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.