Sir Robert Edwards, the Nobel Prize-winning British "test tube baby" pioneer who died last week at age 87, devoted his career to developing in vitro fertilization as a technique to enable women afflicted with certain forms of infertility to conceive and bear children. As a result, there are millions of people in the world today—some now in their 30s—who otherwise would not have been born. According to Edwards's admirers, their lives are his legacy.
Yet Edwards was, and remains, a controversial figure.
His critics fall into three categories and are a most unlikely combination.
First, there are the people who worried, and in some cases still worry, about overpopulation. They were among Edwards's earliest critics in the late 1960s and the 1970s. For them, infertility, while perhaps a personal tragedy, is a social boon.
Second, certain feminists fault Edwards for contributing to what they regard as the commodification of women's bodies. IVF, as it has come to be known, makes surrogate pregnancy possible, turning women, as they view it, into machines for incubation.
Third, there are proponents of the sanctity-of-life ethic, for whom Edwards's experiments to perfect IVF and the actual clinical practice of in vitro fertilization (which typically means the creation of more embryos than will be implanted), involve the deliberate taking of nascent human life. Some of these critics also fault IVF for turning procreation into a species of manufacture, instrumentalizing and commodifying human beings in the earliest stages of their development.
Edwards himself was in no doubt about the biological status of even the earliest embryo as a human being. In the book "A Matter of Life," Edwards and his collaborator, Patrick Steptoe, describe the embryo as "a microscopic human being—one in its very earliest stages of development."
What Edwards rejected was the sanctity-of-life ethic and the principle of the equality of human beings irrespective of stage of development or condition of dependency. Like the philosopher Peter Singer, Edwards distinguished those individuals—admittedly human—who in his view did not yet qualify for protection against manipulation and death-dealing practices like abortion and embryo-experimentation from those who were far enough along the developmental path to qualify.
For many of Edwards's critics, his legacy is irredeemably darkened by the vast number of embryonic human beings destroyed in the development and practice of IVF, as well as by the million or more who today exist in a state of suspended animation—a kind of moral limbo—in cryopreservation units in IVF clinics. These are the "spare" embryos produced to maximize the odds that the IVF technicians will produce a successful pregnancy.
Read more at the Wall Street Journal.