Case of the first test tube baby in India

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 67.

- K.K. Verma, Ph.D.
Retd. Professor of Zoology
HIG I/327, Housing Board Colony,
Borsi, Durg, M.P., 491001, INDIA

The first test tube baby in India was born in 1978. Dr. Subash Mukerjee and his team could make this achievement in the field of "Assisted Reproductive Technology" through their innovative approach (Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 20 Feb. 1997). It was, reportedly the second case of successful conclusion of an attempt at IVF (= in vitro fertilization) in the world, and also the first case using cryopreservation in IVF, as the embryo had been kept frozen for 53 days before implantation.

Dr. Mukerjee's attempt, however suffered from two short-comings, viz. that he published his results in a "not so well known" journal, and that he yielded to the request of the parents, involved in the experiment, not to reveal their identity and also of the would be child to the world. In the absence of visible evidence the pioneer was accused of fraud, and his torment and despair led to his committing suicide in 1981. Thus the career of the pioneer, who could contribute a lot to scientific progress, was prematurely terminated.

Why did the parents object to revealing their identity? Perhaps because they felt that they would suffer from a social stigma. But why the stigma? Was the society likely to confuse IVF with an extra marital affair? If the society were bioethically educated, it should not have been difficult to realize that IVF technique was only scientifically aided procreation by a married couple. The case underlines the need of bioethical education of the public, and points to the situation that absence of such education could be a real impediment in the progress of science.

Commentary on Verma: Thoughts About India

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev,
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)

After our experience in India in January, made possible by the extraordinary efforts of Jayapaul and Hilda Azariah, who organized the conference in Chennai (Madras) as well as our seminars in Bangalore and Cochin, and Anil Gupta who organized the conference in Ahmedabad, I was embarrassed I really couldn't write anything about the experience for Eubios. India is just too vast, too many different worlds, too many different sights and smells and tastes, physical sensations and spirituality, that anything I can write - including these words - will do it an injustice.

It is new to me but not surprising that IVF, as Verma reports, was performed in India as early as 1978. India may sometimes appear to be a poor country but it isn't. It's very rich, very powerful and as capable as anyone else of leading the world in biomedical technology.

Some troubling points arise from Verma's letter. The fact that human IVF has been around so long should remind us that the new world which biomedical technology is creating is not something which anyone can stop. Nor will bioethicists' pronouncements control it very much. The eternal connection of sex with the creation of human beings will no longer be a necessary truth. And there will also be germ-line therapy and enhancement genetics and all the other things bioethicists worry about. I think bioethics has to face the fact that these changes will be our reality. The job of bioethics is to teach us how to live meaningfully and ethically in this strange new world.

And this brings me to my second point. Some people think there is a contradiction between religion and science. But I think that spirituality, especially deep inner calmness and faith, immovable in spite of what happens in our material lives, is of greatest importance in a chaotically changing universe. Our careers and academic reputations seem important. But are they really all that important? If we stopped taking ourselves so seriously would there be any reason to commit scientific fraud or so much readiness to accuse others of it? And should unjust accusations be sufficient to lead one to torment, despair and suicide?

I think bioethics should teach about health, love, the disinterested pursuit of truth, friends, family, nature, simple pleasures. If we have the simple good things then what does it matter if we are not world-famous scientists and intellectuals? If bioethics can teach more simplicity then perhaps there will be fewer suicides in the new world of high biotech.

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