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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Predicted nightmares almost never come true

Remember how vilifed were the IVF pioneers

Robin Marantz Henig hits the nail on the head in the New York Times today:

The history of in vitro fertilization demonstrates not only how easily the public will accept new technology once it's demonstrated to be safe, but also that the nightmares predicted during its development almost never come true. This is a lesson to keep in mind as we debate whether to pursue other promising yet controversial medical advances, from genetic engineering to human cloning.

The Nobel prize for Robert Edwards is long overdue. It should not be forgotten what a gauntlet he and Patrick Steptoe had to run when they pioneered IVF. Here's a taste, from an article in The Times in 2003:

In the mid-Eighties Edwards sued several papers, including The Times, for reporting comments by the British Medical Association suggesting, wrongly, that doctors should not work with him because he was involved in cloning. He did not particularly want to fight but "I just thought, what would happen if I don't issue libel actions? I'll be killed for ever". He had his day in court and, subsequently, grovelling apologies: "Many people think that scientists working on human beings are a bit soft, that it's soft science. I'd like to see them in court fighting a libel action. It's tough."

It's the flip side of the precautionary principle. How much harm are you failing to prevent if you do not press ahead with innovation? That is just as surely on your conscience as the risks you are running. Henig again:

As Dr. Edwards himself noted in the early 1970s, just because a technology can be abused doesn't mean it will be. Electricity is a good thing, he said, regardless of its leading to the invention of the electric chair.

Science fiction is filled with dystopian stories in which the public blindly accepts destructive technologies. But in vitro fertilization offers a more optimistic model. As we continue to develop new ways of improving upon nature, the slope may be slippery, but that's no reason to avoid taking the first step.