Marsha, age 32, and her husband, Tom, sat across from me in my office. I knew what they would be asking, for just weeks before the newspapers had described how a woman with permanently damaged Fallopian tubes became pregnant by a very new procedure, called ovum transfer (scientifically called in vivo fertilization).

The Kennedys had only one child and wanted another, but Marsha had suffered the loss of both Fallopian tubes. “Dr. Wells,” she said, “we’re desperate. All we want is one more baby.” They wanted a baby, but they also wanted to know from a Christian doctor whether they, as believers, should even be considering ovum transfer.

What Ovum Transfer Is

Over the next 45 minutes we talked about this controversial new procedure. Ovum transfer is a method of achieving pregnancy in women who have a uterus but absent or permanently damaged Fallopian tubes. It can even be used when the ovaries are gone. In other words, it is a bypass procedure that gets the male sperm to the female egg when the natural anatomic pathways are blocked or missing.

Ovum transfer is also called, with equal accuracy, human embryo transfer. Because the process necessarily involves what I believe is abortion and creates the possibility of genetic manipulation, it is certain to be among the most hotly debated issues of this decade. It is important, therefore, that Christians thoroughly understand it.

Ovum transfer has been used in the cattle industry for years. The technique was not possible in humans until the recent invention of an instrument that could retrieve and transport the egg from the uterus of one woman to the uterus of another. The first human transfer was successfully achieved in April of 1983 by Drs. John Buster and Maria Bustillo of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. To date two of their patients have conceived by this method. In January, one of them delivered a baby boy by Caesarean section (for obstetrical reasons). At the time of this writing, the second baby was due to be born late last month (February). And a Long Beach, California, hospital may be open to commercial ovum transfers as early as next month (April).

How It Works

Ovum transfer begins when sperm from the husband of an infertile wife (infertile because of tubal factors) is inseminated into another woman—a fertile donor. Five days after conception has taken place in the donor as a result of artificial insemination, the fertilized egg is washed from her uterus before it has the opportunity to implant. It is then transferred back into the uterus of the infertile wife, who carries and delivers the baby. The resulting child from this union is then genetically one-half her husband’s but one-half the egg donor’s—the other woman’s.

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In contrast to other techniques of overcoming infertility (such as in vitro fertilization), the new technique of ovum transfer is far less expensive, requires no surgery, can be completely conducted in the doctor’s office, and, according to its proponents, can have a success rate as high as 50 percent. Its potential, once perfected, is to revolutionize the treatment of infertility—important in a country like the United States whose dwindling adoption opportunities are well known.

This is, indeed, the first time in history a stepmother can actually carry and deliver her own stepchild. But is it right? How can we as Christians decide? There are legal, psychological, and ethical considerations.

Legal Considerations

Because there is now so little experience with ovum transfer, no laws have been passed that directly deal with it. But some states do have statutes that apply to artificial insemination. John Buster, one of the pioneers of ovum transfer, said his research team commissioned a legal analysis of the issue. They learned that laws dealing with artificial insemination will probably be broadened to include artificial insemination’s counterpart—ovum transfer.

Still, many legal kinks have to be worked out. Should parents of ovum-transfer babies legally adopt the child? Can a parent sue the donor for child support? Could these procedures be considered adultery? (I do not believe ovum transfer is a kind of adultery, since no sexual act actually takes place. Jesus taught that the essential point of adultery was lustful desire, hardly a motive in ovum transfer.) Might the physician be considered a party to, and liable for, any inherited diseases transmitted to the offspring? These are just some of the many questions with which the judicial system will have to contend. But, at present, ovum transfer is legal.

Emotional And Psychological Considerations

The immediate emotional benefits of ovum transfer are obvious. Sterile couples will become actual participants in the childbirth process. The joys of the delivery room, raising children, having grandchildren—these are all theirs. A family-centered life awaits them and no one need ever know a problem existed.

No longer need infertile couples wait five, six, or more years for an adoption baby. Many will even prefer ovum transfer to adoption, arguing that the child will at least carry half their genes.

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But what about the delayed psychological effects? Will remorse and resentment ultimately surface? Will donors be blamed for the behavioral problems of the child? Could these special children be the victims of parental regret?

What about the psychological impact of ovum transfer on children? Much depends on whether or not they are told. And that will be one of the most difficult decisions for ovum-transfer parents to make.

