Remembering Robert Edwards, the pioneer of IVF

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 2:15am

The sentiment that "the most important thing in life is having a child" is universal. This Sunday, the first family day after his death, we will attribute it to someone on record as having said it - scientist Robert Edwards, father of five. His Nobel Prize-winning research led to millions of families sharing the joy of parenthood otherwise denied to them by infertility or difficulty in conceiving naturally.

With his late colleague, gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, Edwards pioneered the development of in vitro fertilisation. As a result, the first so-called test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in England in 1978.

Nowadays, it is estimated that up to 2 per cent of babies in the Western world are conceived through IVF, and a growing number in China and other developing nations.

Edwards' abiding worship of children - "there is nothing more special than a child" - and compassion for childless parents helped sustain him against hostility and suspicion about his work from the Catholic Church - which was deeply troubled by the discarding or storing of unused human embryos - as well as from other churches, governments, the media and conservative ethicists.

The debate continues to this day, along with research which, hopefully, will defuse it with more breakthroughs that will help resolve ethical issues that cause affront to deeply held beliefs, such as stored or unwanted embryos, not to mention sex selection.

Meanwhile, contemporaries and successors of Edwards have no doubt about his scientific legacy, or that few biologists have had such a positive and practical impact on humankind.

Ironically, the first IVF baby was born in the same year China introduced the one-child policy. Edwards would not have agreed with it, but his achievement still brought hope to Chinese couples who despaired of having even one child. Today, hundreds of reproduction centres in China struggle to keep up with the demand for IVF.