Public funding and IVF

birthday belly

It seems like ancient history now, but back in the day, the miraculous birth of Louise Brown, the first IVF baby, in 1978 had a little cloud of scandal. Public funding had been refused by Britain’s medical community and the advent of IVF was a privately funded affair. For years, the mythology around the denial has grown. Two courageous mavericks, Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, were facing off against a conservative and unimaginative establishment. But today, Louise’s 32nd birthday, an article in Human Reproduction reveals that the “process of decision-making was more complex than the myth allows. Our research provides a fuller understanding of what happened at the birth of the IVF revolution.”

Among the complex reasons for being turned down for public funding was that Edwards and Steptoe made a strategic mistake in the source of funding they sought. They turned down an invitation from the Medical Research Community (MRC) to join the new and directly funded Clinical Research Center at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow. Instead, they applied in 1971 for long term grant support from the University of Cambridge. By doing so, they had to compete against other medical projects for funding and since Cambridge did not at that time have an obstetrics department, they weren’t likely to succeed.

Secondly, most MRC referees were of the opinion that the birth rate needed to be controlled, not encouraged through fertility treatments. IVF was considered experimental lab research, not therapy for infertility. The referees were also extremely concerned about the possibility of creating dramatically malformed babies and felt thorough research should have been done on primates prior to the application for long term grant.

Finally, the referees were annoyed that Edwards and Steptoe took their case to the media prior to the announcement of the grant awards. It was considered a kind of unforgivable grandstanding. Additionally, Edwards and Steptoe were lightweights, medically speaking. Steptoe emerged from a minor hospital while Edwards was not medically qualified and had not qualified yet as a professor. They were outsiders.

For what it’s worth, after two healthy IVF babies were born from seven pregnancies, the MRC announced a change in policy and began funding the process in 1979.

Source: Christian Nordqvist, Medical News Today, Human Reproduction


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