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The Eugenics Legacy of the Nobelist Who Fathered IVF

by Osagie K. ObasagieScientific American
October 4th, 2013

Robert G. Edwards might not be a household name, but the innovation he pioneered along with Patrick Steptoe certainly is. In vitro fertilization (IVF), the process whereby human eggs are fertilized outside of the body and the resulting embryos implanted in a woman's womb, led to the 1978 birth of Louise Brown—the world's first "test tube baby." To date, an estimated five million children worldwide have been born using this innovation. Edwards received the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this remarkable achievement.

Edwards’s passing earlier this year prompted an outpouring of praise. He has been widely described as a maverick researcher disinterested in personal recognition who simply wanted to give babies to those who couldn’t make them on their own. The New York Times quoted Edwards’s former collaborator, Barry Bavister, as saying “Dr. Edwards’s motivation—his passion, in fact—was not fame or fortune but rather helping infertile women.” Bavister continued, “He believed with all his heart that it was the right thing to do.”

But Edwards’s views on the technology he created and the uses to which it should be put may be more complicated than this portrayal. One detail omitted from the obituaries published around the world was that Edwards was a member in good standing of the Eugenics Society in Britain for much of his career. Recently uncovered documents show that Edwards served on the organization’s Council—its leadership body—as a trustee on three separate occasions: from 1968 to 1970, 1971 to 1973 and once again from 1995 to 1997 after the group euphemistically renamed itself "The Galton Institute" for the founder of the eugenics movement, Francis Galton. As we consider Edwards’s legacy in light of his recent passing, it is important to think critically about the relationship between Edwards’s development of IVF and his participation in an organization that was dedicated to promoting one of the most dangerous ideas in human history: that science should be used to control human reproduction in order to breed preferred types of people.

Coined by Galton in the late 1800s to mean "well-born," eugenics became a dominant aspect of Western intellectual life and social policy during the first half of the 20th century. It started with the seemingly simple proposition that one's social position is rooted in heritable qualities of character and intellect.

Eugenicists of that era also believed that people with what they considered the least desirable traits tend to have the most children, precipitating what they saw as an inevitable decline in a society’s intellectual and physical vigor. Taking their cue from livestock breeders, eugenicists argued that socially disadvantageous characteristics could be bred out of human populations through policies that limited the reproduction of "the unfit"—the "feebleminded," the poor and the weak. Many eugenicists considered these qualities to be more prevalent among racial and ethnic minorities.

Eugenics has had disturbing implications since its inception. Galton characterized it in 1883 as the “science of improving stock ... to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.” Framed in this manner, eugenics has held an appeal to dictatorial and authoritarian regimes seeking to eradicate or discourage the growth of disfavored groups. The Nazis invoked eugenics to justify the extermination of people with disabilities, Jews, and other marginalized populations. And as a social philosophy eugenics also received approbation and financial support from the wealthy and other elites—particularly in the U.S. It was followed by the likes of philanthropists John D. Rockefeller and Nobel Prize–winning scientists such as William Shockley and Alexis Carrel. It even gained the support of women’s health advocates such as Margaret Sanger.

Eugenics was duly stigmatized after World War II when the world saw the horrors of its most infamous implementation, the Holocaust. But many scientists continued to believe in its core tenet: that social problems have fundamental biological underpinnings that can be eliminated through scientific control of human reproduction. Whereas prewar eugenics focused on “negative” applications—weeding out undesirables through practices such as forced sterilization and genocide—eugenicists in the postwar years emphasized so-called "positive eugenics," or strategically breeding in favorable traits. As early as the 1960s and continuing right up to the present, some scientists and others—including a number of well-respected scholars at prestigious institutions—have tried to resurrect eugenic projects in one guise or another. These enthusiasts promote the troubling idea that eugenic principles can be separated from the inequality, intolerance and oppression that gave rise to the movement in the late 19th century.

No one questions Edwards’s clinical concern and goodwill in treating his patients, as documented by obituary writers. Yet he also seemed comfortable with placing IVF and other reproductive and genetic technologies in an intellectual framework that would have been eminently recognizable to Galton and his early disciples. Edwards believed that increased control over human reproduction could not only treat the infertile but also allow for socially favored characteristics to be selected and bred into the population. Edwards himself hinted at the link between IVF and eugenics when reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Louise Brown's birth in 1993, saying that developing IVF "was about more than infertility ... I wanted to find out exactly who was in charge, whether it was god himself or whether it was scientists in the laboratory." Edwards’s conclusion?—"It was us."

