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How the In Vitro Revolution Began
Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution
by Robin Marantz Henig

By Wray Herbert


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Robin Marantz Henig calls on mythological and literary icons to spell out the major themes of her new book, Pandora’s Baby, a fascinating history and meditation on the promise and ethical risks involved in in vitro fertilization (IVF) and reproductive genetics generally.

Readers will recall that Pandora, because of her very human traits of curiosity and cheekiness, defied the gods, opened the forbidden box, and unleashed all sorts of miseries on the previously innocent human world. Henig also draws heavily on the myth of Prometheus, the Titan who stole the gift of fire from the Greek gods to bestow it on man, and was punished severely for his hubris.

Finally, Henig pays homage to Mary Shelley’s story of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. We all know what resulted when this “modern Prometheus” yearned for the creative power of God. The three taken together symbolize the innate human tension between wanting to explore and push intellectual boundaries and the fear of going too far.

For Henig, also known for her book, The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics, the history of reproductive medicine epitomizes this classic psychological and societal struggle.

Most people associate the 1978 birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby” with the dawn of the modern era of fertilization pioneering. In fact, the specialty dates back to the late 19th century, when fertility doctors began experimenting with donor sperm and “artificial insemination.”

As Henig points out, even this rather rudimentary procedure, which involved injecting a donor’s sperm into a fertile woman, was highly controversial when it first came into practice, generating fierce legal debates about whether the children born of such unions were (using the legal term of the time) bastards.

But IVF pushed the science—and the legal and ethical debates—much, much further, because it involved manipulating not only sperm but eggs as well. (IVF also required the surgical removal of a woman’s eggs, a much more invasive procedure than earlier versions.)

The core of Pandora’s Baby is the three-decade history of IVF. Henig chooses to narrate this history through the lives of the human pioneers who lived it. The main characters are Doris and John Del-Zio, who in 1973, desperate for a second child, decided to throw aside the risks and undergo the experimental IVF procedure; and Landrum Shettles, the socially clumsy and academically ostracized fertility doctor who was willing to let the Del-Zios take the risk.

Shettles is either a medical hero or an ethical villain, depending on your point of view.

Columbia University officials got wind of the Del-Zio trial and destroyed the fertilized eggs, which is why people know of Louise Brown rather than a test tube baby named Del-Zio.

Henig tells this fascinating personal and medical tale while giving the reader a first-rate primer in reproductive technology. Uniting an egg and sperm in a petri dish sounds simple enough, but in fact it took a great deal of scientific cunning to make that union work in somewhat the way nature had planned.

The bigger story here is the emergence of bioethics as a field and the dramatic shift in attitudes toward innovation with reproduction. Shettles was a 20 th-century Prometheus, according to Henig’s estimation, pushing the envelope in ways that made a lot of people very nervous.

In a 1969 Harris poll, more than half of Americans said that emerging reproductive technologies were “against God’s will” and would “encourage promiscuity.” Today there are half a million test tube babies, apparently healthy and thriving. Nobody even debates the issue anymore.

But they do debate other issues in reproductive genetics, most obviously human cloning. Indeed, Leon Kass, one of the most vocal critics of IVF back in the 1970s, is now the chair of the President’s bioethics advisory board and a critic of all cloning experimentation.

As Henig points out, IVF (and gene splicing and other early genetic innovations) turned out not to be the slippery slope that would lead to ethical disaster. She ends Pandora’s Baby with a gentle admonition not to be overly fearful of the natural human inclination toward curiosity and exploration.

Why? “Because we believe that the good outcome is just as likely: that we will adapt to new discoveries the way we have so often adapted, incorporating them into the shifting terrain of genomes, genes, and generation.”

Wray Herbert is Assistant Managing Editor at U.S. News & World Report.

Robin Marantz Henig, Pandora’s Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2004.

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