Robert Edwards Dies: IVF Pioneer Remembered For Changing the Family Dynamic

Robert Edwards, pioneer of the “test tube baby,” or in-vitro fertilization, died April 10.  His research, which allows a sperm to fertilize an egg outside of the body, contributed to the reshaping of the modern family: making it possible for older women, LGBT couples, and many others who had previous been excluded from childbearing to have a family. Of course, access to this treatment, and the legitimacy of it in this day and age, seems somewhat problematic in a time of overpopulation and unequal access to medical services. However, it’s clear that Edwards’ research changed the face of the family forever. 

Edwards worked tireless to have the first baby born through in-vitro fertilization, succeeding in 1978, and won the Nobel Prize in 2010 for his efforts. Since then, 350,000 babies have been born every year, over 4 million children in total. 

The treatment has caused significant controversy: not in terms of the process, but in terms of whom should have access to the right to have a child when it would otherwise be impossible. The case of an infertile sex offender made headlines recently when, in Australia, when a man who had already served his time and posed no threat to minors was at first not allowed to have his partner receive treatment.  Other questions, such as whether or not smokers or obese women should be allowed to receive the treatment. Of course, these questions are being debated mostly in nations with more accessible and comprehensive medical insurance plans, where IVF is covered or at least less expensive. 

Of course, the science of IVF far surpasses the economic equity of the treatment:  the United States has the lowest rate of IVF in a developed nation because of the lack of coverage by insurance for couples whom need the treatment. The treatment can cost over $100,000. In the last few years, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Canada have agreed to provide couples that cannot conceive with IVF treatment, including LGBT couples. While this has not yet been done in the U.S., it is a step in the right direction to make Edwards’ treatment available to all equitably. 

Robert Edwards' treatment, while it may cause controversy in terms of whom should be allowed to access it, or in terms of its economic cost, had an additional social and impact: it changed the face of the family. No longer are women whom are older, or LGBT couples who cannot conceive, barred from having a child, and the stigma surrounding families that were not straight, married couples, dissipated somewhat.  When science gave a family a new look, it meant that equality beyond the scope of the family could also be seen as achievable. Edwards’ impact was not only scientific, but cultural.