Although there is nothing inherently eugenic about IVF, being able to manipulate human conception outside of the womb is an essential platform technology for any modern eugenic goal. Edwards implicitly acknowledged this link in 1999 when he said, “Soon it will be a sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.” The implications of this statement suggest not simply using new technologies to treat disease, but also to prevent the births or reconfigure the traits of individuals thought to be of low value.

But Edwards didn’t stop there. He also supported the use of modern selection technologies for predetermining nonmedical traits that are viewed as more desirable in some societies, such as having a boy instead of a girl. Edwards’s technology, IVF, combined with preimplantation genetic diagnosis—the ability to screen embryos for a particular trait before implanting them—are vitally important steps toward being able to select the features of future generations much like we currently configure the details for a new car. Edwards fully supported using sex selection technologies for social and not just medical reasons, saying: “Go ahead and use it. Those parents have to raise those children.”

It is not simply that Edwards believed in the permissive implementation of reproductive and genetic technologies in a manner that happened to coincide with eugenic aspirations. Rather, he embraced eugenics as morally justifiable —save for the brief period when a presumably pure science was politicized by fanatics. Edwards said as much in 2004 during testimony before the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology in the British House of Commons. When asked whether a line could be drawn between new reproductive and genetic technologies and eugenics, Edwards—in a style reminiscent of former Pres. Bill Clinton—said, “It depends what we mean by eugenics.” He continued, “Eugenics was started in the 1870s by an English geneticist who had the welfare of mankind in his mind. The work became degraded after 1930 caused by the Nazis ... [and] various other things where people were found not to be behaving themselves correctly. So, the word became degraded....”

Whereas Edwards noted that these technologies can go forward without using the specific term “eugenics,” his statement is quite revealing if only for its stunning inaccuracy. No respectable historian of this period would characterize Galton’s ambitions so charitably nor would any suggest that the Nazis were the first or only group to brutally implement eugenics as law and public policy. (The world’s first eugenics law—providing for forced sterilizations—was passed in Indiana in 1907. Many of these practices continued in other states until the 1970s.) Edwards’s thinly veiled attempt at rehabilitating eugenics as not only a defensible concept but somehow as a social movement with a misunderstood history is deeply problematic.

Some try to distinguish (and therefore obscure and excuse) postwar eugenic advocates like Edwards from their prewar predecessors by focusing on the modern emphasis on individuals. By no means did Edwards or his contemporaries advocate the state-enforced eugenic policies of the 1920s and 1930s. They continue to believe in markets and choice; individuals should have access to technologies that allow them to control and enhance human traits. The new eugenicists hope that the market dynamics surrounding the availability of selection and enhancement technologies will mirror other consumer pressures—akin to upgrading to the newest iPhone—to elicit broad-based societal demand that facilitates the goal of population-wide improvements in the “quality” of the human genetic stock.

But this emphasis on individual choice as a distinguishing factor is illusory at best. Past state-enforced eugenics and the prospects for what some call a new free-market eugenics are connected by an incessant desire to link social problems to human biology rather than to political and economic conditions that underlie apparent disparities in abilities among different social groups. A troubling yet consistent theme for eugenics is that only certain types of people—the smart, the beautiful and those without disability—deserve to exist, as those who are less than ideal are simply too burdensome.

It is this notion that science can perfect the human condition and technology can solve social problems that leads otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people to adhere to eugenics’s disastrous social policies and scientific projects. Despite attempts to rehabilitate the term, what connects old-school eugenics with the postwar and 21st-century versions is the hubris embedded in an underlying attitude that scientists and other elites should take control of evolution to predetermine—or redesign—humanity's biological landscape. Edwards articulated this perspective in 1974 when speculating on the possibility of cloning humans—a quintessentially eugenic pursuit that envisions replicating individuals with genetic endowments thought to be ideal. Although acknowledging possible limitations, he broadly stated that "any [scientific] method of potential value in raising human standards should be considered, and [human reproductive] cloning might contribute towards this end by providing pools of talent."

We can all celebrate the happiness that IVF has brought to many. And, with sufficient oversight of an increasingly sprawling and unregulated fertility industry, IVF need not lead to a parade of horribles. But as we consider the legacy of Robert G. Edwards we must put into perspective the views he held that bear clear links to ignoble attitudes and social policies: the breeding of humans to fit certain predefined specifications that conform to social norms that are all too easily biased. In that sense Edwards’s eugenic aspirations should be part of his legacy. The arrogance and cruelty embedded in these beliefs should serve as a clear warning against revisiting a path that science and society should never again travel.


Osagie K. Obasogie is professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, in San Francisco and is also a senior fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society. His first book,
Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race through the Eyes of the Blind, is forthcoming with Stanford University Press.

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