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.