A surprising Nobel

I would never have guessed this one. The Nobel Prize in Medicine has gone to Robert G. Edwards for his pioneering work in in vitro fertilization. It surprises me because it’s almost ancient history — he is being rewarded for work done over 30 years ago. It’s also very applied research — this was not work that greatly advanced our understanding of basic phenomena in biology, because IVF was already being done in animals. This was just the extension of a technique to one peculiar species, ours.

I don’t begrudge him the award, though, because the other special property of his research was that it was extremely controversial. These were procedures that simply burned through scores (or hundreds, if you count the ones with such little viability that they weren’t implanted) of human zygotes in order to work out reliable protocols, and throughout faced serious ethical risks — these were procedures that had a chance of producing the worst possible result, a viable embryo that came to full term, but had serious birth defects. The public opposition to the work was tremendous, funding was tenuous, and even many in the scientific community opposed the work and ostracized Edwards and his colleague, Steptoe (who did not live to see this day, and so did not receive the award).

Nowadays, IVF is practically routine and about 4 million people were ‘test tube babies’. It’s still controversial, though, with extremist anti-abortion groups, such as the Catholic church, still fighting it, and the redundant, unused zygotes from the procedure still being a point of major contention (ever heard of ‘snowflake babies’? That’s what they’re talking about).

I’m reading a couple of messages in this award. One is simply acknowledging a hard-working scientist, but the other is a signal that we should soldier on through all of the opposition to reproductive health technologies, that science will be rewarded and the Luddites will find themselves in the dustbin of history. I can’t help but see this as, in part, the Nobel committee making an unmistakeably rude gesture at the anti-science, anti-choice fanatics of the religious right.

(For those who are unfamilar with the IVF procedure that Edwards and Steptoe developed, here’s a lovely summary diagram from the Nobel Foundation.)