Thought-provoking look back at the controversy stirred up by in vitro fertilization in the 1970s, when opponents warned, with some accuracy, that the new technology was poised at the edge of a “slippery slope” down which lay even more unnatural interventions in human life.
Science writer Henig (A Monk in the Garden, 2000, etc.) weaves together the story of the creation of the first test tube baby, born in England in 1978, and the failed (or foiled) American attempt at IVF, which ended with the would-be parents bringing suit against a doctor who halted the procedure by confiscating their eggs and sperm. Henig brings to life the men and women involved—infertile couples, physicians, ethicists, politicians, and activists. When the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, turned out to be perfectly normal, fears about IVF’s safety vanished, demand for the procedure mushroomed, and it rapidly became commonplace. Indeed, within ten years after abruptly halting an IVF procedure, the defendant in the above lawsuit went on to become director of an IVF clinic. Because pressure from anti-abortion activists kept the US government from funding IVF research and thus setting standards, American clinics were financed by entrepreneurs and largely unregulated. Henig notes that problems have surfaced in recent years: excessive multiple births, low birth weights, and higher rates of certain birth defects. As its critics predicted, IVF research and its laboratory techniques have spawned new applications in genetic engineering, such as therapeutic cloning, in which an embryo is created through cloning and its stem cells studied for their potential in treating various diseases. Critics are again warning of dire consequences, and misconceptions abound in the popular imagination. This time, the federal government has stepped in, presidential bioethics commissions are making proposals, and Congress is considering legislation. As Henig notes, “we don’t know where the story will end.”
A well-documented, highly accessible reminder of the ways in which medical and moral issues intersect and of the roles played by politics, science, religion, money, and the media.