LivingRobert Edwards:

Robert Edwards:

On July 25, 1978, Robert Edwards’ name appeared on the front page of newspapers on five continents. The world’s first test-tube baby, the English girl Louise Brown, had been born and he had been, together with his closest collaborator, Patrick Steptoe, now deceased, the author of the miracle.
With Louise Brown’s first cry, a real revolution began that has profoundly modified the means of human reproduction. IVF spread rapidly, allowing hundreds of thousands of couples with infertility problems to achieve what fate had denied them: a child.
In the rooms of the Domus, the interactive center on the human being that was inaugurated last April in La Coruña, Edwards, a member of the scientific committee of this institution, contemplated the modules related to his specialty. Above all, the one where photographs taken with a microscope are shown in which an embryo of a couple of days old can be seen.
Despite the thousands of interviews that he has endured since he became famous, it seems that this biologist has not yet learned to pose, although he obeys the photographer without question and puts up with the journalist who asks him the same thing he has already had. to answer thousands of times.

Do you think that Louise Brown feels, because of her origins, different from the rest of the young people her age?
-Absolutely. I still see her quite often and I think she feels normal. The only thing that sometimes bothers her, and her parents more than her, is the harassment to which they are subjected by the press and the people. They have been in the news for 17 years for a fact that has since become very common.

With the birth of Louise, you and Dr. Steptoe revolutionized human reproduction. Did you foresee that in vitro fertilization would become this boom ?
-In some way, yes. Fertility problems affect about 15% of couples and generate depressive states and marital problems. This explains why these methods have spread rapidly. Currently, there are about 150,000 children born thanks to these techniques in the world, and there is practically no one who cannot be adequately treated for infertility.

How many years were you dedicated to in vitro fertilization until you were able to bring it to fruition?
-I worked on this for over 20 years. Since 1968, with Dr. Steptoe.

Other researchers were looking for the same result years ago. An Australian group even managed to implant an embryo in 1973, but the pregnancy did not come to fruition. What allowed them to achieve it before anyone else?
-The decisive point was not the gestation of Louise, which was the culmination of a process, but to achieve blastocysts (the first cells resulting from fertilization) in vitro, which we achieved in 1971. But to turn this embryo into a baby we had to solve many more problems, such as getting the embryo to settle well in the uterus. It was necessary to establish a strict control of the culture media and achieve a perfect understanding of all the processes involved in pregnancy.


?How did you feel during Louise’s pregnancy?
-It was something delicious. For the first time, everything had been done correctly in one attempt: we had a wonderful in vitro embryo, which grew into a wonderful fetus and would soon grow into a wonderful baby.

What do you think of the expression “test tube children”, which has been imposed all over the world?
-It is an unfortunate term, but people understand its meaning and have lost the pejorative sense. Behind it is a science that has solved many problems.

In vitro fertilization and associated techniques that have emerged since have generated numerous ethical disputes …
-Society has always faced ethical problems in the field of reproduction. These have not come up with the new techniques. In the last 200 years there have been very important changes – sterilization, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, etc. – that have confronted previous customs and practices and have forced changes in social, legal and ethical concepts. Assisted reproduction has also modified the notions and laws on gamete donation, embryo rights, embryo research, maternity surrogacy (surrogate mothers) … An agreement must be reached on its convenience and Its utility.

Do you think ethical issues are being exaggerated?
-I’m worried about people who always say stop! when to say go ahead!

In 1986, Jacques Testart (the scientist who carried out the first successful artificial fertilization in France) gave up further work in this field for ethical considerations and wrote a book, The Transparent Embryo, in which he explained his arguments. What do you think of the reasons that led you to make this decision?
– I believe that Testart made a serious personal and scientific error, because with his reaction he contributed to questioning a technique that does not pose as many moral problems as is sometimes said. I do not understand or accept the reasons that led him to take this position.

So, do you think that the use of these techniques should not be limited?
– I believe that they must be regulated, but I believe that the laws that have been drawn up and that are in force in the United Kingdom and Spain, which I know well, are sufficient.

Beyond legal possibilities, the debate has given rise to a new discipline, bioethics. What role should it play in this field?
-For me, the word ethics has always been linked to science. Scientists have the competence and knowledge necessary to set ethical limits on research, although I believe that governments and the public should also participate in debates and discussions that clarify the problems. What I don’t think is that there should be pressure groups like the ones that exist in some parts, which are dedicated to stirring up controversies by hiding dubious interests.

In his latest encyclical, the Pope has been against artificial fertilization. Tell me how you would answer …
-I would tell him to worry about getting to know the families that have the problem and about loving the children born thanks to these techniques.

What do you think of some cases that have caused major scandals, such as the choice of sex, the pregnancy of women over 60 years of age or the employment of surrogate mothers?
-I think that human beings must be given as much freedom as possible, without penalizing the possibilities that science opens up. Only when society is seriously threatened can these possibilities be limited.

Assisted reproduction has developed since 1978 at an enormous speed. Where do you think progress will go in the coming years?
-The success rates of in vitro fertilization will be increased; In the future, any male will be able to generate, even without sperm, using their precursor cells, and progress will be made in the field of diagnosis and surgical treatment of embryos before their implantation. Everything concerning human reproduction will undergo a substantial change during the next century.

At this point, what is the success rate?
-For each implanted embryo, the success rate is between 15 and 20 percent. But a complete treatment, in which three reserve embryos are used, has a 40 percent chance of achieving a pregnancy.

What research are you currently doing?
-We continue trying to better understand the gestation processes and genetic diseases and those derived from the development of the embryo.
Ignacio F. Bayo

This interview was published in September 1995, in number 172 of VERY Interesting


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