In Vitro Fertilization, Infertility, and the ‘Right to a Child’ in 1970s and 1980s Britain

  • Duncan WilsonEmail author


Professional, ethical, and public debates on in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques have been dominated by questions of ‘rights’ since the 1960s. Historians have thus far presented an incomplete picture of these debates by focusing largely on questions surrounding the rights of in vitro embryos, including arguments for and against their ‘right to life’ at various stages of development. This chapter shows, however, that the rights of infertile women received greater emphasis during the 1970s. This emphasis did not stem from campaign groups or bioethicists who championed patient rights in this period, but arose from medical scientists who were keen to portray IVF as an important technique that supplemented rather than challenged traditional norms surrounding kinship, marriage, and the ‘nuclear family’.


Bioethics IVF Medical paternalism Reproductive rights 

Research Resources

Primary Sources

    Archival Sources

    1. Durham Cathedral LibraryGoogle Scholar
    2. Ian Ramsey ArchiveGoogle Scholar
    3. National Archives, LondonGoogle Scholar
    4. Warnock Committee ArchiveGoogle Scholar
    5. Wellcome Library, LondonGoogle Scholar
    6. Strangeways Research Laboratory ArchiveGoogle Scholar
    7. Maurice Pappworth ArchiveGoogle Scholar

    Published Primary Sources

    1. Robert G. Edwards, ‘Maturation In Vitro of Human Oocytes’, Lancet, 6 November 1965, 926–29.Google Scholar
    2. Robert G. Edwards, ‘Aspects of Human Reproduction’, in Watson Fuller (ed.), The Social Impact of Modern Biology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), 108–22.Google Scholar
    3. Robert G. Edwards, ‘Fertilization of Human Eggs in Vitro: Morals, Ethics and the Law’, Quarterly Review of Biology, 49 (1974), 3–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    4. Robert G. Edwards and Patrick C. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of IVF – A Medical Breakthrough (London: Hutchinson, 1980).Google Scholar
    5. Robert G. Edwards, Barry D. Bavister and Patrick C. Steptoe, ‘Early Stages of Fertilization in vitro of Human Oocytes Matured in Vitro’, Nature, 221 (1969), 632–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    6. Alun Jones and Walter Bodmer, Our Future Inheritance: Choice or Chance? A Study by a British Association Working Party (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).Google Scholar
    7. Ian Kennedy, The Unmasking of Medicine (London: Paladin, 1983).Google Scholar
    8. Paul Ramsey, ‘Shall We “Reproduce”? The Ethics of In Vitro Fertilization’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 220 (1972), 1346–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    9. Gordon Rattray-Taylor, The Biological Time Bomb (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968).Google Scholar
    10. Mary Warnock, ‘In Vitro Fertilization: The Ethical Issues (II)’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 33 (1983), 238–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
    11. Mary Warnock, A Question of Life: The Warnock Report on Human Fertilization and Embryology (London: Basil Blackwell, 1985).Google Scholar
    12. Gordon Wolstenholme and David Fitzsimmons (eds), The Law and Ethics of AID and Embryo Transfer (London and New York: Elsevier, 1973).Google Scholar

Secondary Sources

  1. Richard Ashcroft, ‘In Vitro Fertilisation for All?’, British Medical Journal, 4 September 2003, 511–12.Google Scholar
  2. Sarah Franklin, Embodied Progress: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).Google Scholar
  3. Sarah Franklin, Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells and the Future of Kinship (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2013).Google Scholar
  4. Adam Hedgecoe, ‘“A Form of Practical Machinery”: The Origins of Research Ethics Committees in the UK’, Medical History, 53 (2009), 331–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Martin Johnson et al, ‘Why the Medical Research Council Refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe Support for Research on Human Conception in 1971’, Human Reproduction, 25 (2010), 2157–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Michael Mulkay, The Embryo Research Debate: Science and the Politics of Reproduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  7. Naomi Pfeffer, The Stork and the Syringe: A Political History of Reproductive Medicine (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  8. John Pickstone (ed.), Medical Innovations in Historical Perspective (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992).Google Scholar
  9. Michelle Stanworth (ed.), Reproductive Technologies: Gender, Motherhood and Medicine (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  10. Charis Thompson, Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).Google Scholar
  11. Jon Turney, Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  12. Duncan Wilson, Tissue Culture in Science and Society: The Public Life of a Biological Technique (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).Google Scholar
  13. Duncan Wilson, The Making of British Bioethics (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2014).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of ManchesterManchesterUK

Personalised recommendations