The Church and Bioethics: Assisted Reproduction

Below is a summary of a sermon I preached on April 24, 2016 at Graefenburg Baptist Church concerning assisted reproduction and bioethics.

Four questions to answer addressing the topic of assisted reproduction:
1. Does assisted reproduction usurp (infringe upon) the sovereignty of God?
2. What is an embryo and how should Christians think about them?
3. What is the relationship between embryos and assisted reproduction?
4. Are there other ethical concerns?

Does assisted reproduction usurp the sovereignty of God?
Although a common objection from evangelicals to assisted reproduction is that the practice “usurps” the sovereignty of God, the answer to this first question is an unequivocal “no.” Human beings, despite our seemingly sophisticated technological advances, are not capable of disrupting or infringing upon the eternal purposes of a providential God. Therefore, Graefenburg Baptist Church will always view every baby and every child as a deeply loving and abundantly good gift from God. Regardless of how that child came into this world, whether it was through natural sexual relations or assisted reproduction or a single mother or single father who had a baby out of wedlock, every child is a beautiful gift of a sovereign God, and every child has come from God alone.

But we have to be careful. We can’t think that since God’s sovereignty is absolute and since every child is always a great gift that our actions and decisions concerning assisted reproduction do not matter. Remember, God’s sovereignty does not negate human responsibility, and we will be held responsible for our choices. So, we should not condemn assisted reproduction on the grounds that it usurps the sovereignty of God, but we should also avoid accepting every means of ART (assisted reproductive technology) as morally and ethically suitable for Christians.

What is an embryo and how should Christians thing about them?
An embryo is formed by the coming together of an egg from a female and a sperm from a male in a process called fertilization (sometimes called conception). When conception occurs, the egg and the sperm individually cease to be, and there is a new, distinct living human organism, sometimes referred to as a zygote. This new life is so amazing that it immediately closes itself off from any additional outside disruption. No other sperm can get in, no other parts are necessary for this human life to grow. This new living organism, so long as it is nurtured and fed and given time to develop, will very soon be crying and screaming and kicking in the arms of a doctor and then the arms of a parent.

Listen to how Robert George and Patrick Lee describe this process as they write for the US National Library of Medicine: “…from the zygote stage onward, the human embryo has within it all of the internal information needed—including chiefly its genetic and epigenetic constitution—and the active disposition to develop itself to the mature stage of a human organism. As long as the embryo is reasonably healthy and is not denied or deprived of a suitable environment and adequate nutrition, it will actively develop itself along the species-specific trajectory of development. This means that the embryo has the same nature—in other words, it is the same kind of entity—from fertilization onward; there is only a difference in degree of maturation, not in kind, between any of the stages from embryo, to fetus, infant and so on.”

In other words, Christians should consider embryos to be children. We should consider these to be our babies. All an embryo needs is time for more maturity and nourishment. But that is true for a newborn baby. That baby needs more time to mature, needs nourishment, needs somewhere safe to sleep. The exact same thing is true for the human embryo.

What is the relationship between embryos and assisted reproduction?
Let me address the two most common forms of ART. First is artificial insemination. Through this process a man’s sperm are injected into a woman at the right time and in the right place to help increase the probability of pregnancy. Through this means of assisted reproduction, fertilization occurs in a natural way and embryos are in no greater danger than if the couple would have engaged in normal sexual contact. For this reason, the relationship between embryos and artificial insemination does not create additional risk factors a couple would need to worry about.

The second most common type of assisted reproduction is In Vitro Fertilization. Through this process, Eggs are harvested from a woman, sperm is taken from the man, and they are brought together outside the womb. After fertilization occurs outside the womb, the embryos are implanted, or transferred, inside the womb. This process has several ethical concerns associated with embryos that artificial insemination does not.

First, both because IVF is incredibly expensive and because the success rate is very low, usually a much larger number of eggs are harvested for fertilization than are expected to be used.  After fertilization occurs outside the womb, only a couple, 2 to 4 typically, will be implanted into the womb. What is left is a very serious moral and ethical dilemma. What happens to the remaining embryos that were not placed in the woman? Sometimes they are frozen for potential use at a later date. Sometimes, and we have to recognize the way the secular world uses this language, they are “discarded.” Which simply means they are killed. There are some other options available as well, that I will mention below.

A second ethical concern for the embryos with IVF is the potential of needing to abort one or more of the embryos. This is sometimes referred to as “selective abortion.” Again, since there is such a low success rate and because of the high costs involved per transfer, the doctors might implant several embryos into the womb with the hope that one will continue to develop and mature. This often leads to multiple pregnancies and leaves the parent with a deeply difficult moral decision as to whether or not they should selectively abort one of the babies in order to put less health risk on the mother and on the other children. Thankfully, this trend of multiple embryo transfers is slowly starting to decrease. In some parts of Europe, there is a mandatory single embryo transfer, which is preferred from a Christian ethical viewpoint. Dr. Dorrette Noorahsen writing for Fertility Specialists says, “Due to the success of vitrification, we no longer need to transfer a higher number of embryos at the fresh ET, but are comfortable transferring fewer, and if the woman is not pregnant we can do a FET at a later point in time. The number of higher order multiples in the United States have decreased in the last decade due to fertility centers transferring fewer embryos. Transferring fewer embryos has not decreased pregnancy success rates in the last decade. Actually, IVF success rates have improved in the last decade due to improved technology.”

A third ethical problem for IVF is the reality of how many children have been killed in order to make the technology possible. It would be one thing if these killings had stopped now that we have the technology in place, but of course the industry desires to make the procedure more effective and safer for all parties. However, the means by which they continue to improve on IVF technology is in part the continuing destruction of embryos.

Are there other ethical concerns?
The parental connection when a third party is involved is an additional ethical concern. Third parties are sometimes necessary during assisted reproduction because either the female or the male is not able to conceive, so a third party egg or sperm is necessary. This creates a situation where there is a biological link to the child outside the husband and wife.

Now, most parents who are actually raising the child will have no problem clearly identifying themselves as the true parents, and rightly so. But what about the perspective of the child? There is no way to know how they might respond to the news of a third person having biological responsibilities for their birth. Of course, one option is to keep the information away from the child. But then that creates a situation where there are family secrets, and puts friends and family in an uncomfortable and often unfair situation of knowing something and keeping it quiet. Family secrets hardly ever turn out well.

Most children will want to know about their biological makeup and couples who use a third party must prepare for these kinds of ethical possibilities.

Another concern for third party involvement is the potential emotional connection between the third party and the child, a truth that is demonstrated in Scripture itself, such as the jealousy that develops with Sarah and Hagar.

Closing Thoughts
I believe one thing is absolutely necessary before any Christian couple should begin the process of assisted reproduction. Not surprisingly, it has to do with the gospel. Christian couples should seek contentment in Christ before any decisions are made or considered. This is not to say that contentment means a couple should not pursue a route to help with pregnancy. But rather, before a route is taken, they should seek contentment in Christ with their condition. The reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has not changed the brokenness and suffering of something so difficult as infertility, but it has radically changed a Christian’s perspective on that suffering.

Embryo adoption is a beautiful way for couples to both pursue parenthood in a God-honoring way while also coming alongside children who may be otherwise killed through the embryo discarding process. We would be happy to discuss embryo adoption with you and pray for your decision making.