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EDITORIAL: Nobel winner's in-vitro conception was a breakthrough

'Test tube babies" were the subject of raging controversy in 1978 when a London housewife gave birth to the first child conceived outside the human body. Scientists were accused of playing God. In the United States, there was a moratorium on federal funding for such studies.

Passions have cooled in the years since, and yesterday British biologist Robert G. Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize for developing in-vitro fertilization. What had been widely unthinkable then is now relatively commonplace. About 4 million babies have been conceived by mixing eggs and sperm in labs and returning the resulting embryos to the womb.

As we struggle to digest the sometimes troubling advances of science - from genetically modified foods to areas such as embryonic stem cell research and even cloning - it's worth remembering that the results will almost certainly be less apocalyptic than some fear, and not quite the panacea that others dream. Now more than 32 years after Louise Brown's conception, some of the attendant ethical issues vex us still - for instance, whether it's acceptable to destroy embryos stored frozen in fertility clinics and no longer destined for implantation. That debate is raging anew now that the embryos are one source of stem cells.

As science advances, tough ethical dilemmas are inevit-able. They should be debated widely and navigated carefully, but with the perspective of history as a guide. hN

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