A Careful Reflection on IVF, Part One

By October 11, 20104 Comments

For the last several months I debated whether to write a post about the increasingly common practice of in-vitro fertilization. Even within the church, this is an extremely sensitive topic due to the number of Christian families who have chosen the route of IVF and now have beautiful children as a result. There is not a lot of space to wrestle with this issue without seemingly calling into question the validity of these children’s lives.

However, two weeks ago Robert Edwards was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for developing the IVF procedure, resulting in the very first “test tube baby” in 1978. Upon winning the award, news outlets everywhere covered the story with headlines celebrating the “millions of babies” who have been born in the last 30 years. Given that millions of babies have also been aborted in that same amount of time, this seems like a glaring ideological inconsistency in how our nation values life and understands our place in the creation of it. It also compelled me to finally take on this topic. As a Christian who values life and considers every human being to contain the image of God, I need to be talking about this.

But before I begin, I have to be clear about something. If you are reading this and you have a child/children through the process of IVF, I am not calling into question their moral value. Every human life is a glorious gift from God–which is exactly why this topic is important. While I celebrate the life of every child, regardless of how they came into the world, it is still important that we reflect upon this process and whether it is fully consistent with a Scriptural worldview.

With ALL of these things in mind, I have divided my reflections into two categories: The clear areas and the gray areas. In today’s post I am going to look at two clear areas and I would love to hear your input as you think through this yourself. In Part 2 of this examination I will reflect on the less clear areas that are more philosophical in nature, but are no less practical:

The Clear Areas

Whenever the topic of IVF comes up, there are some gray areas to be sure. It can be hard to know how fully we should embrace technology. Much of technology is a true gift, but just because we can do something does not necessarily mean we should. That said, in the field of IVF there are some practices that are clearly in conflict with the Christian belief in human dignity and the image of God in every person. I have highlighted two here:

1. The Destruction of Unused Embryos–After a successful conception, some couples discard the extra embryos that they created but no longer wish to use. In 2008 The Times reported the destruction of over 1 million “waste embryos” during a 14 year period at a clinic in the UK. Once this number was released there was a public outcry, calling for an immediate reduction of this number. It is difficult to discern how the destruction of one million embryos is any different from the destruction of one, but suffice it to say that the community had a visceral reaction to such a sweeping number.

As Christians, it is important that we are clearly opposed to this practice. It is ironic that Christians are so notably opposed to stem cell research–which, at the very least, uses human embryos for a purpose–but are rather quiet when it comes to this complete and total wastefulness of embryos discarded in the IVF process.

2. Freezing Embryos–When a couple creates embryos that they do not wish to use right away, or if a couple chooses to donate their embryos to infertile couples or science, the embryos are frozen. Embryos can be preserved for up to 10 years and still be used to produce healthy baby boys and girls.

My feelings about this practice were best summarized by Al Mohler, the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who asked, “How does a couple (or an individual) deal with the knowledge that their genetic offspring are suspended in a state of frozen non-existence?” This is an important question to ask when considering this process. The act of freezing a human life as it is just beginning, maintaining it in a “state of biological suspension” as Mohler put it, is not only a dehumanizing act but dishonors the image of God within each tiny being, and must therefore be rejected as a Christian practice.

Although there are other elements of the IVF process that Christians consider to be clear and objectionable (the Catholic Church takes a very firm stance of opposition against the WHOLE process), these two elements are, in my mind, the most incontrovertible. If you consider yourself to be pro-life, then the above practices are not consistent with your beliefs.

In my next post I’ll take a look at the “gray areas.” They are not gray because they are morally ambiguous, but because they are more abstract. Sometimes it’s hard to conceive of the consequences of our actions, but we need to be asking those questions. Where will our current understanding and treatment of human life lead us in the following decades? Should Christians in any way endorse an industry that leads to the destruction of human embryos? How are we to think through IVF and  infertility when there are so many orphans around the world? These are all questions that I’ll take a look at in the next post.


  • mama jaja says:

    Here are my thoughts… I think you are brave in tackling this topic. We struggled hard with even taking medicine to promote ovulation. We spent a lot of time praying and discerning and infertility challenged our faith to depths indescribable. Along the way, I met many non-believers and believers who had wildly differing views than our own. We came out the other side with a deeper understanding of ourselves, our marriage and God.

    There was and still is such a vast sea of opinion and circumstance that unless you are in it, or offering the direct support to someone dealing with it, just simply writing about your perception can make you appear, well, judgmental. NOT THAT YOU ARE OR TRYING TO BE! My suggestion is to go online and join a couple of listserves or discussion boards to get more in the thick of it all. Babycenter, twoweekwait and yahoo all have great groups and boards and there are tons more…And you may have already done that, but I want you to know that getting in on the battle will give you a better perspective. Gaining the first hand experience in this case, will help you gain the ears of those are dealing with it.

    I hope that makes sense.

  • Sharon says:

    Mama Jaja, you are definitely right. I have not struggled with this myself and it is VERY important to love and support women who do, as well as be a part of the discussion on the ground level so that we don’t come off as cold, uncaring legalists.

    I will, however, admit that while I have not yet tried to have children and I have no idea if I will struggle to conceive, IVF is a step that my husband and I have already decided we will not take. That is a step of faith to me, and I would be lying if I said it’s not scary for me.

    While the decision not to pursue IVF is certainly a personal one, I must stand by my comments above. In all my reading, theologians, pastors, and pro-life advocates alike consistently contest the above two issues as being incompatible with the Christian faith. Fortunately, there are many couples engaging in IVF who refuse to discard their embryos or to freeze them, and I think that is an IMPORTANT victory.

    As you said, this is an emotionally fraught issue with a range of opinions. That’s why, as a young woman who is not yet at that stage, I think it is important to think through these issues long before you ever begin trying to conceive. The intense emotions surrounding child-bearing make it very difficult to think it through, and we must be ABSOLUTELY sure we are thinking clearly on a topic such as this.

    Again, thanks for sharing and thanks for your transparency. As I said before I was very hesitant to share because of the issues you just named, and you raise the important point that Christians cannot ignore the pain and hardship of infertility, especially when taking a firm stance on an issue like this. It is certainly a perspective to bear in mind as we speak authoritatively in other emotionally-charged areas as well–truth is still truth, but we are dealing with broken, hurting people, not robots.

  • Emily R says:

    Sharon, thanks for your thoughts on this issue! I’m interested in the topic more from an (funding of) ESC research standpoint and I’m glad to see a clear stance on discarding unimplanted embryos. So what you’re saying here is that with each IVF round, a couple should only create as many embryos as they are willing to implant at that time (like two)? I don’t know a lot about the process but I gather that’s not typical.

    Just to pass on something I heard – a woman undergoing IVF told me that during a discussion of what to do with the unimplanted embryos her doctor told her that some women who don’t want to discard, freeze, or donate their embryos have them implanted at a point in their cycles when it is certain that they are not able to become pregnant. Seems to me to be the same as discarding in that it’s calculated destruction, but apparently those women feel different about doing it that way.

    I look forward to your next installment!

  • Suz says:

    1- I admire your bravery to talk about an issue that is so controversial.

    2- Even more than that I admire your commitment to your beliefs. You aren’t trying to make compromises or say what people want to hear and I think you made your points in a very clear, gentle but firm way.

    Looking forward to reading the next installment.

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