Science

From Yuck to Yippee

The public learns to love a once controversial technology-again.

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In 2010, 32 years after the research of Robert G. Edwards and Patrick Steptoe resulted in the birth of the world's first test tube baby, Edwards received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The biochemist Joseph Goldstein once quipped that he knew in vitro fertilization (IVF) "was a great leap because Edwards and Steptoe were immediately attacked by an unlikely trinity—the press, the pope, and prominent Nobel laureates." Politicians and the public also reacted to Edwards' initial research with horror at the time. But once he and Steptoe succeeded in producing a healthy baby girl, revulsion swiftly gave way to approval.

In 1969 a Harris poll found that a majority of Americans believed producing test tube babies was "against God's will." In the 1970s the government imposed a moratorium on federal funding of IVF research and Congress considered legislation that would have outlawed it altogether. Yet just one month after the birth of the world's first test tube baby, Louise Joy Brown, a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans approved of IVF and more than half would consider using it if they were infertile. Edwards' scientific career traces the yuck-to-yippee arc that characterizes public reaction to much technological progress: initial fear and loathing followed by a warm embrace.

Consider contraception. Under the Comstock Act of 1873, Americans who trafficked in birth control could be "imprisoned at hard labor in the Penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years each offense, or fined not less than $100 nor more than $2,000, with costs of court." The moral crusader Anthony Comstock was made a special agent of the Post Office, and he spent the next 42 years vigorously enforcing the new law.

By the beginning of the 20th century, agitation for birth control information was increasing—and so was official pushback. In 1915 William Sanger, husband of the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, was convicted of giving a copy of his wife's pamphlet Family Limitation to a Comstock agent. He was fined $150, and when he refused to pay he was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The presiding justice told Sanger: "Such persons as you who circulate such pamphlets are a menace to society. There are too many now who believe it is a crime to have children. If some of the women who are going around and advocating equal suffrage would advocate women having children they would do greater service." The New York Times disapprovingly reported that the courtroom was crowded with unruly socialists and anarchists.

Even as public acceptance of birth control gradually grew, there were strong voices of opposition. A November 3, 1930, article in the Times, headlined "Sees Birth Control As Road to Atheism," described a lecture by the Rev. Ignatius W. Cox, a professor of ethics at Fordham University. Cox denounced various Protestant denominations for approving modern contraception. He noted that the Lambeth Conference, the worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops, had 10 years earlier declared that birth control "errs against purity" but now had "allied themselves, partially at least, with modern pagans on marriage."

As some couples used contraception to avoid fertility, others began using artificial insemination to overcome it. Pope Pius XII denounced the technique in 1949, opposing it even when using the husband's sperm on the grounds that the process involves the sin of masturbation. In 1958, the Times reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury "condemned artificial insemination by donors today as 'an offense against the social and legal implications of marriage.'??" The archbishop urged that artificial insemination "be made a criminal offense altogether" or "if that cannot be, then the law should require that every case of artificial insemination by donor be registered and the register should be available for inspection under safeguards."

Also in 1958, the Times noted that the Methodist Conference of Great Britain "condemned artificial insemination because it invaded the essence of Christian marriage and deceived both the child and society." Despite these denunciations, by 1976 as many as 500,000 children in the U.S. had been born by means of artificial insemination using donor sperm.

In 1960 one of the century's most consequential technologies appeared when the Food and Drug Administration approved the new birth control pill. "Approval was based on the question of safety," the agency's associate commissioner, John L. Harvey, told the Times apologetically. "We had no choice as to the morality that might be involved." The Catholic Church maintained its opposition to artificial contraception. The pill received wider approval among Protestants, but that acceptance went only so far. Bishop Fred Pierce, president of the World Methodist Council, argued in 1966 that "morally and religiously, birth control methods should be prescribed only for married couples after consultation with their religious advisors, if they are associated with a religious body." He added, "Making it easy to secure an over-the-counter product will create an evil brood of moral deterioration as well as economic and social problems."

In a 1965 New York Times Magazine article, Cornell government professor Andrew Hacker reported that he had surveyed his 200 freshman students about whether the university clinic should be willing to prescribe birth control pills for undergraduate girls who requested them. "It is hardly necessary to say that a good majority of the boys thought this was a splendid idea," reported Hacker. "But what surprised me was that most of the girls also agreed with this proposal." He was particularly startled to find that the steady churchgoers were almost as strongly in favor of dispensing the pill as were his nonreligious students. The sexual revolution had already taken off.

