Twenty-five years ago one of the most revolutionary events in the history of humankind took place — a little girl named Louise Brown was born. While the birth of a baby was not unusual, this child was different. She was the first person ever created outside a woman’s body. Looking back, it’s hard to remember just how controversial her conception and birth was.
The world's first “test-tube” baby arrived amid a storm of protest. Many in the then-emerging field of bioethics, such as Leon Kass who is today the chair of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, argued that creating people by means of in vitro fertilization — mixing sperm and eggs in a glass dish (test tubes were never actually used) — was morally wrong.
Kass argued that the procedure might prove unsafe, that any technology that separated sex and the creation of life was morally suspect, that making babies outside bodies was unnatural and, even worse, the process treated people like objects or things.
Kass had plenty of company. The Pope, various theologians, newspaper columnists and many doctors were also wary of “test-tube” baby technology.
But the power of those opposed to the procedure completely vanished when Brown was born. She was a happy, healthy infant and her parents were thrilled. The doctors who helped to create her, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, could not have been more pleased. She seemed as natural a baby as had ever entered the world.
On the day Brown was born, the naysayers and worrywarts lost their audience. IVF took off and never looked back. Tens of thousands of babies have now been born using the same method that was used to make Brown. The procedure has become so common that hardly an eyebrow is raised if you tell someone that you or your children were born with the help of reproductive technology.
Cloning is a different story
Some proponents of human cloning look at Brown’s birth with envy. They think the same shift from condemnation to acceptance will happen if a clone baby can be created. They argue that a clone baby will silence the critics (including, yet again, Kass). They believe all the worries about making babies safely and concerns over the loss of individuality or the unnaturalness of the technique will disappear overnight once a healthy clone baby appears on TV.
But, there are two very big differences between the decision to try to make the first “test-tube” baby and the ethics of trying to clone the first human being.
When Brown was born, scientists already had many years of experience using IVF to make a variety of animals. They had encountered few problems. But the same can hardly be said about cloning.
Nearly 90 percent of clones fail to develop into liveborn animals. And among those that are born into the world alive, a huge number have serious or fatal medical problems.
While Brown was part of an experiment, much more was known about the technology of IVF than is known today about cloning. And what is known about cloning is enough to make it clear that it would be the height of irresponsibility to try cloning in humans until the animal outcomes dramatically improve.
Child's welfare must come first
Another reason that moral criticism of IVF evaporated so quickly is that Brown and her parents did not permit her birth to become a media circus. To this day no one in the general public has ever seen a picture of Brown as an adult because she and her parents knew that insatiable public curiosity could turn her life into a living hell.
But those who want to clone humans are in love with publicity. They are either promoting themselves or using cloning to raise funds for their company or cult. This is the exact kind of behavior that can make worries about the creation of unnatural “freaks” come true in a hurry.
The history of IVF has not been without its problems. Infertility treatment has become a big business and there are almost no rules governing who can use the technology to make a baby. In particular, there are no regulations regarding the parents’ mental stability or age. And, as a result of the technology, there are far too many embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen that no one will ever use to try and make a baby.
But overall, the creation of Brown and the development of IVF was a moral success. It has brought much happiness to many. And it is one of the most “pro-life” technologies ever created.
When thinking about why Brown’s legacy has been so positive, it is important to keep in mind what it was about IVF that silenced its critics. Brown’s birth was the culmination of years of solid research in animals and was carried out with a commitment on the part of her parents and doctors to put her interests first.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.