July 7, 2022

Digging in the murky past of IVF

Hi there,

Another research scandal from the 1950s has been uncovered, this time in Canada. As Xavier Symons reports below, Native American children in boarding schools were suffering from vitamin deficiencies. Researchers withheld vitamin-rich food and dental care to see what would happen. The children were malnourished and hungry, and instead of feeding them properly, the researchers treated them like guinea pigs. “It’s not just bad ethics, it’s bad science,” observed a Canadian bioethicist.

This is just the latest in a dreary list of studies from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in which “volunteers” participated in studies without informed consent. Sometimes the participants suffered permanent damage, but it was covered up by the scientists.

But very little has been written about informed consent in the development of IVF. I suspect that if you scratch the surface you will discover many violations of fundamental principals of research ethics. Indeed, this was one of the main criticisms levelled at Edwards and Steptoe when they were developing IVF. “Is it justifiable to carry out these procedures solely for the purposes of obtaining ova for in vitro experiments, which in themselves offer no immediate benefit to the patient?” asked Britain’s leading gynaecologist in 1971.

In less sophisticated language, this is exactly the complaint made by one of “volunteers” in Steptoe’s research in a recent book (see below). “I had been simply used, as a piece of experimental meat as I laid anaesthetised on Steptoe’s operating table in that Oldham hospital.”

I hope that someone eventually has the energy and courage to revisit this sorry chapter in the history of assisted reproduction.

Michael Cook
Steptoe and Edwards were not very concerned about research ethics.