As IVF Pioneer Receives Nobel Prize, a Look at How the Technology Evolved

A history of embryonic-stem-cell research. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

You may know the name Louise Brown. She's the famous "test tube" baby, born in the U.K. on July 25, 1978—the first human conceived outside the womb. You may not, however, have heard of Robert Edwards, the man who made it all possible. Now Edwards, who pioneered the science of in vitro fertilization (IVF), is receiving the highest form of recognition. This morning he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his IVF research, which started in the 1950s and has since led to the birth of some 4 million people worldwide. In awarding the prize, the Nobel committee said that Edwards's work represents "a milestone in the development of modern medicine."

Today, thousands of couples who are having trouble conceiving visit reproductive specialists; many use IVF to get pregnant. But all the promise of Edwards's research has also led to a host of other stories, issues, and ideas. Infertile couples are now having multiple children. Surrogates are carrying fetuses for women who want to be mothers but can't and for gay couples who yearn for biological children. IVF has made it possible for single women, including "advanced maternal-age" single women, to have babies on their own—a topic that has become a constant in pop culture. And parents who have been trying unsuccessfully for the little girl or boy they've always dreamed of can now push Mother Nature aside and take control. Using IVF to create embryos and a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to determine sex, couples can choose one gender or the other—a practice referred to as "family balancing."

Advances in the field have led to ethical challenges, too. For years, the problem was multiples—too many embryos implanted, too many sets of twins, triplets, and even quads. The Octomom and her California doctor, while clearly outliers, reenergized concerns about how safe the practice really is. Cost is an issue, too, because the price of treatment and insurance coverage varies. Is it fair that some couples can afford to have high-tech babies and some cannot? Should Americans have to travel abroad to seek lower costs?

One of the most vexing—and politically charged—outcomes of Edwards's work: leftover embryos. Across the country, some 400,000 of these tiny biological entities sit frozen in storage tanks waiting to be claimed, implanted, discarded. or donated. Scientists derive embryonic stem cells from human embryos; many researchers believe that these cells will not only advance our understanding of complex diseases, but possibly even cure some of them. But opponents say the research is morally unacceptable. The funding of embryonic science has been a hot-button issue for years; now it's the subject of a court case involving the Obama administration.

It is not unusual for great innovations to bring strife along with progress, and fertility medicine has clearly had its share of moral, ethical, religious, and political concerns. But the selection of Edwards as a Nobel Prize winner in medicine provides a moment to reflect on IVF's original mission: to create human embryos outside the womb. And, ultimately, to provide the most precious of gifts: human life.