Bryan Caplan  

A Noble Nobel for Medicine

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Robert Edwards, IVF/"test-tube baby" pioneer, has won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.  From the official press release:

As early as the 1950s, Edwards had the vision that IVF could be useful as a treatment for infertility. He worked systematically to realize his goal, discovered important principles for human fertilization, and succeeded in accomplishing fertilization of human egg cells in test tubes (or more precisely, cell culture dishes). His efforts were finally crowned by success on 25 July, 1978, when the world's first "test tube baby" was born. During the following years, Edwards and his co-workers refined IVF technology and shared it with colleagues around the world.

Approximately four million individuals have so far been born following IVF. Many of them are now adult and some have already become parents.
Four million lives created!  Not quite Norman Borlaug numbers, but I sit in awe of Robert Edwards nonetheless.  In my dream world, he'll one day read my ode to assisted reproductive technology in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.  In case he's reading, here's my favorite part:

When Apple first announced the iPhone, the world was thrilled.  My colleague Russ Roberts named it "the most beautiful toy yet," and enthused, "Apple hits a home run. No, a grand slam. Actually, a five-run homer, the kind you're not supposed to try to hit." Two months after the iPhone's release, however, users were out for blood.  Apple's crime: Cutting the price by $200.  This is how we normally greet progress - an exciting honeymoon, followed by constant ingratitude. 

For reproductive progress, strangely, our reactions reverse: We skip the honeymoon, but gradually learn to love it.  New advances initially horrify both public and pundits.  The public shakes its head; pundits split hairs to prove that the latest technology is an unprecedented affront to human dignity.  Governments often answer their repugnance with regulation and bans.  Yet before long, entrepreneurs dig a bunch of loopholes, and a new market blossoms.  A decade or two later, public and pundits forget they ever objected - yet consumers of the once "repugnant" services feel grateful every time their miracle children blow out the candles on another birthday cake.

Critics often belittle the users of new reproductive technology as narcissistic or selfish.  But why is a person who turns to science any more selfish than someone who gets pregnant the old-fashioned way?  Still, the critics accidentally make a useful point: Selfishly speaking, reproductive technology makes it easier to get the children we want.  Kids who wouldn't have been worth having in 1950 are often worth having today.  Technological progress is another selfish reason to have more kids.

When I hail these benefits for parents, critics often accuse me of moral blindness.  How can I neglect the welfare of the children created by artificial means?  But I'm not "neglecting" children's welfare.  I just find it painfully obvious that being alive is good for them.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
rapscallion writes:

Yeah, I basically agree, but would add the caveats:

i) The total social gain from the IVF treatment option is somewhat diminished by the loss to children who would otherwise be adopted. I don't know if this number is large or negligibly small, but it's worth considering.

ii) You don't have to be traditionally pro-life to think that the many embryos destroyed in the IVF process represent some kind of significant cost. Of course, it's a highly philosophical matter whether or not you want to count their destruction as a loss.

Peter St. Onge writes:

I'd add more to the IVF numbers; we had IVF twins, after a long time trying, and instantly afterwards got pregnant again. I think the first (IVF birth) kind of cleared the cobwebs, so to speak.

@rapscallion, adopted vs. unadopted pales, imho, in comparison to life vs. death. at least 1000:1.

As for the embryos, if they weren't harvested for IVF, they would almost certainly have died with their host. To mourn their premature loss would be to posit that 50 years spent as an unused egg is utility-generating for the egg.

Yancey Ward writes:

Am I the only one surprised that the numbers of IVF births isn't larger?

Prior_Analytics writes:
I just find it painfully obvious that being alive is good for them.

So to what degree does this hold true? How bad do conditions have to get before 'being alive' isn't enough?

I remember one EconTalk where this argument was used in defense of eating animals. (Not that I don't eat animals, I just don't think this argument supports that activity.)

Let me give the extreme example, let's say I could buy a fetus on the open market. Let's say it was scheduled for scientific use and would otherwise not have become a 'human'. Let's say I could grow it in a test tube, to full growth.

What are the limits of use then?

Slavery? Surely being alive for 60 years as a slave is better than not living at all, right? Isn't that 'painfully obvious'?

Cannibalism? Surely being alive for 20 years is better than not living at all, right? Isn't that 'painfully obvious'? What if it was shorter? 10 years? What if it were only 1 year of life? Isn't that better than no life at all?

At what point does the economist's 'painfully obvious' calculation become 'obviously painful'?


Adam writes:

Yes, there's also an interesting libertarian twist. When the British government tried to quash the research, a private donor stepped in to keep it going. The Nobel press release notes:

"These early studies were promising but the Medical Research Council decided not to fund a continuation of the project. However, a private donation allowed the work to continue."

chemist writes:

hi, it is rightly said that "whatever the mind of man can conceive, it can achieve". Robert Edwards has achieved whatever he had conceived in his mind. well done ... sir, many many thanks

Stan Greer writes:

It's not just that IVF diminishes the number of adoptions.

The well-publicized availability of IVF surely causes many women to delay marriage and many couples to delay childbearing during the years of greatest fertility.

Ultimately, such delays leave IVF as the only option. And it frequently doesn't "work."

Caplan insists there are more net births as a result of IVF's ability. He commits the fundamental fallacy identified by Bastiat long ago -- he ignores the evidence of what isn't seen.

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