Evangelicals and IVF
This post originally appeared in the Weekly Speak, our weekly summary and analysis of the news. Subscribe to get the Weekly Speak every Monday.
How’s this for a sensitive topic: The Gospel Coalition ran two perspective essays on IVF this week and set off a chain reaction in the evangelical community. First of all, good for TGC. This is the kind of biblical-theological writing and dialogue we desperately need. It hits all the marks for what we should look for in Christian dialogue: the authors are well-educated inerrantists, they have a grasp of the broader contours and scientific facets of their topic, they read the other positions charitably, and you’re bound to agree and disagree with several of the arguments made in each essay. The topic is also incredibly pertinent. The authors site that since 1996, nearly 2% of all children born in the U.S. were conceived through IVF. This issue is only getting more prominent.
“Breaking Evangelicalism Silence on IVF” - Matthew Lee Anderson and Andrew T. Walker
“How IVF Can Be Morally Right” - Wayne Grudem
Wayne Grudem presents the case for IVF. Over the last 30 years, there have been few people more impactful in the evangelical world than Grudem. His systematic theology can be found on bookshelves across the world, he co-founded the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and he has authored an uncountable library of books. Matthew Lee Anderson and Andrew T. Walker take up the other side of the debate. They are two of the most prominent young voices in the evangelical community. Both have enjoyed blogging and publishing success, both are highly educated, and both have committed their lives to providing theological and ethical service to the church. Both articles come from the highest evangelical pedigree.
There are three central issues to consider:
First, what is God’s design for marriage and what restrictions does that place on reproduction? For any question on sexuality and reproduction, we need to understand the biblical presentation of marriage. God designed marriage to operate within boundaries, and we need to understand what those are before we can determine what’s right and wrong when it comes to reproduction. Both essays begin here. The natural method of procreation is one feature of God’s design for marriage. Anderson and Walker, though, seem overly idealistic on this point. To say that procreation is one of the chief components of the way God designed marriage is one thing, to say that any deviation from the natural design is unethical for Christians seems like a stretch. I don’t think they would make this argument about synthetic heart valves, organ transplants, or skin grafts.
Grudem argues that overcoming infertility is consistent with the heart of God as we see it revealed in the Scriptures, and a proper understanding of medicine as a means through which God accomplishes his will. While this point is strange sounding at first glance, it’s an important biblical point. Infertility is everywhere in Scripture, and God pays attention to, orchestrates, and hears the cries of his people when it comes to infertility. There are lots of examples in which God uses technology to accomplish his will. We have to be careful to understand that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. At the same time, medical technology can be a part of God’s answer to our prayers.
Second, what are the limits of natural and artificial mechanisms of conception?
Scripture is clear about the fact that God opens and closes the womb. Anderson and Walker firmly state the point that God has ordained both marriage and procreation, and that he superintends the process of reproduction. They trace the Abrahamic narrative and point out that Abraham makes the wrong choice in going outside of God’s naturally ordained process by engaging in a practice that would have been even more socially acceptable than IVF is today, having a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar.
In addition, Anderson and Walker argue that IVF goes beyond the bounds of infertility treatment and actually circumvents the issue of fertility altogether. From their perspective, any form of conception that takes place, in any phase outside of the body of the wife, is out of bounds for Christians. Grudem stands diametrically opposed to this position, arguing that IVF is a solution to the problem of infertility, not a misappropriation of the desire to conceive children.
From a pastoral standpoint, the biblical narratives that deal with infertility, and there are lots of them, remind us that this is not a new issue, and people have been looking to God to respond to their prayers for children since the beginning of creation. It doesn’t automatically take away the pain of infertility to know that God is in control, but it does help to know that you are not alone and you are not invisible. God hears the cries of his people, and he answers.
Third, does IVF destroy unborn lives? This may be the most central issue when it comes to IVF. For many, the entire question of reproductive technology comes down to one question: how many embryos are destroyed in the process? And this is a worthy question. If we’re going to be pro-life, we have to be consistently pro-life. That includes the kind of birth control available to Christians and the kinds of reproductive technology.
There are different ways to do IVF; ones that produce multiple embryos and methods that produce a single embryo. In many cases, the unused embryos are stored - creating an even more tangled ethical conundrum, a kind of Schrodinger’s embryo, which both articles allude to, but do not discuss at length. Grudem argues that IVF should only be done in cases that do not lead to even a single embryo death. Both articles stand in alignment on this point. There are scenarios in which, even though the intentions may be vastly different, IVF procedures and early abortions have the same effect. This is another, related, debate among evangelicals: should Christians use abortifacient birth control pills like Plan B and other “morning-after pills”? These are related questions, but there is a clearer evangelical consensus: killing an embryo is taking a human life. This is a very important point in the debates over abortion, birth control, healthcare, and IVF. If there’s a common conclusion in these articles, this is it; Christians should avoid destroying embryos at all costs.
The Future Discussion
Aside from being intensely personal, IVF also strikes numerous other social and emotional nerves. While sexuality has become one of the most prominent talking points in our society, the flip side of sexual expressivism, procreation within the covenant of marriage, is still rarely discussed in churches outside of pastoral care settings. Aside from providing helpful information and perspective, I hope these articles give Christians some assurance that it’s ok to talk about infertility (the rate at which the issue is growing is astronomical, and the Christian community is just beginning to talk about it) and reproductive science. I’ll add this note of criticism, none of the contributors actually pastor people. This isn’t to discount what they say, or the need for serious theological and scholarly engagement on the topic, but only to say that more discussion is needed. We need doctrine and pastoral care. These articles are a great start.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.