Lord Robert Winston, IVF Pioneer, Slams British BDS Movement

Winston, who is in Israel to receive an honorary doctorate from Weizmann Institute, dismissed worries over growing anti-Semitism in Britain.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
Professor Lord Robert Winston  waits to greet HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales at the Royal College of Music on May 14, 2009 in London, England.
Professor Lord Robert Winston waits to greet HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales at the Royal College of Music on May 14, 2009 in London, England. Credit: Getty Images
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Britain is made up of “second-rate academics,” Lord Robert Winston, a pioneer of in vitro fertilization, told a group of Israeli colleagues last week. “That’s often forgotten.”

Winston, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and has travelled to Israel frequently since his first visit, as a teenager, in 1958, is to receive an honorary doctorate from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, on Monday. He spoke during a dinner held in his honor at the home of British Ambassador David Quarrey attended by some of Israel’s top fertility specialists and scientists.

“The people who have signed up for that boycott are mostly second-rate academics from minor universities who have never done anything. They really are,” Winston emphasized in a pre-dinner interview with Haaretz. “Not exactly at the cutting edge of British intellectual thought.”

A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.Credit: Mohammed Ouda/Wikimedia Commons

The 75-year-old professor of science and society and emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, who has over 300 scientific publications about human reproduction and the early stages of pregnancy to his name – and has sat on the Labour Party benches in the House of Lords since 1995 – also dismissed worries over growing anti-Semitism in Britain.

“I have not felt any change over the last years,” said Winston, who is an active member of the U.K.-Israel Science Council. “I have always been identified as being Jewish and have never had a problem. In fact, being Jewish is England a big positive thing.

“England gets ridiculous press in Israel, just as Israel gets ridiculous press in England – and neither country should believe that press entirely,” he told the dinner guests. “Our two countries have a great deal in common.”

Being Jewish, Winston adds in the interview, has actually served his fertility work: be it in his development of gynecological surgical techniques that improved fertility treatments in the 1970s, pioneering new treatments to improve IVF or the development of pre-implantation diagnosis and screening in the 1980s and 1990s so as to help women not only give birth, but give birth to healthy babies.

His lectures were, in the early days, picketed by those who considered his work to be “immoral,” and “an infringement on human dignity,” and he was called – by many in the Catholic church, among others – “evil.” But the rabbis, he points out, always backed him.

“In the book of Genesis, Beresheet, there are four matriarchs – Sarah, wife of Abraham, Rebecca wife of Issac, and Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob. What do they have in common?” he asks, and responds to his own question: “They were all infertile.”

It is “remarkable,” he says, to think that the Jews became a nation born “from an infertile stock.”

“When Rachel is unable to conceive, she says to Jacob – give me children or I am as good as dead,” continues Winston, peppering his speech with Biblical quotes in Hebrew.

“Jacob replies – am I in God’s stead that I can give you children?”

This exchange, says Winston, “sums up and demonstrates the agony between husband and wife, and the predicament of infertility.”

As such, issues of infertility have long been “ingrained in Jewish thinking,” he says.

“The central tenet of Judaism is that life is sacred. But if you look at Talmudic sources, you see that an embryo is not regarded as a human child – but rather has potential to be a human child. Our religion thus gives us the ability to screen embryos to make sure they are healthy. This is quite different from Catholics, who believe life begins at conception.”

Israel, renowned for its early and all-out governmental and societal support of IVF procedures (which are also highly subsidized by the state) as well as for embryo screening, “gets it,” Winston says.

“I think Israel actually does have an understanding of what it means. It understands the pain of infertility in a way few other countries do. That’s remarkable and I often remark on it to non-Jewish audiences in the U.K.”

But, despite having originally made his name through his work with fertility treatments, Winston has increasingly been vocal against what he sees as an overuse and commercialization of IVF. He uses his frequent appearances in the media, his books and several popular television programs he hosts on the BBC to raise questions about IVF that might be uncomfortable for many – including some of the invited guests to the Ramat Gan dinner in his honor.

When the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978, Winston believed, he says, that the procedure would remain “an unusual treatment for few people.” He is sorry, he stresses, that this was not to be the case. In the years since, over five million babies have been born worldwide with the help of IVF, which, in turn, has become an almost routine procedure.

“I regret fact that IVF is used far too often now. I think we grossly overuse the technology when much simpler, less demanding treatments should be used. It has become a big industry,” Winston says. “Look at so-called unexplained infertility – you are as likely to get pregnant naturally as with IVF, but people get so desperate they turn to IVF. In fact, a huge number of women get pregnant after they stop IVF.

“Infertility is but a symptom of something wrong,” he stresses, “like pain in the chest. If you went to your doctor complaining of chest pain and you were immediately referred for open-heart surgery without proper investigation, you would not think much of that doctor. You might have indigestion, or chest disease or a broken rib. But if you complain about the symptom of infertility, you will be referred straight to an IVF clinic – where there may be no proper attempt at making a diagnosis.”

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