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Birth of a notion

The 2010 Nobel for Medicine shows that it’s only natural to bring about life through ‘artificial’ means.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2010 22:18 IST

In ancient times, reproduction and fertility were a societal obsession and often an important element of religious worship. In modern times, they are the concerns of individuals and an important element of biological and medical science. This transformation’s most well-known manifestation has been in vitro fertilisation. His Nobel Prize for medicine has highlighted how Robert Edwards, the doctor who pioneered this technology, not only made major scientific strides but also how much his technique changed social attitudes as well. It is hard to believe how much controversy surrounded the first test tube baby but today, a couple announcing their intention to attempt IVF barely raises an eyebrow any more.

However, IVF was merely the vanguard of what has become an endless stream of reproductive and biotechnological advances. All of these have transferred more and more reproductive choice into the hands of individuals and away from the diktats of either society or government. This is both inevitable and positive. Increasing choice is almost a one-line definition of what a society should strive to provide its individual components.

Today there are debates about cloning, stem cell research and the likelihood of genetically engineering humans. At most, such arguments should help people realise that the means of reproduction is no one’s concern but that of the parents. At best, they should clarify that if there is any regulatory role, it is in the commercial transactions surrounding fertility technology and the consequences of conception. Finally, they should help popularise the idea that reproduction is no longer a mystery but a process that is now so well understood that it is open to human manipulation — and that this ultimately will improve the quality of human life.