Test Tube Baby Pioneer Helped Bring Millions Into The World

Robert G. Edwards, a British physiologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2010 for helping develop in vitro fertilization, died Wednesday. He was 87. Audie Cornish talks with Rob Stein about Edwards' work and the controversy that still surrounds the techniques he helped create.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Nobel Prize-winning scientist Robert G. Edwards has died. He was a physiologist in Britain who helped develop the techniques used for in-vitro fertilization, or IVF. His work led to the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978, and millions of babies since.

NPR's Rob Stein joins us to discuss Edwards' work and the controversy that still swirls around the techniques he helped to create. And Rob, first remind us the science. What, exactly is IVF, and what was Edwards' role in developing it?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: IVF - it's basically a way to fertilize eggs outside of a woman's body. It's used for women who can't have babies naturally, for some reason. So eggs are removed from the ovary, and they're fertilized with sperm, in the laboratory, to create an embryo, which is then placed back into a woman's body to develop.

And what Edwards did, back in the '60s, is figure out how to create just the right conditions to do all this in a laboratory dish - you know, how to nurture these fragile eggs and very early embryos. Other scientists had done it with rabbits but after years and years of trying, Edwards figured out how to do it in humans.

CORNISH: And, of course, he actually did it - he was with a team. Tell us a little bit about that.

STEIN: Right, Edwards teamed up with a gynecologist by the name of Patrick Steptoe, and he was working in a small hospital about several hours away from where Edwards was working. And he knew how to extract eggs from a woman's ovary at a very early stage. And that turned out to be a really crucial step in this whole process.

CORNISH: Now, this - of course - culminated with the birth of Louise Brown, in 1978. This was hailed as a breakthrough for treating infertility, but it was also very controversial.

STEIN: Yeah, Louise Brown's birth in '78, it really was an international sensation. It electrified the world. But it was condemned by lots of people, including the Catholic Church, as an abomination. You know, Edwards and Steptoe were accused of playing God. And many people had all kinds of concerns of where this might lead; that there might be lots of births of deformed, grotesque babies, and all sorts of things. And so Edwards and Steptoe became the focus of a storm of criticism and controversy.

CORNISH: And these days, IVF - of course - is used around the world. What have been some the implications of that for women, and for society overall?

STEIN: Yeah, millions of babies have been born using IVF since Louise Brown was born. And hundreds of thousands of babies are still being born that way, every year. And so it's had all sorts of implications. One thing it's done, it's sort of freed a lot of women from their biological clocks, in certain ways. It's allowed them to focus on their education and their careers, and delay having childbirth till later in life.

But it's also forced society to re-think certain assumptions about family and relationships. For example, gay couples can use IVF to have genetically related children. And it's led to things like egg donation and surrogate mothers. And so today, you have situations where a child can have many mothers. One baby can have a mother who donated the egg, a mother who carried the baby, and another mother who actually raised the child. So you can see how it can sort of mix things up, in some fundamental ways.

CORNISH: Rob, thank you for telling us that story.

STEIN: Oh, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: That was NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, talking about IVF, the method pioneered by the Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Robert G. Edwards. Edwards died today at age 87.

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