If this vital information is deliberately withheld, is that an infringement upon the right of a person to know his biological roots? On the other hand, if told all the facts surrounding his conception, will the child be able to appreciate and understand the depth and length of his parents’ love enough to avoid emotional scarring? Will some people in the future be compelled to search for their “genetic mother” in the same way adopted individuals today seek out their natural mothers?

Moral And Ethical Considerations

Chief among the ethical objections to be made is that ovum transfer can result in what I believe is abortion. Remember that during the process of ovum transfer a fertilized egg (the united egg and sperm) is washed from the uterus of a woman donor. Life has already begun, and the retrieval procedure is far from 100 percent effective. We know that not every naturally fertilized egg results in the birth of a baby; so is ovum transfer the same as the natural embryonic wastage that normally occurs?

Drs. Buster and Bustillo report that, in their original research, at least 8 of 11 fertilized ova were not successfully transferred. I have spoken with Buster about this, and he believes that the transfer process did not destroy the fertilized ova. From their microscopic appearance, he feels they were deficient and would have been lost to natural embryonic wastage anyway. This belief cannot be scientifically proven and is, I believe, dubious. It is likely that at least some—perhaps all—of the 8 fertilized eggs were lost in the transfer. In other words, I believe, they were aborted.

There is another way in which embryos will be lost. In some cases, embryos will not be washed out of the donor’s uterus, creating what the researchers call a “retained pregnancy.” A donor, of course, would be unwilling to carry the “retained pregnancy” to term. Buster said his research group has applied to the Food and Drug Administration for approval to test drugs that block the development of young embryos. These “safety net” drugs could abort unwanted donor pregnancies in the future.

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Ovum transfer, then, knowingly sacrifices some human fertilized eggs in the effort to establish and secure one life. Is this justified?

For Christians, the abortion question is extremely important. I believe the Bible teaches very clearly that life begins at fertilization (see Ps. 51:5 and Jer. 1:5, for example). It was only in the early 1970s that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists quietly changed the definition of conception to implantation (the embedment of the fertilized egg in the wall of the uterus), rather than the historically accepted fertilization. Finally, the Christian must answer that the embryonic wastage of ovum transfer is not identical to natural embryonic wastage. As Curtis Young, executive of the Christian Action Council, points out, all people die natural deaths. But human beings, except in the cases of murder and suicide, do not cause or intend these deaths. Ovum transfer takes embryonic wastage out of God’s hands and places it in human hands.

Ovum transfer must deal with another ethical challenge, namely, the potential abuses of this kind of technology. For example, one day we may see professional “on call” egg donors—women carefully chosen because of physical attractiveness, intellectual superiority, and flawless family health backgrounds. The financial backers of Buster and Bustillo’s team hope that by next year computers might locate an infertile patient in New York, and a donor in Dallas (or wherever) with a matching ovulation date, appropriate blood type, and physical characteristics. Packages containing the embryos could then be sent by plane. Such a scenario would be streamlined and economized by freezing and storing the embryos, then thawing them out when an appropriate recipient is most receptive to starting a pregnancy. Eugenic advocates are going to see a real “friend” in ovum transfer.

No discussion of ethics would be complete without touching on the corporate financing of the research and development of ovum transfer. Ovum transfer ushers in an era in which the medicine of reproduction is linked more closely than ever to the principles of business and marketing. Critics, with good reason, will openly worry about “humanitarian” medical achievements spawned in a profit setting.

In fairness, it should be noted that the pioneers of ovum transfer applied for government grants, but were turned down. The private sector was more obliging. The researchers are financed by Fertility and Genetics Research (FGR) of Chicago. FGR estimates that 50,000 women a year will be eligible and willing to try an embryo transfer. The company hopes to patent the procedure. Patent applications are under the name of Richard G. Seed, the founder of a cattle breeding company, who conceived the notion of applying to human beings the techniques of the $32-million-a-year cattle breeding industry.

