There is no good reason why unwanted human embryos should not be used in researchby John Maddox / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
It is to be hoped that the fertility wars are over for the time being. But there is a cloud hanging over us. The Birmingham woman who hopes to carry all of eight foetuses to term and who has made an arrangement with the News of the World to tell her tale in return for cash will reach a turning point sooner or later. Pregnancy does not go on forever, it is just that sometimes it seems like that.
The prospective octuplets overshadowed the story of how staff at Britain’s fertility clinics were being compelled by the law to destroy embryos unclaimed after five years by those who had commissioned their creation. Anti-abortionists called it murder. A little earlier, they had been exercised by a report that a woman pregnant with twins might have one of them aborted because she would not be able to cope with two.
What has any of this to do with the lab? “Nothing,” at least to a first approximation. Women and their partners are interested in producing babies; scientists, many of whom are women, have a long-standing interest in how it all happens. The second group’s success-especially in understanding the role of natural hormones in the regulation of ovulation and implantation-has facilitated all kinds of procedures, from donor insemination to in vitro fertilization (IVF). (In vitro stands for “in glass,” loosely translated as “in a test-tube.”)
The revolution in fertility management has been deliberately delayed. It is more than three decades since Robert Edwards, then at the department of physiology at Cambridge, began assaulting Nature with learned articles on IVF in rats. Edwards has always been open about his intentions. His goal was to find a way of treating human infertility. From the beginning, Edwards and his colleague, the late Patrick Steptoe, also proclaimed that their proposals would raise novel ethical problems. Eventually the Warnock committee recommended the regulatory framework within which IVF clinics and others with an interest in human embryology must now function.
On balance, the statutory regulation of practice and research seems to be working well. So why all the fuss over the summer?
The case of the putative octuplets is not accidental. Stimulating ovulation by the use of hormones is now a common, and sensible, practice. On this occasion, the physicians concerned appear to have recognised that it had worked too well, with the result that they warned the…