Bob Edwards, who co-developed in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment for human infertility, died last month.
He was 87, the same age as Margaret Thatcher whom he outlived by two days. But where Thatcher’s policies wrecked the lives of millions in Britain and around the world, IVF has enriched them.
Edwards developed IVF with gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe. Their pioneering work led to the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube” baby, on 25 July, 1978.
Subsequently IVF has allowed 5 million babies to be born to otherwise infertile people.
Yet Edwards and Steptoe were criticised—by many religious and media figures, but also by scientists who viewed their work as dangerous and unethical.
They were denied public funding and could only continue their research because of private donations.
The award of the Nobel Prize to Edwards in 2010 was viewed as long overdue.
The delay meant that Steptoe, who died in 1988, never received this ultimate accolade. And many people believe that pressure from religious figures was responsible.
Indeed the Vatican criticised the award, saying that Edwards “bore a moral responsibility for … all abuses made possible by IVF.”
Yet religious authorities who want to prevent infertile people conceiving, are also against women choosing not to conceive by using contraception or having an abortion.
What they really oppose is a woman’s right to choose, whether this involves not having a baby if they don’t want one, or because the time or situation is not right—or having a baby if this is “not what nature intended.”
Despite IVF having been developed here, Britain is one of the worst public providers of the treatment in Europe.
A recent survey found that more than 70 percent of NHS Trusts are ignoring official guidance on offering couples three chances at IVF.
Some Trusts have stopped offering IVF altogether, or are placing strict limits on who can qualify.
Lack of provision on the NHS means that many people seeking fertility treatment are forced to look to private clinics.
Yet a single IVF cycle costs around £3,000 and multiple cycles are often required, meaning that this is increasingly out of reach for cash-strapped couples.
The situation is set to worsen as austerity cuts slash NHS budgets.
Worryingly, infertility is on the increase, partly because many people are choosing to have children later in life.
One benefit of advances in contraception is that it has given women more control over their lives.
But fertility decreases with age. And many couples delay having children—not out of choice but because of work and high childcare costs.
A proper solution to the problem of increasing infertility would be to make IVF free to all, and stop the cuts to research funding into the causes of infertility.
But it would also involve making decent maternity and nursery provision available to all those who needed it.
Free nurseries were possible during the Second World War when the “war effort” demanded it.
Today, we have Edwards and Steptoe’s tenacity in struggling against the odds to thank for the development of IVF.
But a huge battle still remains to ensure that every person has the right and freedom to have children if, when and how they choose.