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Other Views on Embryo Transfer

Mark Noll is professor of history at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
I am less inclined than Dr. Wells simply to equate embryo wastage with abortion. For one thing, the Scriptures he cites from Psalm 51 and Jeremiah 1 do not speak to technical questions of sperm-ovum union versus implantation so much as to the total sovereignty of God over all of life.
Still, Wells is justified in his apprehension on this score. No matter how good the end (children for childless couples), the means must also be ethically sound. And the possibility that a large number of fertilized ova will be lost, even for good purposes, should give Christians pause.
Christians probably should encourage further scientific work on this procedure even as they explore means of putting the technique to use with justice and careful ethics. A great outcry that condemns the procedure without discrimination will not be helpful. Thoughtful and informed reflections, like those of Dr. Wells, are precisely what we need.
Lewis Smedes is professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.
We should remember that the woman undergoing an abortion and the woman seeking an ovum transfer intend two different things. The woman who has an abortion intends to be rid of the fetus. The woman receiving an ovum transfer intends to gain a fetus she could not otherwise have. Her desire is precisely the opposite of a woman seeking an abortion.
We also know that some women are capable of conception, but, for some reason, their uterine walls are inhospitable to the fertilized egg. Such women, with their mates, may try every month—sometimes for years—to get pregnant. But the fertilized eggs wash out of the uterus. That means those fertilized eggs die and go down the drain. I would not accuse such couples, attempting to have a baby, of abortion. I think such cases are parallel to the best possible uses of ovum transfer.
There is also the “brave new world” aspect of ovum transfer. I am sympathetic with those who say there should not be a rupture between the sexual act and procreation. But no trend is being set with ovum transfer. It would involve a small number of people, so intercourse would still be normative for procreation. However realistic the fear of a manufactured and commercialized means of bearing children may be, simply having that fear is not going to hold back the march of medical technology. We should use what in it is good, work to prevent its exploitation, and help people in need to make responsible decisions.
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Norman Geisler is professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.
I agree with the ethical points that Dr. Wells raises. If life begins at conception, as medical evidence indicates and Scripture does not contest, then ovum transfer would, as presently practiced, involve taking a life.
I would also agree with Wells that adultery is not at issue. There is no lustful intent involved and no sexual act. It would be a far-fetched definition of adultery to say that something without either of those is actually adultery.
Two fallacious ethical principles are exposed in the ovum-transfer debate. One is that the end justifies the means. If this procedure can bring about a good end, namely a baby for a childless couple, isn’t the means thereby justified? But no Christian ethical system has ever accepted the principle that the end justifies the means. Another fallacious principle is that if it can be done, it ought to be done. Just as David Hume showed that it is fallacious to argue from “is” to “ought,” I think it is equally fallacious to argue from “can” to “ought.” The fact that we can do something doesn’t mean we ought to do it.
The Christian’S Response

Too many times I have sat in my office and heard the wrenching sorrows of couples who could not have children. I have listened to the pleas: “Is there nothing you can do?” I have seen the tears, felt the pain, and tried to understand.

Now, seemingly so suddenly, there is something medical science can do. Ovum transfer makes it possible for thousands of infertile women—Christians included—to bear and deliver children. They can know the joy of pregnancy and childbirth. What sort of a sin can this be? They want only to be what millions of others are without a tinge of bad conscience: parents, and parents of children uniquely theirs.

So I write with sadness. Ovum transfer presents a heartbreaking temptation to childless Christians. But I cannot endorse the process because it necessarily, though incidentally, involves what I believe are abortions. It is true that medical techniques and instruments have a history of improving rapidly. John Buster assures me that the recovery rate of fertilized eggs will “approach the ideal within the next 18 to 24 months.” Buster believes it is possible, but not likely, that ovum transfer may be improved to the point that the embryos are fully safeguarded. (This improvement could occur with or without human experimentation.) If this happens, my basic ethical objection will be removed.

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But if and until then, I believe Christians should resist what will probably be widely accepted in our society. Ovum transfer may appear to appreciate and even enhance the value of life (after all, all those babies would not have been born!), but I believe it actually devalues life. It moves into the human arena the choice of life and death over eventually millions of embryos. We cannot assume that humans are, as the New York Times Magazine puts it, simply “the 15th mammalian species in which embryo transfer is expected to produce normal young.”

At the same time, Christians must act with compassion and understanding toward those yearning for ovum transfers. Rather than reacting judgmentally, we can remember the extraordinary dilemma the process will present to infertile couples. Our counsel must display the love only Christ can give as he works through us.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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