'God is Not in Charge, We Are'
First IVF Baby Turns 25
ANJANA AHULA / The Times (UK) 24jul03
As the first IVF baby turns 25, our correspondent meets the scientist who fought the establishment to create life in a test tube
IT IS a good thing Robert Edwards has the blood of a Yorkshireman in his veins. During his remarkable career, the scientist has been denounced by the Pope and libelled by his peers in the medical profession. His sin was to believe that he could create life in a test tube, and that this could end the misery of barren couples who wished not to remain so. One opponent announced cruelly that he hoped that any such child of science would be born seriously impaired and put on public display as a lesson. Even James Watson, the DNA pioneer, told Edwards he was dabbling with infanticide. Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, the Cambridge embryologist and his late research partner, the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, delivered a decisive response to those who believed that such aims were impossible. It came in a bawling, 5lb 12oz bundle called Louise Joy Brown, the world's first test-tube baby. Louise, now a postwoman and engaged to be married, celebrates her 25th birthday tomorrow, defiantly healthy and a standard-bearer for more than a million babies born worldwide through IVF. There will be a magnificent party to mark the occasion at Bourn Hall, the Cambridgeshire IVF clinic set up by Steptoe and Edwards.
wanted to find out exactly
Louise Brown just after birth
Louise Brown in 2001
The Vatican called Louise's birth "an event that can have very grave consequences for humanity" because it divorced the conjugal sexual act from procreation. It gives Edwards great satisfaction that assisted reproduction techniques, of which IVF is one, have taken off in a way that not even he could have predicted. Moreover, IVF babies, including Louise's sister Natalie, have gone on to conceive healthy babies naturally, validating the pair's belief that test-tube infants would be as normal as babies conceived in the womb.
"It was a fantastic achievement but it was about more than infertility," says Edwards, who rarely gives interviews but, when he does, delights in speaking his mind. "It was also about issues like stem cells and the ethics of human conception. I wanted to find out exactly who was in charge, whether it was God Himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory."
And what did he conclude? "It was us," he smiles triumphantly. "The Pope looked totally stupid. You can never ban anything. You can say, hang on a minute. But never say never, and never say that this is the worst decision for humankind, otherwise you can look a fool. Now there as many Roman Catholics coming for treatment as Protestants."
Edwards, emeritus professor of human reproduction at Cambridge University, meets me at Churchill College, a stark Seventies building where he is a fellow, and we decide to have lunch in the student canteen. His vegetarian diet appears to be serving him well - he is 77 but looks at least 15 years younger - or perhaps it is his evident lust for intellectual battle in the fast-moving field of reproductive medicine, a discipline that has always been peopled by brilliant, outspoken individuals.
Edwards, brought up in Batley and Manchester, studied genetics at Edinburgh University after taking a degree in agriculture at Bangor, then realising that he was "not particularly interested in seeds of wheat, seeds of oats or seeds of barley". It was one of the most fruitful career changes in medical history and he remains in the frontline, editing a respected online journal, publishing papers and attending conferences all over the world. He has made his peace with James Watson, but his enthusiasm for saying what he thinks remains undiminished.
Edwards does not support a ban on human reproductive cloning and thinks it "quite likely" that he will see a cloned human being born before he dies, but stresses that the safety of baby and mother must be paramount. He also supports sex selection for social reasons: "Go ahead and use it. Those parents have to raise those children. Why should a politician tell me what I can and can't do?" His journal, Reproductive Bio Medicine Online, has provided a platform for Severino Antinori, the Italian fertility expert who has, to public opprobrium, declared his intention to clone a human being. Edwards points out that critics of Antinori, who was among the first scientists to use micromanipulators and lasers, have followed happily where their antihero dared to tread. Despite Antinori's abrasive personality - "he's very excitable, he can get very angry and he'll shout at the top of his voice" - Edwards will not condemn him because "Antinori is rather like us".
