"An engrossing, hard-to-put-down read telling how a once highly controversial potential advance becomes a widely appreciated tool for today's life." James D. Watson, Nobel laureate and author of The Double Helix
If today's controversies surrounding human cloning and germ-line engineering seem familiar, it's because strikingly similar disputes arose over in vitro fertilization (IVF) twenty-five years ago. In her timely new book Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution, Robin Marantz Henig provides a context for the current debate, taking us back to the 1970s, when IVF first arrived on the scientific scene and met with immediate resistance.
Opponents of the technology argued that it posed significant threats to society, including the risk of chromosomally damaged babies, the disruption of ordinary family relationships, and the incursion of science into matters of procreation best left to nature and God.
The most vehemently voiced argument, though, was that of the "slippery slope," the assertion that each new development in science potentially catapults us farther down a treacherous hill, at the bottom of which lie even more unnatural and dangerous manipulations. In vitro fertilization was feared as the precursor to surrogate mothers, frozen embryos, genetic engineering of babies, and human cloning. While Henig considers the "slippery slope" claims worrisome and antiprogressive, she acknowledges that certain predictions about the applications of IVF technology are indeed proving accurate.
In addition to her in-depth discussion of these profound moral and medical issues, Henig also tells the moving story of the people behind the scientific and ethical debate over IVF. She introduces us to the infertile couples, like John and Doris Del-Zio, who first looked to IVF as the answer to their prayers, and she takes us inside the world of the American and English doctors who forged ahead in their fields while controversy swirled.
Furthermore, Henig explores how IVF research thrived in the United States even though these physicians could not get federal funding. Critics of IVF prevented the government from sponsoring grants to support the research, so entrepreneurial scientists, financed by private money, were able to proceed without adhering to any federal standards. Because scientists were able to carry on their work beneath the radar, IVF turned into a kind of cowboy science driven by supply and demand.
What happened beneath the radar came into the spotlight, however, on July 25, 1978, when Louise Brown, the world's first test tube baby, was born in England. The successful birth and Brown's perfectly normal development paved the way for one million other births like hers (half of them in the United States) in the past twenty-five years. As a result, "today scientists doing in vitro fertilization don't think much about elemental lines . . . Questions about the right and wrongs of such manipulations, questions about whether the ends justify the means, are virtually never asked," Henig notes. A procedure now considered routine enough to be covered by most insurance plans, IVF is simply accepted as part of our medical and societal landscape.
Despite this level of success and acceptance, Henig points out that there is a dark side to IVF that, because of the lack of regulation over the years, has only recently come to light: birth defects. Test tube babies are twice as likely as naturally conceived infants to have multiple major birth defects specifically, chromosomal and musculoskeletal abnormalities. They are also two and a half times more likely to have a low birth weight.
It remains to be seen whether society's anxiety about cloning will follow the same path as our feelings about IVF. Will our attitudes change, leading us to embrace this controversial technology and even consider it mundane? We don't yet know. What we do know is that today the federal government is actively involved in regulating cloning (perhaps too involved, in fact, to the point of discussing outlawing new research, as Henig notes in the attached interview), in an apparent attempt to avoid repeating the errors made with IVF, when regulatory decision-making was simply avoided.
On the frontiers of reproductive technology, very real parallels exist between the past and the present. In Pandora's Baby, Henig illustrates that the IVF experience offers many lessons we can learn from as we face the challenges of new genetic applications. She provides the historical context and bioethical perspective we need now, as science advances ever further and new moral dilemmas arise.
Robin Marantz Henig is the author of eight books. Her previous book The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She writes about science and medicine for such publications as the New York Times, Scientific American, and Seed. She and her husband, who have two daughters, live in New York City.
