As you are no doubt aware, the pioneer of in vitro fertilization has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Robert G. Edwards is an English biologist who developed this procedure for treating human infertility with his now-deceased colleague, Patrick Steptoe. It led to the 1978 birth of the first "test tube baby," as she was known -- Louise Brown. Since then, it's been reported that more than 4 million babies worldwide have been conceived using this procedure.
But it took the prize-giving committee for this award more than 30 years to award Dr. Edwards for his research, despite the stipulation in Alfred Nobel's will that it be awarded for a discovery made in the previous year. According to the New York Times, that was due to the ethical controversy that swirled around in vitro fertilization.
I am not surprised by this ambivalence. Consider what happened in the 1970s alone. In the U.S., abortion was legalized in 1973, which created a cultural schism that has never healed in our nation. And rightly so, in my humble opinion, as at its most basic level, this involves the death of those who cannot defend themselves. I am not trying to stir up debate here, but I think that both sides have to agree that this is a basic truth. Then in a few years, the ultrasound machine became commercially available, which negated the original pro-abortion argument that fetuses were just a blob of tissue. Then Louise Brown was born.
Which meant, at the close of a decade, Americans were now in the squeamish position of having technology that made it plainly evident that we as individuals were were capable of choosing whom we valued to live and whom we did not -- and to do so legally.
Consider the arc of the 20th century for a moment. The first half was dominated by issues of eugenics, genocide, and unethical medical experiments. To wit, Nazi Germany. But also to wit, the eugenic argument that undergirded the vision of Planned Parenthood's founder, Margaret Sanger. It wasn't just a Nazi problem. During that same time, governments in our nation and elsewhere were covertly experimenting on live human beings without their permission, unethical tests that infected African-Americans with syphilis or, as was revealed Friday, Guatemalans with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
But there were also bright spots in the medical research of this era that provided innovations such as the polio vaccine. Those of us born after that vaccine was created may have a hard time understanding what a breakthrough that was. A few months ago, I watched a PBS documentary about it and marveled that parents nationwide and without hesitation rushed their children to receive the polio vaccine, such was the fear of polio. (I recommend watching this American Experience film online, if you can.) Medical innovations such as this vaccine seemed to improve the quality of life. But by the second half of the century, medical innovations frequently opened a Pandora's Box of ethical concerns.
Which is why, arguably, it took so long for the Nobel Prize committee to award Dr. Edwards for his research.
For the parents of children conceived via in vitro fertilization, I understand that their children seem nearly miraculous, the products of much advance planning, physical discomfort, and great financial investment. I am not making a wholesale argument against this technology, but it certainly does require much forethought and counsel--counsel that for Christians that must include biblical perspectives on such problems as the unused frozen embryos that end up in storage, a limbo of never-realized life. As a recent Newsweek article stated, inertia often takes the place of thoughtful decisions:
For years, scientists, ethicists, politicians, and religious groups have held very public debates about the moral status of embryos (when does life begin?) and their ultimate destiny. But the decision about what to do with them after baby making is done is exceedingly private and can prove far more vexing, both emotionally and practically, than ever anticipated. Once couples become parents, their leftover embryos often take on more significance. Discarding embryos can feel hollow and wrenching when that frozen cluster of cells has the potential to become a beloved son or daughter. Donating to research raises its own quandaries. Couples soon discover that many clinics don't offer the option and it is no easy task for patients to figure out how to proceed on their own. Even when they do, the phone calls and consent paperwork can become too burdensome or provoke too many questions or regrets. Storing frozen embryos indefinitely at IVF clinics can cost hundreds of dollars a year. Still, despite—or because of—the emotional entanglements, many couples do nothing.
"Medical progress" as we know it today comes with all kinds of unforeseen consequences. Ultrasound technology undermined the "viability" leg of the pro-abortion argument. But conversely, it is estimated that 100 million females are missing around the world, partly because this technology allows sex-selective abortions. While 4 million were conceived due to in vitro technology, from 1973 through 2005, more than 45 million were killed through legal abortions.
Yes, lives are saved and improved through medical research. But if you are look carefully, you may see that many more lives have been sacrificed for the same reason. Because of these consequences, we have good reason to be ambivalent about medical and biological "progress."