Nobel Prize winner Robert Edwards, a University of Cambridge professor known as the “father of in vitro fertilization,” died Wednesday at the age of 87 after battling a long illness. Edwards and his late colleague, gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, were the first to enable a woman to give birth using in vitro fertilization (IVF), 35 years ago.
Their technique ushered in a new era of fertility treatment that resulted in the births of millions of babies but raised questions about the ethics of manipulating life in its earliest stages.
The British professor and doctor spent a dozen years perfecting their procedure of extracting human egg cells, fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory, and implanting the embryos in the womb. Their first successful treatment enabled Lesley Brown, who had a blockage in her fallopian tubes that left her infertile, to carry and give birth to a baby girl. Louise, the world’s first “test tube” baby was born in England in July 1978. (It was actually a glass jar, rather than a test tube, in which Louise spent her earliest hours.)
Louise’s mother, Lesley, gave birth to another daughter using IVF a few years later. Lesley died in June at the age of 64.
In 2010, Edwards won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his role in developing IVF. He and Steptoe together founded the world’s first IVF clinic, Bourn Hall, in Cambridge in 1980.
“Steptoe and I were deeply affected by the desperation felt by couples who so wanted to have children,” Edwards later said. “The most important thing in life is having a child.”
But Edwards and Steptoe’s work aroused indignation in the 1970s. Critics said manipulating the procreative process in a lab was degrading to humans. They pointed out many embryos, created in petri dishes but never transferred to the womb, were simply “washed down the sink”—a scenario that continues today.
At the time, Edwards defended himself in The Quarterly Review of Biology, arguing life was transferred gradually from parent to child, rather than created at the moment of conception: “The assumption of full human rights at a single moment … demands making arbitrary decisions that are unjustified biologically.”
Other scientists have since disputed that view and affirmed that human life begins at conception. The denial of life at conception undergirds the justification for abortion today, although abortion proponents rarely try to defend that dubious tenet, instead preferring to talk in terms of “choice.”
Thanks in large part to Edwards and Steptoe, millions of families have been able to experience the joy of children: According to an estimate last year, more than 5 million babies worldwide have been born as a result of IVF treatment since Louise Brown’s birth in 1978.
But many tiny babies have been lost in the process, or remain in limbo. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of unused embryos, created by IVF, remain frozen in fertility clinics.