpopulated," the Human Reproduction article reports, as well as a study that showed rats born as the result of IVF had small eyes.

The argument that overpopulation is a reason to not pursue IVF still crops up in opinions about the use of "assistive reproductive technology" in developing countries. The belief has resulted in IVF and other such technologies being hard or impossible for people in those countries to access.

The pair ultimately pursued their research using private funding, but the controversy continued. It has parallels in today's debate over the potential of germ-line genetic engineering to eradicate genetic diseases or create "designer" babies using CRISPR to alter the genetic makeup of embryos before they are implanted using IVF, writes Antonio Regalado for the MIT Technology Review. Recent news that Chinese scientists had successfully edited the genes of human embryos to repair a disease-causing mutation was greeted with controversy, reported Pam Belluck for The New York Times this August, although there is widespread interest in the potential for gene editing to eradicate inheritable diseases. 

"It was the same with IVF when it first happened," IVF expert Werner Neuhausser told Regalado. "We never really knew if that baby was going to be healthy at 40 or 50 years. But someone had to take the plunge." 

At the time Edwards and Steptoe applied for funding from the UK research council, few agreed with him. Gynecologist Alec Turnbull was one. Asked for advice from the council, he raised the issue that "there might be worries about the normality of the children which were born...On the other hand, I think these theoretical considerations might tend to be outweighed by the tremendous pressure which would be created by infertile women themselves, even if slight success could be achieved.”

Turnbull wrote that after the rumor about test tube babies began, a number of women had already written to him asking “if there was any possibility… they could have ‘test tube’ babies.”

When the first such child was finally born after years of unsuccessful attempts (and numerous rumors like this one published in The New York Times in 1974), her birth was kept tightly under wraps and she underwent more than 60 tests before ever being handed to her mother. Louise Brown, who is now a healthy adult living in Britain, told Adam Eley writing for the BBC that very few of the staff even knew who her mother Lesley was. “My parents didn’t want others realizing her identity and tipping off the newspapers,” she said.  

“Louise’s birth was an instant global sensation and a turning point in the treatment of infertility,” wrote Denise Grady for The New York Times in Lesley Brown’s 2012 obituary, “offering hope to millions of couples who had been unable to have children.” 

In 2010, Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing IVF with Steptoe, who had died in 1988.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.