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Dr. Robert G. Edwards, You Deserved Better

I woke up this morning wondering if I was being overly sensitive in my reaction to the coverage of Dr. Robert G. Edwards’s death.  I am obviously biased being an infertile woman.  Of course what I celebrate others may find anathema.  So I thought about other people who pioneered controversial-at-the-time-but-now-pretty-common medical procedures and decided to look up their obituaries.  Just to give you a sense of the commonality of each of these procedures, there have been about 5 million babies born via IVF.  There are about 5000 heart transplants performed each year.

Dr. Norman Shumway immediately popped to mind.  Pioneered heart transplants.  Anyone who has benefited directly or indirectly from one would feel only gratitude that the procedure exists.  But there are obvious ethical issues that come hand-in-hand with transplants, least of which are religious practices that ban the transfer of organs from one body to another.  So I looked up Dr. Shumway’s obit in the New York Times.

The title: “Norman E. Shumway, 83, Who Made the Heart Transplant a Standard Operation, Dies”

Let’s compare that to Dr. Robert G. Edwards’s title: “Changing Rules of Conception With the First ‘Test Tube Baby’”

Well, surely there will be some judgmental terms in the first paragraph of Dr. Shumway’s obit, right?

Dr. Norman E. Shumway, the Stanford cardiac surgeon who in 1968 performed the United States’ first successful human heart transplant and later made the operation a standard procedure after virtually all other surgeons had abandoned it, died yesterday at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 83.

Respectful. An awe-inspiring obit for an awe-inspiring man, who made life possible for so many people.

The same went for Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who trained with Dr. Shumway and actually performed the first successful heart transplant.

His title: “Christiaan Barnard, 78, Surgeon For First Heart Transplant, Dies”

I’m sure you’re seeing the difference in these titles.  For Dr. Barnard, they are reporting about a man’s greatest accomplishment as well as his death.  Based on Dr. Edwards’s title, you may not even know the man is gone.

And this paragraph in Dr. Barnard’s obit lovingly champions his contribution to the medical world:

In the view of some experts, perhaps Dr. Barnard’s most important medical contribution was his courage to proceed with a human heart transplant at a time when other surgeons who had performed the operation only on animals continued to hesitate to be the first to transplant a heart in a human.

All three men did controversial work, but only Dr. Edwards’s obit focuses on the controversy instead of the accomplishment.  The fact that his work actually helps people is sort of beside the point in his article.  The New York Times doesn’t work to convince the reader that despite the procedure’s rocky beginnings, it has become a lifesaver to infertile men and women.  Yet it does for Dr. Shumway and Christiaan Barnard.  And it likely will — not trying to kill you off early, Dr. Bailey — when it one day writes Dr. Leonard Bailey’s obit.  He pioneered infant heart transplants and was the doctor who placed a baboon heart in Baby Fae.  He deserves accolades for his work in his obituary along with a recounting of history.  But Dr. Edwards does too.

Is it just hearts?  Well, no.  Ernest McCulloch who pioneered stem cell research — another still-controversial practice — received a nice title from the New York Times: “Ernest McCulloch, Crucial Figure in Stem Cell Research, Dies at 84.” And his opening paragraph talks about the hope we have due to his accomplishments:

Dr. Ernest A. McCulloch, a father of the stem cell research that scientists say holds promise for the treatment of many ailments, died on Jan. 20 in Toronto. He was 84.

Which brings us back to the New York Times coverage of anything related even remotely to infertility, and yes, I am picking on the New York Times simply because their obits were the first that popped up when I Googled each of these doctors’ deaths, but feel free to replace the New York Times with most mainstream media.  So many, after all, get it wrong.

Between posting about it yesterday and this morning, the New York Times has removed all uses of the term implant from their article.  They did so silently, without an apology or a mea culpa for their part in disseminating wrong information*.  It’s too little too late, and no one can pretend they didn’t know better seeing that Stephanie Saul said in her email to me back in 2009 that it was a conscious choice on the part of the New York Times to use the term “implant.”  What I want to see from newspapers today is an article admitting how they shaped the public’s view of infertility.  That by using words laden with judgment, by telling people it was controversial, they made it controversial.

When they can accept the part they played in how the Aunt Janes of this world think about IVF, I can say they’re fixing things.  Until then, I’m not impressed.  And Dr. Robert G. Edwards deserved better than what they gave him.

The Grey Lady, you are one biased woman.