By "us", he means himself and Steptoe. The relationship between working-class Edwards and the London-educated, piano-playing Patrick Steptoe, whom he called Steppy, began in 1968. Steptoe, who died in 1988, just after the 1,000th test-tube baby was born, was Britain's leading authority on laparoscopy, which allowed the abdomen to be explored without major surgery. It was seen as untested, dangerous and anathema to the "hands-on" culture of the time. Steptoe was shunned by his colleagues, and further alienated his peers by teaming up with Edwards. Today laparoscopy is routine.
Edwards had to travel to Oldham, where Steptoe was based, to work with hopeful patients; he sometimes made the 200-mile journey several times a week. To ease the pressure, Edwards arranged for Steptoe to take a consultant's position at Newmarket General Hospital, a mere 15 miles from Cambridge. All that was needed was for the Medical Research Council to underwrite the move. The council refused, saying that both laparoscopy and the implantation of eggs fertilised outside the womb were too hazardous. As Edwards revealed in A Matter of Life, the book that he and Steptoe wrote in 1980: "I felt sick reading that letter."
Edwards, who lives on a farm near Cambridge, says that the head of the committee which made the decision apologised two years ago. "I accepted (the apology) to a certain extent," he says. "He said he failed to understand the science. He ate dirt, as they say." Does Edwards really forgive them? He shakes his head. "I can't really accept it because I was away from my children when they were growing up." As Edwards recalls in the book, his wife Ruth, also a geneticist and the granddaughter of the great British physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford, and their five daughters paid the price of his work commitments: "All too often I would see Ruth's face cloud over as I had to disappoint the children or to cancel a party, a theatre outing, a dinner, at the last moment."
There have been other battles, too. Edwards is "angry" that Lord Winston, the fertility expert at Hammersmith Hospital and a popular television personality, is sometimes labelled "the father of IVF". "Patrick Steptoe fought him to the death. At a meeting in Carmel, California, Winston was there and said, 'I want to apologise for what I've said in the past'. Winston was referring to his early scepticism about IVF. Steptoe said, 'I refuse to accept your apology'."
In the mid-Eighties Edwards sued several papers, including The Times, for reporting comments by the British Medical Association suggesting, wrongly, that doctors should not work with him because he was involved in cloning. He did not particularly want to fight but "I just thought, what would happen if I don't issue libel actions? I'll be killed for ever". He had his day in court and, subsequently, grovelling apologies: "Many people think that scientists working on human beings are a bit soft, that it's soft science. I'd like to see them in court fighting a libel action. It's tough."
In context, the birth of Louise Brown was the medical equivalent not just of climbing Everest, but of discovering an even higher mountain and climbing it unaided. Despite this, Edwards has not been knighted or made a peer (Steptoe died a week before he was due to be knighted). He has not won a Nobel prize, an oversight regarded as little short of a scandal in the fertility community. He was, though, awarded a Lasker prize in 2001, which carries a $50,000 (#31,000) purse and, more importantly, is thought to be a portent for a future Nobel. "I'm not terribly bothered by it (not being knighted)," he says. "I'm a very left-wing socialist and I won't shed a tear. But if you can organise a Nobel, please go ahead." Had he and Steptoe commercialised their work, they would have been obscenely rich, although Edwards thinks it is wrong to profit from knowledge gained for free.
The million-plus IVF children who will be celebrating tomorrow, and the continued success of the techniques that he and Steptoe invented, are reward enough. Twenty-five years have blunted neither his emotions nor his appetite for science, although he says that asthma and physical frailty are taking their toll.
"This is life itself," Edwards says earnestly. "Life itself. When a baby is born, you have organised it all. That's a hell of an achievement. And to have those babies being born normal . . . well, if they hadn't been, I'd probably still be in jail.
"It's the magic of birth. The whole thing is incredible. A child in your own image - just think of what it means to people. It's fantastic."
source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-7-754642,00.html 31jul03
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