The Overlooked Ethics of Reproduction
A recent Pew Research study found Americans largely do not see in vitro fertilization as a moral issue. Adults across religious traditions, including evangelicals, are more likely to say IVF "is not a moral issue" than they are to take a position for or against it.
While grieving with those who struggle with infertility, Christians still need to look more carefully at today's reproductive technologies such as IVF in light of our beliefs about God, life, our bodies, and our children.
Since the time of the Old Testament, infertility has been part of the human experience. Many of us know someone who has struggled desperately to have a child or have experienced that difficulty ourselves. In the 21st century, though, infertility is met with "options," "solutions," and countless technologies offering hope to those in our midst struggling with fertility issues. Rather than rushing to embrace any procedure that might bring us a child—IVF, sperm or egg donors, surrogacy—we should consider the appropriate use and limits of technology.
The fact that so many people fail to consider the moral implications of IVF suggests that in the age of fertility treatments, surrogates, and modern family-building via parenting partnerships, a woman's womb has come to be seen as a somewhat arbitrary location. NBC's The New Normal quips that women are "Easy-Bake Ovens" and children are "cupcakes."
In Scripture, God affirms that what happens in utero matters and cannot be casually or disrespectfully dismissed. The womb, where God first knits us together (Ps. 139:13-14), is not an arbitrary place for a child to grow and develop. In fact, modern science has proven just how important those 9 months are—for both mother and child.
Renowned marriage and family therapist Nancy Verrier, in her book The Primal Wound, writes about how mothers are biologically, hormonally, and emotionally programmed to bond with their babies in utero as well as at birth. A baby knows his or her mother at birth, and both the mother and the baby will experience grief at any separation at the time of birth. This primal wound is forever present.
In other words, it's nowhere as easy as the Easy-Bake metaphor. In the case of surrogacy, we can interrupt the natural rhythm for mother and child and risk negative effects. (It is worth noting that surrogacy differs from adoption in that surrogacy intentionally establishes a situation that demands that a woman not bond with the child she is carrying.)
With the Center for Bioethics and Culture, I'm currently working on a documentary about surrogacy, and in our interviews I have sadly heard firsthand stories of the complications of this process—even when everyone starts off with the best of intentions. One surrogate was asked to have an abortion because the child she was carrying had a genetic defect. Another surrogate's own children were heartbroken that their mother gave away the baby. A woman who served as a surrogate for her brother and his partner is still battling over custody of the now school-aged children. Even Elton John, who celebrated the birth of his children with the help of an egg donor and a surrogate, admits that it is heartbreaking that his children will grow up without a mother.
In response to assisted reproductive technologies and procedures, an uneven patchwork of policies and laws in the U.S. attempt to protect intended parents rather than surrogates or the children they carry. Legislative debates frequently take place with no larger sense of the gravity of this practice or how it might harm families and society.
For example, this year in Louisiana a state senator introduced a law that would allow surrogacy contracts for heterosexual couples. The legislator, who had gone to another state in order to contract with a surrogate to have children, described surrogacy as baking a loaf of bread in an oven, a comparison that—as I've mentioned before—belittles the very real issues involved. As human beings created in the image of God, women are not ovens, nor are their bodies simply vessels to be used, sold, rented, or loaned.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal considered deeply the implications of this new law, and in vetoing the bill he wrote:
Creating a state-sanctioned regulatory structure for contracts pertaining to the birth of children has a profound impact on the traditional beginnings of the family...
Traditional beginnings for those who profess a Christian worldview include the biblical teachings about life being a gift from God, rather than the modern day thinking that regards a child as a right or an entitlement. A Christian worldview also informs our views of man and woman, of marriage, and of the mystery of two becoming one flesh. Within this mystery, procreation is a love act through which we receive the blessing of children.
It may be time to consider that our Catholic brothers and sisters are right on these issues and that Protestants and evangelicals should carefully consider what they have to say. From the Catholic Church's catechism:
Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses' "right to become a father and a mother only through each other.
The barren womb is a matter of great heartache and sadness. But is it unlike any other suffering we are asked to carry? In what ways might Job's question, "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" affect our thinking about infertility?
Decades ago, the examples of situations that mark today's reality in assisted reproduction would have seemed far-fetched and maybe even crazy. But over the past 20-plus years, Protestants haven't done the hard work of thinking Christianly about infertility or about new reproductive technologies such as IVF, sperm and egg donation, and surrogacy. The Brave New World is here, and we can't ignore or side-step these issues any longer.
Jennifer Lahl is president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, a nonprofit focused on the intersection of health and wellness, medicine, science and technology, and law and public policy around matters in bioethics.