How test tube babies went mainstream

The notion that a baby’s beginnings could transpire in a petri dish seems unremarkable today. But not even 50 years ago, researchers’ efforts to devise technologies to allow infertile couples to have a baby sparked fierce opposition on multiple fronts, raising alarms around designer babies and eugenics. Scientists were afraid too.

“Sincere scientists … really believed they might be creating monsters,” says Robin Marantz Henig, who wrote this issue’s cover story on the invention of assisted reproductive technologies, or ART. The article is part of our Century of Science series exploring major scientific advances of the last 100 years and their impact on society.

Henig, author of the book Pandora’s Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution and a contributor to National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine, explains just how hard it was for scientists to decipher the many steps to making a baby. The struggle included some wacky experiments, including loading sperm into a tiny chamber and inserting it in a volunteer’s uterus to “prime” the sperm for action. It later turned out that no priming was necessary.

The debates over whether ART posed a threat to the future of humankind helped bioethics come of age, Henig says. With the rise of new reproductive technologies came the realization among scientists and regulators that braking mechanisms are necessary to give society time to assess potential impacts. We’re seeing those concerns rise again around the very real notion of using CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology on human embryos.

But after the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, was born in July 1978, and more healthy babies followed, concern about ART quickly evaporated. “People were just so desperate,” Henig says. These days having a child via in vitro fertilization is a routine option, and it has made parenthood possible for millions of people, including cancer patients, same-sex couples and single parents.

Henig imagines a future for reproductive technologies that might include creating egg and sperm cells by reprogramming a bit of one’s own skin — no sex cells (or partners) needed. “You just take a sample of cells from someone when she’s ready to have a baby,” Henig speculates.

The “kids-from-my-skin” approach, if it comes to pass, could once again spark concerns about how science can rescript a process that is central to the essence of who we are. And if not this, then some other approach certainly will. We’ll continue to add new content to the Century of Science series through April 2022, with excerpts in the magazine and longer stories available at Online, you can explore a specific field of science, or compare across fields to see what was happening in, say, neuroscience, public health and quantum mechanics in the 1930s. We’re also writing profiles of the people who made these discoveries possible, many of whom were under-appreciated at the time. We’re thoroughly enjoying this opportunity to celebrate Science News’ centennial by exploring an extraordinary century of innovation and discovery, and we hope you are enjoying it too.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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