Researchers today often find themselves frustrated by the strict ethical guidelines they’re faced with when they want to try something new. A psychological intervention, perhaps. Or a novel medical procedure.
For those passionate about making a difference and helping people in the most efficient way possible, arduous applications to ethics committees can seem like an inconvenient roadblock. But every now and then, you come across a story that serves as a pertinent reminder of why such considerations are needed. Because more recently than we think, researchers tested interventions and medical procedures in heinous contexts – using deception and vulnerable populations, and causing immense distress.
The first successful artificial insemination is one such case.
In 1884, a 41-year-old man and his 31-year-old wife came to see Philadelphia doctor William Pancoast about their inability to conceive a child. It was assumed that the problem was due to “some impediment” with the woman, “which might be removed,” but after several tests, it became clear that the man had a very low sperm count. It was concluded that the issue was “probably due to results of the gonorrhea in his youth,” and the doctors began a course of treatment.
Listen: Megan Malkiewicz tried everything to have a baby. She shared her story on Hello Bump. Post continues after audio.
But when the treatment failed to work, a medical student joked, “the only solution… is to call in the hired man.” The comment gave the doctor his idea.
The concept of artificial insemination wasn’t new – but it had never before resulted in a live birth.
Pancoast chose not to tell the couple about the man’s seemingly incurable problem, and instead, the team of six adopted the following plan of action.
According to a letter in The Medical World, “the woman was chloroformed, and with a hard rubber syringe some fresh semen from the best-looking member of the class was deposited in the uterus, and the cervix slightly plugged with gauze.
“Neither the man nor the woman knew the nature of what had been done at the time, but subsequently the Professor repented of his action, and explained the whole matter to the husband.”
Rather than being angry with the medical professionals for their deception and completely unethical behaviour towards his wife, the man conspired with the Professor to keep the true nature of the conception a secret.
The woman gave birth to a son, who reportedly, "had characteristic features, not of the senior student, but of the willing but impossible father."
The letter in The Medical World journal, which recounts the details of the procedure, was written by Addison Davis Hard, one of the six medical students present, 25 years after the procedure occurred. During that time, Hard had met with and informed the then-25-year-old son about the nature of his birth, but it is unknown whether the mother was ever told what had happened to her.