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.
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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.