Hacker's prescient conclusion: "Just as we have adjusted our lives to the television set and the automobile, so—in 20 years' time—we shall take the pill for granted, and wonder how we ever lived without it." Indeed. In April of this year, a Harris poll found that 86 percent of Americans believe having the birth control pill available is good for society.

In 1972, in another New York Times Magazine article, the bioethicist William Gaylin was already wringing his hands over the possibility that in vitro fertilization might not just produce babies for the infertile but also allow parents to select the sex of embryos or diagnose diseases in embryos before implanting them. Gaylin warned that some women might one day implant in themselves donor eggs fertilized with their husbands' sperm, or pay another woman for the use of her uterus to carry her embryos to term. Gaylin also feared that we would soon see cloned people.

Except for human cloning, the research pioneered by Edwards has enabled all of those procedures, and all have become widely adopted and accepted by the public and policy makers. When the first healthy human clone is born, that too will be accepted as an ethical use of technology by most people.

We are still in the yuck phase when it comes to the public's thinking about endowing children with genes and epigenetic combinations that will improve their health, lengthen their lives, boost their intelligence, and strengthen their bodies. But sometime in this century, when these technological interventions become safe and effective, yuck will turn to yippee yet again. 

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. That one woman initially recoiled at the very idea of cybernetic implants but eventually relented when she saw how much they enhanced quality of life, and they ended up making her Borg queen. True story.

    1. one woman initially recoiled at the very idea of cybernetic implants but eventually relented

      Well, resistance WAS futile…

    2. That same woman was also a product of a generations-long breeding program that, through her, produced both the Kwisatz Haderach and, with the help of the Water of Life, the Abomination.

  2. But once he and Steptoe succeeded in producing a healthy baby girl, revulsion swiftly gave way to approval.

    Which is how it always happens, Son, trust me.

  3. It’s like boiling a frog.

    1. Like boiling a frog, in that the conventional wisdom is completely wrong?

      (The reality is that the trick doesn’t work. A frog will jump out of water that you slowly heat to a boil as soon as it starts getting uncomfortable, which happens well before the heat becomes dangerous.)

      1. That’s why you use a pressure cooker. The lid keeps the frog inside and it ends up much more tender and tasty.

        1. No, that’s why you don’t let the frogs in on what’s about to happen until the water is already boiling. No pressure cooker required. Noobs.

          1. don’t let the frogs in on what’s about to happen until the water is already boiling

            Inadvertent comment on the state of American Politics?

  4. Come on, Ron, the yuck factor? Should I imply from this that you believe all opposition to IVF isn’t based on ideological, intellectual or a moral positions but because the people think it is yucky?

    1. I think he’s referring to a more abstract “yuck” that involves Man-Supplanting-God/Nature, rather than a “yuck, genitals and gametes” sort of way.

      1. (which WOULD be an ideological dispute.)

    2. The emotion of disgust is known to correlate strongly with a sense of moral repugnance.

  5. I have moral objections to some of the technologies an techniques mentioned in this article. However, I also feel that the decisions involved are not for me to force on someone else.

    Should I turn in my card?

  6. The people on the left will never accept genetically engineered children, it’s way to inegalitarian. It means that the children of the rich will be literally genetically superior to the children of the poor. Bigger, stronger, faster, less prone to disease, and worst of all, literally smarter. And to top it all off, they will be disproportionately white and oriental.

    1. The left will embrace it wholeheartedly and use government (aka force) to require all people to engineer their offspring at great expense (to the genuine achievers in society) to reduce the cost of health care in the future (coincidentally also paid by genuine achievers in society).

      1. “The left will embrace it wholeheartedly and use government (aka force) to require all people to engineer their offspring […]to reduce the cost of health care in the future..”

        And when the government plans to reduce healthcare costs end up costing more than predicted, they will blame it on ‘the market’, and institute further government plans.
        We’ve seen this before.

    2. Whether it winds up as inegalitarian depends on some technical questions. The benefits from genetic engineering might saturate. It may be easier to find and fix genes that are clearly bad (e.g. Tay-Sachs) than to improve parts of the genome that basically work. In that case, genetic engineering might wind up being egalitarian in its net effect.

  7. “When the first healthy human clone is born”

    This has already taken place millions of times. They are called identical twins.

