Dr. Robert G. Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine this morning. Dr. Edwards, along with Dr. Patrick Steptoe (who died in 1988) pioneered IVF. The two doctors worked for decades to refine the procedures which have since been used to lead to the birth of an estimated 4 million children.
IVF is one of those marvels of modern medicine. It’s also a development that has lead to any number of complex moral and legal questions. Without IVF all children would be genetically related to the women who give birth to them. Among other things, IVF allows us to sever that linkage. Thus, it’s IVF that raises the “who is the mother” questions that populate this blog.
IVF also leads to new and difficult questions about men and women, sameness and difference, when it comes to parenthood. Because of IVF men and women now sometimes stand in exactly the same relationship to a given child–each provided gametes, but no more. Does this mean that just as (in one common view) a man who provides sperm is a father, a woman who provides an egg is a mother? What does this mean about pregnancy–does it count for anything in the calculus of legal parenthood? Does a commitment to gender equity require that we discount one of the most obvious and profound differences between men and women?
And of course, IVF has lead to a global ART industry. Gametes are bought and sold. Reproductive tourism is a subset of medical tourism. Women are paid to be surrogate mothers. Law and ethics struggle to keep up with the industry unleashed.
We don’t think much about the decades of work that lead to the breakthroughs that have made IVF relatively common today. But the changes this research brought to us and the questions we are confronted with are all around us. Perhaps that is why it has taken over 30 years for Dr. Edwards to receive this recognition.