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Will a Nobel Prize Change the Way People View IVF?

The New York Times announced this week that Robert Edwards has been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine due to his work in pioneering in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Patrick Steptoe, who worked with him on creating IVF (and was one of the pioneers of laparoscopic surgery), died and therefore was not included in this prize.

It seems like every year there is a “why now” question asked about a recipient of the prize. Last year, it was President Obama’s Nobel Prize for Peace, a huge statement made by the Nobel committee.

This year, it’s Edwards, with the honour coming long after the creation of IVF. 4 million children have been born due to the procedure, and the first IVF children have since had children of their own. It’s coming 22 years after Steptoe’s death, and frankly, with Edwards at 85-years-old, the committee could have missed the opportunity to honour a man who has created options that benefit infertile men and women.

Is it because IVF was extreme controversial when it was first created, and still continues to be so to this day — kicking off ethical debates such as using frozen embryos for research purposes or contributing to the idea of when life begins?

The New York Times
also muses on why it took so long to award Edwards the prize:

The deliberations of the prize-giving committee at the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden are confidential, and it is unclear why it took so long to acknowledge Dr. Edwards’s achievement. The committee routinely ignores the stipulation in Alfred Nobel’s will that the prize should be awarded for a discovery made the preceding year, because it takes longer than that to evaluate most scientific claims, but delays of 30 years or more are unusual. The Lasker Foundation in New York, whose jurors often anticipate the Nobel Prize committee, awarded Dr. Edwards its prize in 2001.

Interestingly, Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist who cloned the first sheep, also hasn’t received a Nobel Prize for his work, despite the fact that he won the Shaw Prize (sometimes called the Nobel Prize of the East) in 2008.

Sometimes, the opposite occurs, with the recipient being controversial in nature. Fritz Haber won the prize in 1918 for his work in chemistry in synthesizing ammonia, which led to advances in explosives. He’s also known for his work in chemical warfare, and he contributed to the creation of poisonous gases used in war. While his discovery obviously had good effects (it is used in fertilizers), it also contributed to many human deaths.

Antonio Moniz was honoured for his work in pioneering lobotomies, a surgery that increased in prevalence after he was awarded the prize in 1949. Soon after receiving the prize, new therapies were found that did not sever the brain. On one hand, prior to those advances in oral therapies, lobotomy was the only option for treatment. On the other hand, it was a surgery that some say was over used without regard for the larger picture.

And if you ever wondered why some people believe cancer is contagious, you can look to the 1926 Nobel Prize winner for medicine, Johannes Fibiger, who won the award for discovering the Spiroptera carcinoma, a parasite he claimed caused cancer. Though his research was proved false by other scientists (tumours grew, but it wasn’t the parasite that was carcinogenic), Fibiger kept his prize and the honour continued to influence how people viewed cancer.

Which is a long way of saying that the Nobel Prize does matter. It changes the way the general public views an advancement in medicine, with the idea trickling down from the scientific community into the layperson world. The committee’s acceptance of an idea, the declaration that it should be honoured, carries weight. And it will be interesting to watch public opinion for the next few years following Edward’s prize. Will IVF become less controversial? Or will it still continue to garner headlines daily?

Cross posted with BlogHer.


1 Bea { 10.05.10 at 6:00 pm }

I’m not really sure how much it will change people’s views. It’s relatively easy to change people’s understanding (or presumed understanding) of science. Changing their views on morality is harder.

I see it more as a mark that ART has already been accepted by the mainstream. Most people have had a chance to see the science, and have decided they have no real moral problems with it. Perhaps some people are going to realise that most people don’t have moral problems – at least in straightforward cases where a couple of normal reproductive age is using their own gametes to bring any viable embryo to birth – and that is going to give them pause and make them wonder why they are still being squeamish about it.

But I suspect the moral crusaders whose views tend to turn up in the comments sections of articles on reprotech will carry on regardless, confirmed in their view that the entire world but them has gone mad.

Too pessimistic? Maybe, maybe not. I may not think the prize will change the status quo too much, but it’s still a pretty good picture of the status quo. The world, on the whole, is not against ART.


2 Stephanie { 10.05.10 at 6:29 pm }

It’s an interesting question, and while I would love to say “yes — ART is now ready to come out of the closet” I think that very little will actually change, as the issue tends to be ignored by all except those who either need the technology or have very strong religious and moral views opposing it.

What I thought was most interesting about the press coverage was the point made about the current socio-political climate in the US. Specifically, the point was made that if the research were underway today (that is, if IVF was not yet invented), that it is very unlikely that the research would be allowed to proceed because of the ethical/religious uproar. Sort of terrifying to think that our attitudes today towards this might be more restrictive than they were 50 years ago.

3 Astral { 10.05.10 at 6:30 pm }

I hope it opens people’s eyes. I read the article in my paper this morning and I was very proud of this man who has given people the opportunity to build their family. In our paper it stated the reason why it took so long for the prize to be awarded was because they wanted to see how healthy the babies were and if there were any lasting effects on them. I for one am very happy that this man created IVF. Also, there will always be someone, somewhere to protest it and other things.

