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A Controversial Nobel Prize for In Vitro Fertilization

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Dr. Robert G. Edwards, the father of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and thus figurative father to all of the "test tube babies" it has produced, has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for this advance.

Apparently, the Pope did not get a vote.

The Vatican is unhappy about Edwards's work, and this recognition of it, for reasons that might best be cast in terms of collateral damage. Specifically, IVF leads to the production of those controversial 'embryos' that are destined to be discarded -- or could be directed into stem cell research. While Edwards's effort to help couples confronting infertility 'go forth and multiply' may not be objectionable to the Church, the by-products of the effort apparently are. The embryos that DON'T lead to babies being born are the problem for the Church. (I note, in passing, that baby-making the old-fashioned way also produces many 'wasted' embryos, but these go undetected as "late periods." See no evil...)

Ironically, I find myself somewhat ambivalent about Edwards's Nobel Prize as well, but for reasons diametrically opposed to those of the Vatican. My issues are all with the babies that ARE born.

To be sure, as a doctor who has confronted infertility both among my patients, and in my extended family, I have deep sympathy for the couple that wants a baby and can't have one. I fully appreciate the compelling, life-changing power of Dr. Edwards's work for these families.

I also recognize that someone who got their start with IVF could be reading this post right now, and thinking: "well, screw you, too, buddy!" I mean no personal offense!

But ... haven't we gone forth and multiplied more than enough as it is? If we look at a picture just a bit larger than the individual or couple, our collective problem is too many people, not too few. Indeed, the case could be made that much of what most threatens the future for us all -- including all of the offspring of Dr. Edwards's test tubes -- is the ever-burgeoning human population.

Now, of course, the contribution of "test tube" babies to the global human population is, and likely always will be, a rounding error, and a small rounding error at that. And when one such baby is born, the benefit to the family otherwise bereft of children will certainly be vastly more intense and immeasurably more palpable than the incremental harm to the planet, and our collective future plans for living here.

But I am nonetheless left with a certain ambivalence based on principle. In an overpopulated world, is it truly advantageous to apply cutting-edge science to ensure that everyone can have babies? As we reflect on this, let's recall that this technology is not just the difference between child and childlessness for a young and desperate couple, it has also morphed into related fertility treatments that have given us sextuplets, octuplets and babies born to post-menopausal women.

I greatly respect the good that Dr. Edwards has done, and the good he clearly intended. I presume those good intentions did not include 70-year-old women having quadruplets. So I wonder if the Nobel committee has looked around and considered the harm, unintended though it may be.

Organized religion, of almost every variety, has long been an impediment to population control. So it's no surprise that the Vatican looked around and saw IVF in a very different light than those of us who think that we've gone forth and multiplied far too well already, thank you very much.

A committee in Stockholm deems IVF worthy of biomedicine's highest prize. The Catholic Church sees ethical lapses in the science, and its recognition.

I see the profound relief IVF can provide a couple yearning for a family. But I also see denial when a world careening toward a reckoning with its growing mass of humanity chooses to honor the particular science that ensures almost everyone gets a chance to contribute to that mass.

IVF, it seems, is complicated. Its merits, and demerits, will apparently declare themselves quite differently to the eyes of various beholders. So, too, will the Nobel committee's already controversial decision.

Dr. David L. Katz

Around the Web

In vitro fertilisation - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In Vitro Fertilization

In VItro Fertilization (IVF) Treatment for Infertility

A Nobel Prize for IVF Pioneer Dr. Robert Edwards? Dynamite!

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