Robert Edwards invented in vitro fertilization which unleashed a bioethical revolution.

Robert Edwards, the inventor of in vitro fertilization, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. In a press release, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden declared that his discovery has brought “joy to infertile people all over the world.” The work of British physiologist Edwards, with the help of gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, led to the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. Since then, IVF has been responsible for the birth of more than an estimated four million babies and has gained acceptance as a commonplace treatment for infertility, which affects 10 per cent of all couples. It is estimated that 1 to 2 per cent of Western babies are conceived through IVF.

But the award is not without controversy. According to a Vatican official, the decision to give Edwards the Nobel Prize is “completely out of order.”  Ignazio Carrasco de Paula, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that “Without Edwards there would be no market for human eggs; without Edwards there would not be freezers full of embryos waiting to be transferred to a uterus, or, more likely, used for research or left to die, abandoned and forgotten by all.”

He also stated that Edwards is responsible for the “current state of confusion of assisted procreation: children with four or five parents, babies born from their grandmothers.” The Roman Catholic Church officially condemns IVF because it separates conception from the act of conjugal union and because it destroys embryos.

Pro-life groups also condemned the award. “IVF has made it possible to search out and destroy disabled embryonic children,” said Anthony Ozimic, communications manager of the UK-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, in a press release. “IVF doesn’t actually treat infertility problems, it merely bypasses them. IVF is in reality a large-scale experiment abusing and destroying early human life. Recent studies suggest that babies born through IVF are more likely to have genetic and congenital diseases.”

When undergoing IVF, the woman is first injected with FSH, a follicle stimulating hormone, over an 8 to 12 day period to cause several follicles with eggs to mature at once in the ovaries. The woman is then injected with hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), which stimulates final egg maturation. About 36 hours later, the woman’s eggs are collected with a needle that is inserted through the vaginal wall before they can be released into the fallopian tubes. The eggs are then placed into an incubator. The man’s sperm is prepared and screened, and then typically put into the same dish as the egg. Sometimes, the sperm is injected directly into the egg. 24 hours later, the eggs are checked to see if they are fertilized. Human embryos are usually implanted about 3 to 5 days after fertilization. At later stages of implantation, fewer embryos need to be transferred to the uterus to ensure survival (as more potentially unsuccessful ones would have already died), therefore resulting in a lower probability of multiple births.

Natural treatments of the root causes of infertility such as the Billings Ovulation Method and Naprotechnology remain largely ignored by the mainstream media while the long-term effects of IVF are still uncertain. A team of scientists led by Carmen Sapienza published a study in the October 2009 issue of Human Molecular Genetics that identified a slight variation in DNA expression in 5 to 10 per cent of IVF babies, possibly indicating higher risk of cancer or diabetes. IVF babies, which are more likely to be smaller than normal, have the same potential health risks as low birth weight babies in general.

IVF has led to a host of other complications. Couples have the possibility of freezing any surviving embryos for future use. Women may donate their eggs to others and some women choose to carry other couples’ children for them. In BC, a surrogate initially refused to abort a baby after its genetic parents found out it had Down’s syndrome and requested an abortion. On the other hand, IVF “has led to some concerns about the commercialization — making childbearing into a business,” said Lori Andrews of the Chicago-Kent College of Law in an article in the Washington Post. “You have couples creating embryos in the U.S. and implanting them in women in the Third World, for example.”

The embryos may also be genetically screened before implanting to avoid genetic anomalies. Embryonic human beings with defects will be destroyed rather than be implanted.

University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote in the Washington Post: “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.”

Jim Hughes, vice president of the International Right to Federation, condemned “scientists and doctors playing God by creating and destroying human embryos.” He warned that genetic manipulation will destroy the joy, mystery and gift of life as human beings created in the image of The Creator.

Hughes also told The Interim, the cost of producing such large numbers of human embryos is that many of them die prematurely. He said that the existence of large numbers of “leftover” embryos has spurred embryonic-destructive stem cell research with researchers claiming that if the tiny human beings were going to be discarded anyway, they might as well be put to good use through science. “IVF has led to the commodification of human life,” Hughes said.