Praise for Pandora's Baby
"Pandora's Baby is an engrossing, hard-to-put down read telling how a once highly controversial potential advance becomes a widely appreciated tool for today's life." James D. Watson, Ph.D., Nobel laureate and author of The Double Helix and DNA: The Secret of Life
"Pandora's Baby is informative, thought-provoking, and gracefully written. With the voice of a good storyteller and the authority of a careful researcher, Henig brilliantly probes the moral, philosophical, and social issues surrounding that most intimate of all scientific endeavors: the creation of human life." Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams
"Robin Marantz Henig's formidable talents are on proud display in this previously untold tale of courage and hubris, discovery and desire. Timely and provocative, Pandora's Baby brilliantly illuminates the ongoing debate over what it means to be human in a technological age. A stunning achievement: gripping, evocative, and true." Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of The Hungry Gene
"A most engaging book. Through a very well written succession of personal stories, the author succeeds in walking us in the shoes of those who need to make taxing decisions regarding the bioengineering of future infants. Many of us or those we love will face these decisions, and all of us will have to live with the consequences. This book could hardly be more timely." Amitai Etzioni, author of My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and a Message and Genetic Fix: The Next Technological Revolution
"Pandora's Baby is a brilliant, gripping account of the courtroom drama that spilled from one hospital administrator's act of outrage; of the ensuing scientific race that led to the first successful test tube baby; and of a decade torn apart by the struggle between the drive to know and the drive to not know. Robin Henig has plucked a moment from a seemingly more innocent past and put all our current concerns about human cloning and genetic engineering in a palpable new light." James Shreeve, author of The Genome War
"In telling the forgotten story of the first test tube babies and the terrors they ignited, Robin Marantz Henig invites us to examine our own angst about today's nascent eugenics revolution. With great charm and marvelous detail she reassures us that we have passed this way before and emerged not as a race of Frankensteins but as a more humane species with the technical prowess to give hope to thousands of men and women fearful of never having a chance to share that terrible, wonderful, utterly human experience we call parenthood." Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City
"Pandora's Baby illuminates one of those rare moments in science a genuinely suspenseful tale with haunting moral questions behind it. This quest to create life in the laboratory raises questions about the power of science to shape our world and ourselves that remain imperative today. Compelling and fascinating." Deborah Blum, author of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection
"Gaining material control over human reproduction is as portentous a technological development as the invention of flight or the splitting of the atom. In a deft, insightful, and deeply engrossing text, Henig acquaints us with the science, the human drama, and the often highly iconoclastic characters who pioneered this fateful step into our genetic future." Ed Regis, author of The Biology of Doom and The Info Mesa
"When we read articles about cloning or stem cells, we scratch our heads, sure that we are facing ethical dilemmas that humans have never had to confront before. Not true. In crisp, elegant prose, Robin Marantz Henig shows how society was gripped by the same fears, hopes, and confusion thirty years ago, as in vitro fertilization matured from dream to ordinary procedure. Pandora's Baby offers a vital lesson in history for anyone who wants to come to terms with our growing power over life." Carl Zimmer, author of Soul Made Flesh and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
"Valuable, timely, and wise. Pandora's Baby has something for everyone. Robin Marantz Henig has done a superb job." Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Beak of the Finch
"Pandora's Baby is a thoughtful and revealing account of a signal moment in the reproductive life of our species. That moment came a quarter century ago, with the first test tube babies. But as Robin Henig so insightfully shows, the confusion, anger, and doubt marking the ethical debates of that time echo loudly across the years to our own." Robert Kanigel, author of The Man Who Knew Infinity
"A well-documented, highly accessible reminder of the ways in which medical and moral issues intersect and of the roles played by politics, science, religion, money, and the media." Kirkus Reviews
"Judicious history . . . [Henig's] level-headed book provides a welcome context for the current debate over cloning." Publishers Weekly
A timeline of significant events in the history of IVF
Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court establishes the right to an abortion in the first two trimesters.
Sleeper, a film by Woody Allen set fifty years in the future, is released. In the film a repressive government's fallen dictator is cloned from the remains of his nose.
On September 12, in New York City, Dr. William Sweeney removes eggs from Doris Del-Zio. His collaborator, Dr. Landrum Shettles, combines them with sperm from her husband, John, and places them in an incubator.
On September 13, Shettles's boss, Raymond Vande Wiele, finds out what Shettles is planning, removes the test tube with the Del-Zio sex cells from the incubator, and stops the experiment.
On October 17, Landrum Shettles resigns from his position at Columbia University.
Congress creates the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects, with a deadline of May 1, 1975, to issue a report on fetal research; in the meantime, Congress imposes a temporary ban on all fetal research.
Doris and John Del-Zio file suit against Raymond Vande Wiele and his employers, asking for $1.5 million in damages.
Caspar Weinberger, secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, following the advice of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects, lifts the ban on fetal research. But the new regulations require that federal funds cannot be used to support IVF research without the approval of a national ethics advisory board a board that does not yet exist.
In His Image by David M. Rorvik is published, setting off a national controversy about whether its tale of the cloning of an unnamed sixty-five-year-old bachelor millionaire is true.
Joseph Califano, secretary of HEW, names a thirteen-member Ethics Advisory Board to advise him on in vitro fertilization.
The Boys from Brazil, a film based on the novel by Ira Levin depicting a madman's scheme to clone Adolf Hitler, is released.
On July 17, jury selection begins in the case of Del-Zio v. Vande Wiele et al.
On July 25, the world's first test tube baby, Louise Brown, is born in England.
The Del-Zios win their case against Vande Wiele, with the jury awarding them a total of $50,003.
The Ethics Advisory Board unanimously recommends that the federal government permit using federal funds for IVF.
Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, files for authorization to open the first test tube baby clinic in the United States, under the direction of Howard and Georgeanna Jones. Antiabortion protesters do all they can to keep the clinic from opening.
On March 1, despite eight months of vigorous opposition, America's first IVF clinic officially opens. The first nine attempts at IVF at the Norfolk clinic fail to produce a pregnancy.
Yale scientists create the world's first "transgenic mouse" by injecting bacterial DNA directly into one-celled mouse embryos, which incorporate the foreign DNA into every one of their cells as they develop.
In May, after sixteen months of trying, Howard and Georgeanna Jones announce the first IVF pregnancy in their Norfolk clinic. Three more follow in the next seven months.
On December 28, America's first test tube baby, Elizabeth Carr, is born in Norfolk.
The first IVF clinic in New York City opens at Columbia University. Its codirector is Raymond Vande Wiele.