IVF forced society to reconsider many assumptions. Using IVF, a child today can have one “mother” who donated her genes, another who offered her womb and another who raised him or her, for example. Family members have supplied eggs, sperm and wombs to relatives, scrambling traditional relationships. The procedure has also helped fuel the debate over gay rights by enabling same-sex couples to have genetically related children.
“In exploring the fundamental mechanisms of how human reproduction actually works, Edwards unleashed a social, ethical and cultural tsunami that he could not have predicted and I don’t think anyone at the time could have anticipated,” said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist. “It opened so many doors that I’m not sure we even fully appreciate it today.”
The procedure also furthered the trend that started with the birth-control pill: of giving women greater control over their reproductive lives, leading more of them to delay childbearing to pursue education and careers.
At the same time, because women are paid to donate their eggs or offer their wombs to become surrogate mothers, worries have arisen that the costly procedure has turned reproduction into a commodity. Because infertility clinics are largely unregulated in the United States, critics say many push ethical boundaries. For example, some enable couples to choose the sex of the child.
Another widely used procedure, known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, enables doctors to test embryos for specific genes. The process is used primarily to spot devastating genetic disorders so that the chances couples will give birth to healthy babies are increased. But combined with the constant flow of discoveries of new genes, the procedure has led to concern about “designer babies.”
“In the 20th century, I would argue the biggest debate in America in terms of reproduction has been abortion,” Caplan said. “I believe in the 21st century, Edwards’s discoveries will make the issue of designing our descendants — that is, trying to create children who are stronger, faster, live longer, that sort of thing — that’s going to become the biggest issue in the first half of the 21st century.”
Stein is a former Washington Post science editor and is now a correspondent and senior editor on NPR’s science desk.