What The Late Robert Edwards, In Vitro Fertilization Pioneer, Can Teach Us About Anti-Science Hysteria

With the passing of England’s Sir Robert G. Edwards on Wednesday, the medical community has lost a giant. Edwards, a biologist and professor emeritus at Cambridge, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his groundbreaking work on In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) with physician Patrick Steptoe in the 1970s. Together, Edwards and Steptoe pioneered the techniques that led to the birth of Louise Joy Brown — the first ever “test tube baby,” as the media would come to call her.

The countless innovations that Edwards and Steptoe discovered on the way to that watershed moment continue to spur new developments in science to this day, from improved methods of laparoscopic surgery — which Steptoe created in order to facilitate egg extrication — to stem cell research. And IVF itself has allowed millions of couples around the world to have children. However, the controversial nature of the duo’s work induced a significant amount of fear-mongering by the press, the British government, the medical research community, and the Roman Catholic Church. They were accused of trying to play God, and the Medical Research Council — England’s equivalent to the National Institutes of Health — refused to fund Edwards’ and Steptoe’s research for fear of public backlash, even after Brown’s birth.

But as the New York Times reported after Edwards won his Nobel Prize, the outspokenly liberal biologist was not one to bow down to the establishment’s pronouncements that his research was unethical, proactively taking the fight to his critics:

Though in vitro fertilization is now widely accepted, the birth of the first test tube baby was greeted with intense concern that the moral order was being subverted by unnatural intervention in the mysterious process of creating a human being. Dr. Edwards was well aware of the ethical issues raised by his research and took the lead in addressing them.

The objections gradually died away — except on the part of the Roman Catholic Church — as it became clear that the babies born by in vitro fertilization were healthy and that their parents were overjoyed to be able to start a family. Long-term follow-ups have confirmed the essential safety of the technique. […]

Both Dr. Edwards and Dr. Steptoe had to endure an unremitting barrage of criticism while developing their technique. Dr. Steptoe “faced immense clinical criticism over his laparoscopy, even being isolated at clinical meetings in London,” Dr. Edwards wrote in the journal Nature Medicine in 2001 after receiving the Lasker award. “Ethicists decried us, forecasting abnormal babies, misleading the infertile and misrepresenting our work as really acquiring human embryos for research.”

Dr. Edwards fought back, forming alliances with ethicists in the Church of England and filing libel actions — eight in one day — against his critics. “I won them all, but the work and worry restricted research for several years,” he wrote.

Edwards turned critics’ moralistic arguments against them, asserting that the greater crimes against nature and humanity would actually be to deprive infertile couples of the opportunity to conceive. He kept the spirit of that argument with him as he pushed back on arguments against more research into prenatal genetics, famously proclaiming, “Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child which carries the heavy burden of a genetic disease.”

It’s difficult to miss the similarities between Edwards’ and Steptoe’s critics and contemporary anti-science movements. The conspiracy theories surrounding widely-accepted scientific realities are abound in both Tea Party groups and even some mainstream Republican circles. Recently, conservative groups in Wichita, Kansas successfully lobbied the town to vote against water fluoridation, raising widely dismissed fears about fluoride’s effect on the brain that stem from the far-right John Birch Society. Former Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has famously railed against the HPV vaccine, claiming it propagates sexual promiscuity in young girls. And demagoguery against stem cell research during the Bush years set back progress in that field by over a decade before President Obama reinstated federal funding for such efforts.

These types of misconceptions are fueled by spurious studies and shoddy science — and they do serious harm to public health. Misinformation impacts not only contemporary public health, but also impedes the process of of scientific discovery, consequently setting back future generations. Without Edwards’ and Steptoe’s IVF efforts, the world may not have had non-invasive laparoscopic surgical procedures for a significant period of time, and countless other lives could have been saved or improved if the researchers hadn’t had to go around scrounging for private funding. The politics of the moment are not always compatible with the cause of scientific progress — but Edwards believed that progress was worth fighting for in the public sphere, and he refused to mince words to those who would impede it.