4 Anjali { 10.05.10 at 6:39 pm }

Honestly? I think it took so long, because his discovery is seen as only benefiting women (even though, OF COURSE, there is a huge benefit to men). Infertility is still seen as as women’s medical/health issue, and when it comes to acknowledging women’s health needs/issues, women are still largely ignored.

5 Kitty { 10.05.10 at 6:55 pm }

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I wonder if part of the reason Edwards was chosen this year has anything to do with infertility being officially defined as a disease by the WHO eary this year. I’d like to think that all this “positive” press for IF would help bring about changes in insurance legislation… A girl can dream, right? 🙂

6 Lucie { 10.05.10 at 6:57 pm }

Although I’m on the fence about IVF (as someone who’s considered it), I think the general fanfare is a great thing for the infertility community; to bring a little more awareness, to make people more curious, maybe more educated, to bring an issue that’s so taboo into mainstream consciousness.

7 Heather { 10.05.10 at 7:27 pm }

I think the controversy comes when people like Nadya Suleman come along and do something out of the ordinary. Something that many people do not agree with. While I think the general public may be more accepting as time goes on and more people are open about their use of ART, I think controversy will still arise when Nadya-types do.

8 Baby, Interrupted { 10.05.10 at 8:13 pm }

I hope so, but if comments on news websites are anything to go by – then, no, both ignorance and disregard for infertility are still much more rampant among us than any Nobel Prize can change. For people who have not dealt with infertility, it seems to be viewed as a ‘lifestyle choice’ to have children, and therefore ‘unnecessary’ at best, selfish at worst. As someone pregnant because of IVF, I couldn’t be happier for Dr. Edwards, or more grateful for his work.

9 Michelle { 10.05.10 at 8:26 pm }

I am greatful that Dr. Edwards won the Nobel Prize. I think that it will bring to the fore front a discussion that has been kept in the dark for too long. Unfortunately, there are those who will continue to beleive that any form of reproductive assistance is not in God’s plan. There was a commentary written in the USA Today asking the question if a child born through IFV is a child in the eyes of God? (http://content.usatoday.com/communities/Religion/post/2010/10/ivf-nobel-prize-test-tube-babies/1). This commentary offends me in so many ways that I can’t even begin to list them all. How dare this person question if any child born is a child of God. What’s even worse is that this article has even been published.

On a slightly happy note, many of the comments were made in support of IVF.

So to answer your question I think that there will always be controversy associated with IVF. That just means that we have to make our voices heard above the noise.

10 loribeth { 10.05.10 at 8:31 pm }

Baby Interrupted took the words out of my mouth (pen? keyboard??). I was disheartened by the same old ignorant comments on the NYT article, particularly the “why don’t they just adopt?” remarks. I do think there’s been progress since Louise Brown was born, but man, it’s been painfully slow…

11 HereWeGoAJen { 10.05.10 at 8:59 pm }

I’ve never understood why IVF is so controversial. I mean, I understand why people think it is, but I can’t understand WHY they actually feel that way. I mean, if it is used responsibly and lovingly, it is just another way to get to the family you are always meant to have.

12 Summer { 10.05.10 at 9:10 pm }

I don’t know if it will change people’s views but I certainly hope it does. It certainly is a step in the right direction anyway.

It’s also interesting to note that Alfred Nobel created the Nobel prize in part to “atone” for the negative consequences of his own discovery–dynamite–and in part so that his legacy would be placed in a better light.

13 a { 10.05.10 at 9:41 pm }

Heather’s comment re: Nadya Suleman poked the cynic in me…Perhaps the prize is coming now in response to the bad press that ART and stem cell research have received over the last few years. Scientists, being people who frequently rely on grants to do research, probably see the potential for funding to dry up and have moved to counteract that possibility.

Regardless, I think it’s a good thing that such a major and amazing advancement in science has finally been recognized.

14 Justine { 10.05.10 at 11:01 pm }

Actually, some of the coverage I’ve heard has been good … talking about how Edwards made it possible for people to have hope, even when they couldn’t have children of their own. I think it’s good that we’re even *talking* about IF and IVF … when the issue is out there in the headlines in a positive way, we have a chance to be advocates.

15 TasIVFer { 10.05.10 at 11:21 pm }

I don’t know that the Nobel Prize will change people’s view. It’s one of those things that takes time for the general public to understand, especially where there are so many misunderstandings.

However I do know that the Vatican coming out against the award giving is making me a bit crazy. I yelled at the clock radio this morning. Yup, and I’m not even injecting any hormones right now!

16 Turia { 10.06.10 at 8:56 am }

I was really happy to read this in the news. I do wonder if, like a previous poster said, the committee took so long to make the decision because they wanted to be certain that IVF babies were as healthy as those conceived “normally”. I don’t know if it will change people’s view on IVF, but I think it is great news. And as someone who is finally pregnant thanks to IVF, I am so grateful for their discovery.