    1. Twins aren’t clones.

      1. Oh really?

        Clone: a population of identical units, cells, or individuals that derive from the same ancestral line.

  8. There’s a bit of survivorship bias in this analysis. There were a lot of yucks for eugenics and thankfully we never got to yippee.

    1. Er. There weren’t a lot of yuks. In fact, if my memory serve me right, a lot of American charitable foundations did a lot of work on the subject before forgetting it post World War II

    2. Er. There weren’t a lot of yuks. In fact, if my memory serve me right, a lot of American charitable foundations did a lot of work on the subject before forgetting it post World War II

  9. i love the part about the 200 freshman surveyed and that the steady church-goers were almost as in favor as the nonreligious.
    1) what is it about the teenage brain that we now know is not fully developed?
    2) of course religious students were in favor…you certainly don’t want religious mom and dad to find what their little darlings are really doing away at binge-drinking sch- whoops, the institute of higher learning!

  10. I think the techniques are fascinating, I don’t buy into the “play God” thing, yet I fail to see the point in human cloning. That doesn’t mean I think it should be banned, I just (personally) think it’s stupid. I mean, besides the fact that cloning a mammal requires a lot of failures (which are at the very least expensive), why would you want to have lots of people with identical genes? Genetic diversity is a foundation for a species’ ability to resist various diseases, and a great way to get that genetic diversity is meiosis, the process that occurs during the formation of gametes. There’s a reason that there’s only one known class of animals (bdelloid rotifers, iirc) that survived any significant length of time without meiosis.

    Oh well. It’s interesting science, and the pursuit of knowledge should not be banned because some people have an aversion to certain chemicals mixing in a test tube.

    1. Or because of their narrow minded view of what constitutes ‘genetic diversity’.

      1. Well, if you read what I said, you’d know that I don’t think it should be banned. I just don’t see why you’d do it, aside from scientific curiosity. Of course, I don’t see why you’d watch Twilight, but that should be legal too.

        That said, what other view of genetic diversity is there? I don’t think the government should have any say in it, so no more attacking things I didn’t say; just tell me how having a world of clones is more genetically diverse than a world of humans produced via sexual reproduction.

        Like I said, it’s not about banning, it’s just about, well, why would anyone want to reproduce via cloning? I’m curious.

  11. “Sees Birth Control As The Road To Atheism”

    With all due disrespect, Rev. Cox, I was turned off religion long before I lost my virginity.

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    I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, but just that there are rational concerns involved, whereas with test tube babies and in-vitro there really aren’t any rational arguments. In this piece it’s presented as if there are no rational concerns, and we should just carry forward full speed ahead without any regard for the consequences.

    That strikes me as an irrationally exuberant position in support of genetic engineering. That is, the complementary opposite of the irrational opposition detailed in this piece.

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  23. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, but just that there are rational concerns involved, whereas with test tube babies and in-vitro there really aren’t any rational arguments. In this piece it’s presented as if there are no rational concerns, and we should just carry forward full speed ahead without any regard for the consequences.
    ???? ????? ??? ??????? ???? ????? ??? ???????
    That strikes me as an irrationally exuberant position in support of genetic engineering. That is, the complementary opposite of the irrational opposition detailed in this piece.

  24. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, but just that there are rational concerns involved, whereas with test tube babies and in-vitro there really aren’t any rational arguments. In this piece it’s presented as if there are no rational concerns, and we should just carry forward full speed ahead without any regard for the consequences.
    ???? ????? ????? ??????? ???? ??? ??? ???????
    That strikes me as an irrationally exuberant position in support of genetic engineering. That is, the complementary opposite of the irrational opposition detailed in this piece.

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  26. I think the techniques are fascinating, I don’t buy into the “play God” thing, yet I fail to see the point in human cloning. That doesn’t mean I think it should be banned, I just (personally) think it’s stupid. I mean, besides the fact that cloning a mammal requires a lot of failures (which are at the very least expensive), ???? ?????? ????? ???????
    ???? ?????? ????? ????????
    why would you want to have lots of people with identical genes? Genetic diversity is a foundation for a species’ ability to resist various diseases, and a great way to get that genetic diversity is meiosis, the process that occurs during the formation of gametes. There’s a reason that there’s only one known class of animals (bdelloid rotifers, iirc) that survived any significant length of time without meiosis.

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