The Sanctity of Life, Even in a Test Tube

Published Date: April 18, 2013 | Topics: Natural Law, Politics and Current Affairs

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The man who pioneered in vitro fertilization also stirred deep unease about what he was doing.

April 18, 2013 7:43 pm ET

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.”

Sir Robert Edwards in 2003 Reuters

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.

If, as often happens, a pregnancy is achieved before all the embryos that have been created by IVF have been implanted, parents face the wrenching choice between having them destroyed or freezing them, perhaps to be used in attempts at a future pregnancy, perhaps to be “adopted” by a woman who volunteers to rescue the embryo by having it implanted in her womb, or perhaps left indefinitely in a frozen condition—neither dead nor, in any robust sense, alive.

In the beginning, there was widespread concern that Edwards’s in vitro technique would result in more children born with birth defects. When Louise Brown, the first “test tube” baby, was born healthy in 1978, these concerns evaporated, though questions of the long-term health of IVF children continue to be raised. As the original cohort ages, we should get clear answers one way or another.

The eminent bioethicist Leon Kass of the University of Chicago raised other concerns. IVF would, he feared, “lead to cloning, genetic manipulation of embryos, surrogate pregnancies, and the exploitation of nascent human life as a research tool.” For those like me who share Dr. Kass’s view of these practices as incompatible with respect for the dignity of human beings, these fears have proven to be well-grounded.

Edwards himself saw these developments as morally unproblematic. Among his most controversial stands were his support for human cloning even to produce babies, and for the sex selection of babies not only for health-related but even for social reasons. Edwards stated that his work was “about more than infertility.” It was about “who was in charge, whether it was God Himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory.” Edwards supposed his IVF technology provided the answer: “It was us.”

But the real question of “who is in charge” cannot be resolved by proving that something is technically possible. Rather it is whether it is right to or wrong—consistent with or contrary to the dignity of the human being—to do what it may well be technically possible to do. Edwards’s technical achievement has brought joy to millions of parents. And each life created, no matter how it was created, is inestimably precious and intrinsically good.

Yet does even so great an end justify the means? Mere mortals, even Nobel Prize-winning scientists, cannot legislate an answer to that question. We are not “in charge.”

Mr. George is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.

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