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The brief history of man’s discoveries is littered with innovations that could be described with all manner of words: great, incredible, serendipitous and spectacular. However, there is one term that can describe few discoveries: intriguing.
One example is the invitro-fertilization (IVF) technology commonly known as ‘test tube baby pregnancy’ pioneered by Professor Bob Edwards and Dr Patrick Steptoe in Britain some 33 years ago. In simpler terms, this scientific discovery is an assisted reproduction technique (ART) that entails mixing eggs and sperm under artificial conditions in a Petri dish in a laboratory; then the zygote is placed in the uterus of a mother through the cervix. The term ‘In-vitro’ comes from the Latin language meaning ‘in a glass’, or outside the body of the organism, while ‘in vivo’ is used to imply the tissue remains inside the living organism.
The ground breaking medical discovery, which began as a simple experiment in a lab in England gave the world the first ‘test tube baby’, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978 thus wiping off the tears of agony from Louse’s parents, Lesley and John Brown who had struggled unsuccessfully to conceive for nine years. It also heralded a new dawn of hope for millions of infertile couples around the world who had to struggle trying to conceive either due to blocked fallopian tubes in a woman or damaged sperms in the case of man. They could now hope to live to see the elusive joy of parenthood which is on itself quite miraculous given that over millennia; infertile couples had remained condemned to eternal childlessness as no any other scientific discovery had offered a viable solution to infertility.
Before this monumental feat, the IVF technology had been tried out in rabbits by one Professor Walter Heape (1855-1929) who had reported success way back in 1920s when he transplanted embryo from the fallopian tubes of Angora rabbits and placed them in the womb of Belgian hare that amazingly carried the pregnancy to full term.
Perhaps what is quite intriguing is the procedure used to collect the ovaries from a woman. Quite an elaborate process, it involves stimulation of the ovaries using fertility drugs to release eggs. Then the eggs are retrieved from the ovary using a hollow needle passed through the pelvic cavity. The next step involves mixing these eggs and sperms in a dish with special nutrient medium and then placed in an incubator. Eventually, when these cells start dividing after fertilization, they are placed in the uterus through the cervix using a catheter, all this without any pain or side effects to the woman!
It is incredible how man ‘create’ another human being without disastrous consequences, like other scientific inventions. In addition, the man behind this pioneering technology that has removed the misery of childlessness to millions of couples worldwide was not even a ‘real’ doctor. Bob Edward’s early career was in the army before he studied agriculture and zoology and finally genetics at Edinburgh.
Like any other scientific innovation that seems to challenge God, IVF technology has come under heavy criticism from various quarters. The Catholic Church, the Protestants and the Medical Research Council in Britain issued vicious condemnation of the technology has terming it as unethical. Some of their arguments are quite baffling like, the Medical Research Council’s argument that the world as it is today is much populated hence there is no need for such technology. The Christians consider the technology as the next big tragedy to happen as man continues unabated to create a ‘technical child’. To them, the ‘frozen’ embryos usually preserved for a repeat procedure in case the first process fails, are live human persons who have a right to live rather than being frozen or killed at will. Amid all these controversies, there is a thought that man is ‘playing God’ which is otherwise against the moral law. The Catholic Church’s teachings in particular view IVF as falling in the realm of negative moral judgment and unethical. The church’s teachings consider ‘sex as the only acceptable way to conceive.’
In the philosophical realm, the discovery takes an even more intriguing angle. Will there be a category of people in future distinct from the rest of us naturally born? Will the future society fall within the dichotomy of ‘naturally born’ and ‘artificially born’ children? The debate can be mind boggling. Man has the means to ‘create’ a fellow human being.
Then there are issues of procedure and the way we see it through the prism of religion and morality.
When a man for instance, masturbates in order to remove sperms to be mixed with the woman’s eggs, is it evil or immoral? Or when a woman is made to have artificial orgasmic ecstasies, is it tantamount to being immoral and unnatural? The whole debate can get quite intriguing.
For me, this medical breakthrough is of significance in the field of reproductive health because it brings hope to all the millions of people, who out of reasons beyond their control come to realize they are infertile and thus might never live to see their offspring. The discovery almost wipes out at a go the age old curse of barrenness and childlessness that afflicted millions of people around the world.
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In particular, the men with low sperm count or infertility partly as a result of natural and environmental factors around them can hope to sire children with the new discovery. Women with infertility or who have reached menopause stage without giving birth can also have hopes of reliving the joy of motherhood once more with IVF technology.
Still, the discovery spells relief to the millions of infertile women in primitive societies around the world doomed to facing the most degrading forms of humiliation such as hanging, burning(as in India),divorce.
The discovery is also quite significant in that it is the acme of man’s intelligence. Being able to assist a completely infertile couple give birth, is literary man’s playing his part as co-creator with God in the universe.
Also, there is a significant implication for the procreation dance. IVF redefines the whole role and place of sex, perhaps the single most talked about subject. Is sex for recreation or for pleasure? The discovery is significantly boosting the increasingly popular view that sex’s pleasure role overrides procreative role. The discovery is akin to science telling man: ‘see, sex is now for sexual pleasure.’ By trying to de-link sexual intercourse with procreation, then medical scientists are managing to restore psychologically the elusive sexual pleasure to millions of couples who no longer experience it on account of their infertility.
In the medical field and in particular infertility reprogenetics, the IVF technology is yet another milestone as the ultimate solution for couples who have tried all means of treating infertility unsuccessfully.