* I looked up New York Times corrections.  This change was not listed today or yesterday.  Very cowardly, New York Times.  Admit your mistakes.  Though I have no doubt that you’ll now quickly tack a correction on that page as if it were there all along.  Which it wasn’t.


1 lostintranslation { 04.11.13 at 9:45 am }

After your posts I looked up a few Dutch and French obits for Dr. Edwards. Mostly respectful, although the term “bébé éprouvette” sounded wrong, as did “reageerbuis” (test tube) that came up a bit too much in a Dutch article (but they also had a video, which was very good). However, I got a ridiculous comment from my aunt (who’s a retired pastor so she should have some interpersonal skills you’d think…) on my FB post (that just said ‘goodbye dr edwards. and thank you’).

Interesting that the NYT suddenly removed all uses of ‘implant’ from their article…

Yes, he deserved better – but he probably knew that the whole IF community is and will be eternally grateful for the work he did, and let’s hope that he would just have rolled his eyes at the ignorance/incompetence of the NYT et al.

2 Denver Laura { 04.11.13 at 9:46 am }

All this talk of obits makes me wonder what mine will say…

3 a { 04.11.13 at 10:36 am }

If it involves fetuses, there’s going to be a controversy involved. Sigh…

4 loribeth { 04.11.13 at 11:22 am }

Excellent points, Mel. And lol about the NYT stealthily correcting the terminology.

5 K { 04.11.13 at 11:36 am }

The BBC did a much better job with their news article about Dr. Edward’s passing. Although they did use the term “test-tube baby,” the article did have a respectful tone and talked about how he brought joy to millions of infertile couples.

6 Christy { 04.11.13 at 11:55 am }

Well done, well thought-out, well said. Shame on the NYTimes, who should know better. And this, on the heels of their obit about Yvonne Brill, that opened with
“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”
Ugggggh. Bias against women and our bodies is all too alive and well.
But thanks for calling them on it in this instance so smartly.

7 Pepper { 04.11.13 at 12:34 pm }

Luckily for us, we have more to go on that simply the major news channels. This is when social media works for good. I have multiple links in my FB feed this morning (including one I shared myself) lauding his contribution to our own personal families. That will be his true legacy. And no, you are not being oversensitive.

8 Alexicographer { 04.11.13 at 12:38 pm }

Thank you for this, Mel. Amen to all you have said.

Those unaware of it might be interested to know that Steptoe and Edwards wrote a book called A Matter of Life that describes their experiences in pioneering IVF. I found it interesting, and among other things it gives a sense of how then, too, women seeking to become mothers in spite of medical difficulties were perceived as “desperate” and “irrational” (not by Steptoe and Edwards, but in their account of the reaction to and concerns about their work). Ironically enough, my recollection (it’s been years since I read it) is that the authors use the word “implant” where they should say, “transfer” though I may misremember that.

9 Keiko { 04.11.13 at 1:14 pm }

Thank you for this. Reminds me of this feminist fuck-up a couple of weeks ago: http://io9.com/the-new-york-times-fails-miserably-in-its-obituary-for-464140204

10 Turia { 04.11.13 at 2:08 pm }

I really appreciate that you are bringing this out into the open.

11 Collette { 04.11.13 at 3:18 pm }

The Chicago Tribune did a much better job with their obit. Respectful, admiring and dignified.

12 jjiraffe { 04.11.13 at 3:52 pm }

You really nailed them on this. Well done!

13 Kathy { 04.11.13 at 4:52 pm }

Yes, well done Mel! I really appreciate when you take on things like this, as all of our voices matter, but yours has more visibility and I hope that the NYT and others start listening/paying attention. This makes me want to do a Seth Meyers and Amy Pohler SNL segment of “Really?!” on this topic, among others. So, thank you for yesterday’s post and today’s. I think Dr. Edwards would be/is proud of you. 🙂

14 MinnieK { 04.12.13 at 10:28 am }

My friend works with Elizabeth Comeau (the first American IVF baby) at the Boston Globe, so her tribute to him came through my facebook feed. I though Elizabeth’s post was a great tribute to Dr. Edwards: http://bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/04/10/first-test-tube-baby-ivf-pioneer-edwards-created-hope-for-infertile-couples/FymZFJwd6AjYW37tsHozPN/story.html

15 Dora { 04.12.13 at 12:29 pm }

“What I want to see from newspapers today is an article admitting how they shaped the public’s view of infertility. That by using words laden with judgment, by telling people it was controversial, they made it controversial.”


16 Sara { 04.16.13 at 7:06 pm }

Well said, Mel.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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