Almost since its inception, in vitro fertilization (IVF) has been a subject of moral controversy, with every stride forward accompanied by opponents determined that it not proceed. Today some arguments once made against the process have fallen by the wayside, while others remain unchanged.
Helping Infertile Couples
The arguments in favor of IVF have remained fairly consistent over the years, chief among them the potential of allowing previously infertile couples to finally have children of their own. Infertility expert Dr. Howard Jones recalled that prior to IVF, “it was often necessary to sit with a patient and say that we had come to the end of the line. But IVF therefore seemed like a possibility of one more step that would make less frequent this distressing conversation with a patient.”
Preventing Birth Defects
An important scientific argument for IVF was that by studying fertilization and early embryonic development outside the womb, scientists might learn more about how to prevent certain birth defects. Proponents also noted the possibility that knowledge gleaned from IVF would advance medicine in general, helping with prenatal care, for example.
Creating Sick or Malformed Babies
For IVF opponents, there were a number of reasons not to proceed. Many of these reasons were prominent in the years before the first test tube baby was born, when no one knew if the science would actually work. Critics feared deformed babies rife with terminal illnesses; DNA co-discoverer James Watson, though not invariably opposed to the process, told IVF pioneer Robert Edwards, “You can only go ahead with your work if you accept the necessity of infanticide. There are going to be a lot of mistakes. What are we going to do with the mistakes?”
Destroying Social Structures
Accompanying the concern that IVF wouldn’t work were fears that it might work too well; another group of critics warned that it would lead to the end of the nuclear family, with marriage replaced by laboratory breeding such as occurred in Aldous Huxley’s futurist novel Brave New World. Conservatives feared the creation of all sorts of non-traditional families, while some feminists worried that with new technology enabling more women to have children, the pressure to do so would increase. Others fretted that test tube babies would be socially ostracized.
Inherently Unnatural and Wrong
Then there were those whose opposition did not depend on any specific bad outcomes; they considered IVF inherently wrong because it was unnatural. These critics saw it as an attempt by scientists to “take the Lord’s work into their own hands,” in the words of Pope Pius XII, and replace the divinely ordained means of making life with a technological process. In 1968 Paul VI issued a papal encyclical called Humanae Vitae in which he condemned the birth control pill as a sinful interruption of natural conception. Later Vatican pronouncements extended that logic to IVF; in the words of one spokesman, “Fecundation must be carried out according to nature and through reciprocal and responsible love between a man and a woman.”
A Silenced Debate
The birth of the world’s first test tube babies probably did more than anything else to silence critics of in vitro fertilization. As people saw for themselves how happy and healthy Louise Brown and Elizabeth Carr were, their fears of “Frankenbabies” began to disappear. Many other social concerns failed to materialize; test tube babies were not shunned, and far from destroying the traditional family, the effects of IVF were often conservative. In the words of biologist Lee Silver, “here’s a technology which is almost always used to allow a married man and woman to have a child, to form a family. ... So IVF facilitates a very, very traditional outcome, which is a mother and a father and children.”
As thousands more test tube babies were born, opposition to the procedure nearly vanished; according to author Robin Marantz Henig, it was similar to “how people get used to all sorts of new technology… at first it seems like it’s abhorrent and it’s something that we absolutely shouldn’t do. And then for a while it seems kind of miraculous… And then after a while, the technology just becomes part of the fabric of daily life.” Not all opponents have been silenced; the Catholic Church maintains its opposition to IVF. But most critics have moved on to different battlefields, such as stem cell research. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan notes that many of the same arguments used against IVF are being made about stem cells, sometimes by the same people.