In my last post I examined two of what I consider to be the “clear” practices of in-vitro fertilization that conflict with the Christian belief in the sanctity of life. In particular, I addressed the practices of discarding embryos and freezing embryos. In this post, I want to take a step back and look at the more subtle issues in play. For those of us who have not yet arrived at a stage in life at which this is a current issue, it is still critical that we think about it. In the same way that I made a decision about birth control long before I was ever married, it’s important to think through these issues from a theological and Scriptural perspective before you’re in the thick of it.
That said, I admit that I have not been faced with the grief of infertility. While I have decided that regardless of my ability to conceive naturally, I do not wish to try IVF–a step of faith that has indeed been a difficult one for me–I have not endured the pain of it first-hand. That fact may decrease my credibility in the eyes of some. I do, however, ask you to keep an open mind. When it comes to issues surrounding pro-life, Christians are eager to tell other women what to do with their bodies, but when the pro-life lens turns to focus on our own lives, we are just as prone as our pro-choice sisters to declare, “You can’t tell me what to do with my body.”
The truth is that being pro-life demands personal sacrifice and faith. Admitting that the Ultimate Determiner of each human’s value is God, and that it is Him, not us, who directs us in upholding the sanctity of the divine image in each person–those are counter-cultural stances that require us to surrender our rights, lay ourselves before God, and confess that He alone is in control. God has the final claim on our bodies, which means that we need to think carefully, theologically, and most of all Scripturally about the process of IVF. With that in mind, I hope the following issues will create helpful reflection:
1. The Value and Dignity of Human Life–One of the tricky things about IVF is that it is driven by the desire to have children, a desire that is rooted in a great value of human life. However, there are aspects of the IVF process that have the potential to trample human value in the very pursuit of it. In order to understand how, I want to introduce you to the idea of commodification.
This philosophical and sociological term can be used to mean a lot of different things in many different contexts, but in this context it refers to the transformation of a person or relationship into a product or “commodity.” Numerous philosophers have warned against the pitfalls of commodification because of the mindset behind it. When we start talking about humans in non-human terms, we are more likely to treat people in non-human ways. Bosses stop thinking about their employees as people with families, but instead as “labor.” News outlets describe the wartime deaths of women and children as civilians “casualties.” And in the growing practice of surrogacy, couples view other women’s bodies as little more than incubators to house their growing babies (It should also be noted that these incubators come especially cheap in other countries, hence the trend of hiring Indian women to be surrogates).
Now there are aspects of IVF that have wandered into the category of commodification. When you hear language about creating more embryos to “increase your odds” of pregnancy, and when large numbers of embryos are being frozen in “banks”, we have entered dangerous territory. Notice how this language is similar to the way we talk about money and finance. When we use consumer language to talk about life and human dignity, our worldview and our lifestyles are soon to follow.
2. Biological v. Adopted Children–While the process of IVF is rather costly, it’s not quite as expensive as international adoption, which is one of the reasons why couples struggling with infertility choose IVF (although it should be noted that in some states, domestic adoption is free!). However, the main reason that IVF is such a compelling option is that many couples want “a child of their own.” That is to say, a biological one.
I debated over whether to put this point under the category of human value because the two are very much related. Although I can certainly relate to the desire to have a biological child, I have to be careful about using language that perceives the value or “realness” or belonging of an adopted child as somehow inferior. A child is a gift no matter how she comes into the world, and she is no less of a “real child” in her adoptive family.
As Christians, we have a special stake in this discussion. We are redeemed children of God, which means we have ALL been adopted into His family. And despite our “adopted” statuses, we will not be second class citizens in the Kingdom of God–we will belong there, with our Heavenly Father, in a perfect relationship with Him.
In light of the above considerations, it’s important for all Christians to consider adoption. Earthly adoption is a testimony to our heavenly adoption. We are also compelled by Scripture to care for orphans (James 1:27), and there are millions in the world for whom care is needed. So whether you struggle with fertility or not, this is a perspective that warrants our prayer and consideration. If Christians are ever able to value adopted children with the same delight that we value biological ones, then hopefully the decision to adopt will not seem like a “Plan B” or worst case scenario when all other options have failed, but will instead be a glorious gift to our families.
3. A Theological Response to IVF:
This final section could have been a blog post all to itself (or several!). Theologians and pastors have numerous objections to the practice of IVF on theological grounds. It divorces the creation of life from the procreative intimacy between a husband and wife–making it more about technology than a sacred act. And as Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan explains, “the biblical language reminds us that we are begotten, not merely made. This is not a semantic irrelevancy. Our language betrays our understanding of the meaning of human procreation.”
While those points are all theologically significant, the abstractness of the concepts can cause them to be difficult to engage on a practical level. So for now, I only want to focus on two verses that provide us with a great deal of insight. Proverbs 30:15-16:
“There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’: the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’
Nowhere is the truth of this verse more evident than in the Old Testament, where infertility was frequently described as a terrible blight. Women like Rebekah and Hannah suffered through the pain of barrenness and prayed for deliverance from it. It even pushed Sarah to sin in her grief by handing her husband, Abraham, over to another woman. Clearly, infertility strikes at the very heart of a woman and wounds her in a way that seems utterly insatiable.
Yet it is this aspect of infertility that we must watch with a cautious eye. Sarah’s inability to find satisfaction in her barren state drove her to trample wisdom and morality. From her story we are reminded that whenever a desire is that strong, that consuming, we must proceed with care. Although God created women with the desire to have children, a desire that can never say “enough” is misplaced. It betrays an idolatry. It reveals that we have crossed a line into finding our value and meaning from the ability to have children. Any desire that refuses to be satisfied, other than the desire for God, has the potential to exercise great power over us in dangerous, ungodly ways.
While I am still grappling with the ethics of IVF and it is difficult for me to take a definitive stand, Proverbs 30:15-16 is a powerful warning about the consequences of not taking IVF seriously. While I would not venture to call IVF a sin, I do believe that if we give biological motherhood too high a place in our hearts we WILL sin as a result–whether it is in the process of creating life, or later on as a parent. That is the nature of idolatry.
So I encourage you to wrestle with these issues in prayer and Scriptural study. Even if you’re not a mother, or even a woman, I also urge you to talk about it. While this discussion requires a particular kind of sympathy, sensitivity and care, we ALL have a voice in this conversation as connected members of One Body, the Body of Christ. Infertility is indeed a painful journey, so we must walk the path together in love, unity, and truth.