17 TexasRed { 10.06.10 at 10:13 am }

I was very happy to see this prize being reported in the news. (I skipped any of the comment sections about it.) I think, though, that the biggest thing that will change the general public’s views on IF and IVF is having friends and family who have had to deal with them. It’s one thing to have extreme IVF cases reported in the media and have that be people’s only reference point. It’s another thing to have their primary reference point be a friend or family member who has gone through the process.

As we’re expecting our twins (thanks to IVF), I’ve been encouraged by the number of people who are only a step or two away from someone else who has been dealing with IF and how those stories are the first ones they mention (usually to encourage us).

18 Kir { 10.06.10 at 10:56 am }

While I hope that it makes people (who know nothing of Infertility) view ART in a totally different light, I think that it’s being overly optimistic to do so, and I’m nothing if not Optomistic..

I know that it will put it out there, make it easier to talk about…draw attention,..and that in and of itself is A GOOD THING…Discuss people…discuss…but the Catholic church (my church) also came out against his receiving it…and it burst my bubble a little…I was high, posting on Facebook, lots of people “Liking it” and feeling so good about this, and then I see the article about Rome and I did bend my shoulders a little…not for very long, but my heart is heavy that there cannot be another way to look at this…

of course, then I look at Gio and Jacob, I kiss their little heads, I smell their little smell…and I knw that I am in the presence of modern miracles…little boys who came about because this man tried something new and I am overwhelemed with thankfullness.

I *HOPE* it does change the way the world looks at ART and Infertility….my HOPE for that is strong.

19 Lut C. { 10.06.10 at 1:08 pm }

Controversial? Speak for yourselves. I don’t have the impression IVF is controversial in (my part of) Europe.
Local media have reported the nobel prize award, but the articles tend to be very neutral. The public opinion, as I see it locally, is largely indifferent towards IVF – it’s a medical solution to a problem. It doesn’t usually stir up great debates of ethics in commentary sections – at least not where ‘standard’ situations are concerned.

I think it has to do with the influence of religion on society. Christianity has a problem with IVF, but its influence has greatly diminished in (large parts of) Europe. Do other major religions object to IVF as a treatment?

20 Megan { 10.06.10 at 2:20 pm }

Will this make IVF less controversial? Well, maybe a bit. It’ll definitely get people talking. Unfortunately the big issue, as I see it, is that there’s a lot of misinformation accepted as truth. A lot of “just adopt” (as someone who’s adopted twice I can say there’s no such thing as “just adopt”), a lot of “God’s plan,” a lot of “this only adds to overpopulation.” Perhaps this event will lead to more discussion, less mystery, and in some people an acceptance of a practice that’s lasted long enough for children of IVF to become parents themselves. But to a majority of people (ie, the people who likely don’t have any issues with infertility) it’s still mysterious and “different” and they’ll quite possibly continue to carry negative views on something they’ve never experienced and don’t fully understand.

21 Kristin { 10.06.10 at 2:45 pm }

I don’t know if it will really change the public’s perception but I’m thrilled he got the recognition.

22 Roccie { 10.06.10 at 2:57 pm }

The general fools of the world in FB usually are quiet as crickets when I talk IVF.

“Ew, she is talking about her uterus again.”

This time the peanut gallery had a lot to say when I referenced the award.

Maybe my uterus is a little less intimidating or maybe it is hip to get the Prize.

23 flying monkeys { 10.06.10 at 6:16 pm }

I’m having a hard time articulating why but I don’t think it will make much of difference.

24 Ellen K. { 10.06.10 at 6:41 pm }

I think the award puts infertility in its proper place: with other medical problems and one that affects a significant percentage of the world’s population. I ignored the comments on the online articles. Nothing good has ever come to me from reading the NYT comments section.

25 Mage { 10.07.10 at 5:01 am }

I must admit that the award doesn’t diminish peoples thought of IVF babies. Nevertheless, we are so grateful for having him born to enable longed-for babies to be born, I wonder what happens if he isn’t born.

26 babyinterrupted { 10.07.10 at 5:26 pm }

I just want to clarify that “Christianity” does not necessarily object to IVF, as a whole tradition. Certain denominations do. Mine does not. But, I do think the general influence that right-wing Christianity has had on American culture does impact how people view IVF.

And to Ellen’s, “Nothing good has ever come to me from reading the NYT comments section,” I say, Amen.

27 Sara { 10.07.10 at 7:40 pm }

I just wanted to say the same thing as Lut. The notion that IVF is controversial seems to me to be almost entirely an American problem. Am I wrong? Can anybody think of another country where IVF is even considered to be a moral issue? I was living in Korea when my child was conceived through IVF, and there it was just viewed as an obvious and normal solution to a medical problem.

I’m thrilled about the prize, simply because it’s long overdue recognition of a medical achievement that has improved so many lives. I’m thinking that this one is about Dr. Edwards, not about us. Of course it would be nice if it helped some Americans unclench a little about judging other people’s family-building choices also, but that’s not really what I think it’s about. I’m just eternally grateful to Dr. Edwards for persisting with his efforts to help infertile people.

28 mrs spock { 10.07.10 at 8:17 pm }

Considering what the peanut gallery has been pooping about it all over Facebook, I’m going to say that ART is just as despised by the mainstream as it always was. Sigh.

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