From Yuck to Yippee

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


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.