The notion that a baby’s beginnings could transcend into a Petri dish seems unremarkable today. But not even 50 years ago, researchers ’efforts to devise technologies that would allow infertile couples to have a baby provoked fierce opposition on multiple fronts, sparking alarms around design babies and eugenics. Scientists were also afraid.
“Sincere scientists … really believed they could create monsters,” says Robin Marantz Henig, who wrote the cover of this issue about the invention of assisted reproduction technologies or ART. The article is part of our Century of Science series that explores the major scientific advances of the last 100 years and their impact on society.
Henig, author of Pandora’s Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution and a contributor to National Geographic and the New York Times, explains how difficult it has been for scientists to decipher the many steps to becoming a baby. The fight included some extravagant experiments, including loading sperm into a small chamber and inserting a volunteer into the uterus to “prime” the sperm for action. It later turned out that no preparation was necessary.
Henig claims that debates about whether ART posed a threat to the future of humanity helped bioethics reach adulthood. With the rise of new reproductive technologies scientists and regulators have realized that braking mechanisms are needed to give society time to assess potential impacts. We are seeing these concerns re-emerge around the very real notion of using CRISPR / Cas9 gene editing technology in human embryos.
But after the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, was born in July 1978 and the healthiest babies followed, concern about ART quickly evaporated. “People were so desperate,” Henig says. Today having a child through in vitro fertilization is a routine choice and has made parenting possible for millions of people, including cancer patients, same-sex couples, and single-parent parents.
Henig imagines a future for reproductive technologies that may include creating eggs and sperm by reprogramming a bit of the skin itself, without the need for sex cells (or couples). “You just have to take a sample of someone’s cells when you’re ready to have a baby,” Henig speculates.
The “kids of my skin” approach, if it happens, could once again raise concerns about how science can rewrite a process that is critical to the essence of who we are. And if not, then some other approach will surely do. We will continue to add new content to the Century of Science series until April 2022, with excerpts from the journal and longer stories available at www.sciencenews.org/century. Online, you can explore a specific field of science or compare among other fields to see what was happening, for example, in neuroscience, public health, and quantum mechanics in the 1930s. We also wrote profiles of the people who made these possible. discoveries, many of which were little appreciated at the time. We are fully enjoying this opportunity to celebrate the centenary of Science News exploring an extraordinary century of innovation and discovery and we hope you enjoy it as well.