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Remember how vilifed were the IVF pioneers

Robin Marantz Henig hits the nail on the head in the New York
Times today:

The history of in vitro fertilization
demonstrates not only how easily the public will accept new
technology once it’s demonstrated to be safe, but also that the
nightmares predicted during its development almost never come true.
This is a lesson to keep in mind as we debate whether to pursue
other promising yet controversial medical advances, from genetic
engineering to human cloning.

The Nobel prize for Robert Edwards is long overdue. It should
not be forgotten what a gauntlet he and Patrick Steptoe had to run
when they pioneered IVF. Here’s a taste, from an article in The Times in

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.”

It’s the flip side of the precautionary principle. How much harm
are you failing to prevent if you do not press ahead with
innovation? That is just as surely on your conscience as the risks
you are running. Henig again:

As Dr. Edwards himself noted in the
early 1970s, just because a technology can be abused doesn’t mean
it will be. Electricity is a good thing, he said, regardless of its
leading to the invention of the electric chair.

Science fiction is filled with
dystopian stories in which the public blindly accepts destructive
technologies. But in vitro fertilization offers a more optimistic
model. As we continue to develop new ways of improving upon nature,
the slope may be slippery, but that’s no reason to avoid taking the
first step.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist