Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards developed in-vitro fertilization more than 32 years ago, marking a new era of reproduction with the successful birth of Louise Brown.  They were funded not by the British Medical Research Council, which, under pressure from the Vatican and other conservative groups, declined support for the researchers, but by private money.  Edwards has now received the 2010 Nobel prize in medicine for his breakthrough (Steptoe died in 1988; the Nobel committee, since 1974, does not award prizes post-humously).

While it’s not uncommon for individuals to be recognized by the awards committee long after their milestone discoveries, this award works to show in many ways how quickly controversial scientific developments over the last 40 years have become common practice (for good and bad) — developments that have, for the first time in human history, changed the definition of life and death.

The award also shows how out of step the Vatican is with public sentiment regarding these technologies.  An AP article that’s been picked up across the web notes:

The Vatican is opposed to IVF because it involves separating conception from the “conjugal act” – sexual intercourse between a husband and wife – and often results in the destruction of human embryos that are taken from a woman but not used.

There was no immediate comment from the Vatican’s top bioethics officials Monday to word of the Nobel.

We could just laugh off how behind-the-times the Roman Catholic Church is if it weren’t for the fact that they directly manage about 1 in 5 hospitals in the United States, the second largest operator of hospitals after Veterans’ Affairs.

Not a one of the children conceived and delivered thanks to IVF were patients at a U.S. Catholic hospital.  And yet, IVF is only one of the women’s services the Church has kept out of their 624 hospitals.  While it’s probably not the most harmful omission — lack of STD and AIDs prevention counseling, lack of emergency contraception for rape victims, lack of any kind of abortion services come to mind first — the issue has helped to keep women as second-class patients in our medical system and has pushed them out of their community hospitals into besieged, underfunded, picketed clinics.

In the wake of this concerted Catholic abstention from reproductive scientific development over the past four decades, we are left with a paternal national health care system that treats women as too stupid to make their own health decisions, medical educational facilities that pick and choose what to teach aspiring doctors according to ideology, and a network of “conscience clauses” that allow denominational health care facilities to discriminate against patients without so much as a meaningful referral or informed consent.

Robert Edwards’ achievement may have helped four million families to conceive, and the Nobel awards committee may have finally found the medical and social climate fair enough to recognize him.  But the real story is not how commonplace IVF is today, but how opposition to IVF has contributed to the formation of a discriminatory health care system.

For more on the 2010 Nobel prize in Medicine, read here.