A Careful Reflection on IVF, Part 2

By October 13, 201013 Comments

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.


  • Sarah Parker says:

    Thank you for writing this! I have never really been comfortable with the idea of IVF, but I found myself always saying people could do a lot of good spending the time and money on kids who are already here and in need of a family – which, coming from an unmarried, childless 20something from a stable, biological family background, tends to sound like arrogance. Your reasoning is much clearer and more compassionate.

  • Laura says:

    Thank you for your post, Sharon. Even at a 19 year old single person, I decided a while ago that IVF is not something that I would ever pursue mainly because of your point of adoption. If there are already so many precious children in the world dieing to be loved, why should I spend my money and emotional energy hoping to create a child who looks like me? So, it was very interesting to read your other points and get a better reasoning behind what I already decided.

    I also find it interesting that the two women who you pointed out, in fact many women in the Bible, who were barren, when they trusted in God not themselves, God gave them the desires of their hearts. Not to say that in all situations God will give a person the child that they desire when they trust him, but I know of several families who thought they couldn’t have children and so they decided to adopt and while pursuing their adoption, found out they were pregnant.

  • Emily Gidcumb says:

    Hey Sharon!!!
    Which states let you adopt for free? I didn’t know that existed–I feel that that would be such a great option whether you were infertile or not. I love the idea of adoption even if you do not struggle with infertility. JD said some statistic in a sermon once which indicated that if every Christian family in the RTP area adopted one child we could basically empty the orphanages in our area. And I also agree with you that IVF would not be an option for me. And also in the whole commodity argument you made, that is something the makes me mad; when people don’t call babies, babies. I was at a medical physics conference where an unborn child was referred to as a conceptus, not a child. This was in determining the safe amount of radiation given to a woman who is pregnant–where the worst outcome was that a developed “conceptus” had birth defects not that it could actually die if it was at a earlier stage because the mother wouldn’t know they were pregnant anyways. That was the basic argument–and it made me mad because I doubt they would think birth defects were worse than death if they called the unborn child a baby or person rather than a conceptus. It sounds like octopus to me.

  • Emily Gidcumb says:

    I know conceptus isn’t a commodity word but still it is de-humanizing I think–makes it sound less like a human being.

  • Melissa says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have said, but there are Christian doctors that are working in this field and trying to minimize the issues you bring up. There is also an embryo adoption agency now where you can give embryos for families to adopt instead of discarding them.

  • mama jaja says:

    oooo so much good stuff!! First- Thank you for your kind words re:adoption and advocating for it not to be Plan B. The stigma can’t go away if we don’t start changing it. I agree wholeheartedly with your stance on IVF. Also- you brought up some good points that I didn’t even consider. I hate to read and post so fast!!

    And @Melissa I believe it’s Bethany Christian Services that is offering the embryo adoption.

  • Sharon says:

    Melissa and Mama Jaja, thanks for highlighting the embryo adoptions! I think that’s a thought-provoking and potentially redemptive solution to this problem. It’s so hard to know whether adopting embryos will only encourage the freezing of more in banks, but the reality is that those embryos are there either way in need of adoption. That is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed and is important for us to think about. Thanks for mentioning it!

  • mama jaja says:

    good point, this newest form of adoption could very well be abused…it’s a route worth paying attention to, the more I think about it.

    We are about to embark on another adoption ourselves, and we have all ready received some push back with regards to where we are adopting from, b/c we have so many in need in our own country. So many times, without thinking about it ( or maybe they do?), Christians inadvertantly put a value on what’s for the greater good. A child who needs a home is a child who needs a home, period. Ah, I digress.

  • Sharon says:

    Mama Jaja, that is WONDERFUL news! MANY BLESSINGS on you and your family as you move forward with your adoption!!!

  • Caitlin says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this topic. It did give me a lot to think about. I especially appreciated your comments on points 1 and 2, but had some questions about number 3. You spoke of the “creation of life from the procreative intimacy between a husband and wife.” I agree that this is a beautiful and most sacred act. But that is not the only way that children are “naturally” conceived. It’s not how Ishmael was conceived. What about the conception that results from rape? I cannot call that a sacred act. I am not calling into question the value of the life in that unborn child, but there seems to be a disconnect here for me. It seems to me that the creation of a life through two loving parents, even in a laboratory, is sacred because it results in a beautiful life. I would be very interested in your thoughts. Thank you!

  • Sharon says:

    Caitlin, that is an EXCELLENT point and I’m glad you brought it up! I totally agree that every life is beautiful in and of itself and nothing about the conditions of his or her creation can detract from the value of a life. However, that is not to say that the circumstances are always in line with God’s character and good will. I think we would all agree that God is not pleased when women are raped or when spouses go outside their marriage and conceive a child in adultery.

    So even though the child himself or herself is EQUALLY valuable and wonderful (and that is an *important* point to emphasize in a world where the above circumstances are cited as grounds for abortion) that does not mean it is God’s best plan for how children are to be conceived. He can certainly redeem any situation and use it for His marvelous plans, but that does not mean we should abuse His gracious character.

    Does that make sense? Again, I am REALLY glad you brought that up because that is a CRUCIAL distinction. Great catch!

  • Joey says:

    “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.”

    I admire your decision, but to call it a step of faith when you have not faced the pain of infertility is a difficult thing to read as a woman who has faced infertility for over three years, and has been told IVF is likely to be the only way to have a biological child. Your discussion is VERY helpful for me as I face these issues,and I don’t have a problem with people discussing or expressing opinions on the issue if they haven’t been through infertility. But I think it would increase your credibility amongst infertile people if you left out the bit about taking a step of faith in your decision not to have IVF. That part I find painful. Probably you will stand by your decision if you ever face infertility, but you simply cannot know that for sure, not until you have faced the crushing pain that it throws at you. I know that, because I have said similar to you in the past. To you it may be a step of faith, but I think that you will find it only really becomes a step of faith if the problem becomes a reality.

  • Sharon says:

    Joey, thank you for your honesty, and I am so sorry that you have faced this struggle. You’re right–I cannot really imagine what it’s like to struggle with infertility in any real sense. And my heart just breaks for what you have felt these last 3 years.

    In sharing my personal decision, I did not mean to belittle the heartbreak of struggling with infertility, but to simply share that my decision was, in all honesty, a step of faith. I can, however, promise you that no matter what happens I will NEVER consider IVF, in the same way that there are other practices I will never engage in–Not to draw a comparison between the two, but I would never consider having an abortion either. I may never be faced with the temptation to do either one in my lifetime, but my personal convictions about both are very strong.

    That said, I hope you don’t read this blog as one written by a naive, idealistic young woman who has not weighed the cost. I have. I do believe that following Christ faithfully requires personal sacrifice, and I’m wiling to make it. However, I praise God that he is a Comforter and that my sacrifice will yield deeper intimacy with Him. Discipleship is indeed a costly endeavor, I do not deny that, but please hold me to my commitment that no sacrifice is too great for my devotion to Him. Children is an area of my life that I am indeed scared to surrender, but I am striving to be a woman who can do so with confidence and joy.

    I hope that makes sense and that I do not sound insensitive–I am simply trying to grapple with what it means to be a woman and a Christian in today’s world. Blessings on you in your own journey, my sister!

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