Can Christian Couples Use IVF?
Conceived by Science: Thinking Carefully and Compassionately About Infertility and IVF, Stephanie Gray Connors. Florida: Wongeese Publishing, 2021. Paperback, 147 pages.
Infertility is a hugely sensitive issue. The magnitude of its sensitivity can only be matched by the controversy generated by IVF amongst Christians. This is particularly because unborn human lives are involved. Nevertheless, countless couples have used IVF to have children and overcome their infertility. As a pastor, I’ve known several Christian couples who’ve also gone this route.
What is IVF?
We’re talking about “in-vitro fertilization.” Instead of fertilization taking place in the womb, it takes place in the laboratory. Sperm is collected from the father, eggs from the mother, and they meet each other in a petri dish. One or more of the resulting embryos may then be implanted in the mother’s uterus. It sounds straightforward, but there are some weighty ethical concerns around the process.
One of the biggest is the fact that multiple embryos are often produced and then frozen for later use. This process results in the death of some embryos and degraded health for others. Consequently, even those embryos which survive freezing and unthawing are graded according to their condition. Only those in the best condition are implanted, and the rest are destroyed, i.e., killed.
IVF in Reformed Ethics
Reformed ethicists have differed in their evaluations of IVF. Some have been categorically opposed, while others have held that it could be permissible under strict conditions. One of the latter was my seminary ethics professor, Dr. N.H. Gootjes. In the spring semester of 1998, Dr. Gootjes lectured on IVF in our Ethics 4411 class at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. As was his habit, he was exhaustive in his treatment of the subject. He spent several lectures on the chequered history and the abuses that happen. He interacted with several other ethicists. Then, of course, he went to the Scriptures and explained and applied some of the key passages.
Let me share the conclusions of Dr. Gootjes. He argued that IVF was permissible given all of these conditions:
- That it take place in the context of a marriage between a man and a woman, using only their gametes.
- No grading or selection of embryos is permissible.
- No freezing of embryos is allowed.
- All embryos should be implanted in the womb, with a limit of three.
At the time, I thought he made a good case. Over the years the pastoral advice I’ve given to couples has been based on what I heard in seminary.
But, of course, Prov. 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” I approached pro-life activist Stephanie Gray Connors’ book with that bit of wisdom in mind. Could it be that Gootjes was wrong and I’ve then been giving couples the wrong advice for the last 20 years?
What is the ethical standard by which Connors proposes to evaluate IVF? It isn’t immediately clear. In the introduction she says she’ll present arguments that are both “sectarian and non-sectarian in nature.” That’s a curious choice of words – what’s the background of her “sectarian” arguments? Which sect? She says she makes “explicitly Christian appeals,” but says that she has enough diverse information to challenge those “who embrace a different religion or no religion at all” (p.xiii). Her information mostly challenges various abuses of IVF, whereas her actual assessment of the procedure itself is based on appeals to divine authority.
While Conceived by Science purports to be about IVF, it spends a lot of time on related side issues. In particular, Connors argues against the practice of surrogacy, which typically involves IVF. She’s right that this practice is ethically problematic – for example, it places the bearing of children outside the context of marriage between a man and a woman. She raises valid concerns about the increasing commodification of humans, especially when it comes to the idea of “designer babies.”
Although Connors is sensitive to those who struggle with infertility, she concludes that IVF is not the way to address the issue. She categorically condemns IVF. Under no conditions whatsoever is it justifiable, in her view. Even if all the conditions described by Gootjes above are in place, IVF is not acceptable according to Connors.
Therefore, even if the sperm and eggs come from a married couple, IVF is out of the question. Rhetorically she asks, “Does it fit with God’s designs about sexual intimacy for Him to enlist a third party, outside of a married couple, when it comes to the very moment of creating new life?” (p.64). Connors concludes, “God made sex necessary. IVF makes sex unnecessary. Sex receives humans that God creates. IVF manufactures humans” (p.67). This is one of the author’s key arguments against IVF.
“Be fruitful and multiply”
In the Bible, children are both a duty and a blessing for husband and wife. They’re a duty in the sense that God told Adam and Eve, representatives of the human race, to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28) – a command later repeated to Noah in Gen. 9:7. Ps. 127:3 speaks about the blessing: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.” It’s therefore natural that a Christian couple would want to have children.
It’s true that sexual intimacy within marriage was God’s provision to help human beings fulfil their duty and experience this blessing. So, certainly, that ought to be the norm. However, because we live in a sin-blighted world, bodies don’t always function the way they should. Infertility is real and so is the accompanying hurt. It’s understandable that medical research would seek to address it. Today we have the means so that couples who might otherwise not be able to have their own children now can. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. So, is there explicit guidance from the Bible on that? Well, no. Scripture simply doesn’t say that children may only be conceived in the uterus following sexual intimacy. We shouldn’t make prohibitions where God doesn’t.
Furthermore, Connors overstates things when she says that “IVF manufactures humans” or that “IVF creates new life.” Whether conception happens in the uterus or in a petri dish, God brings that new life into being – giving it not only a physical body, but also a soul. Medical scientists may engineer the circumstances of the union of sperm and egg, but they still can’t create a human life. Because we are both body and soul, only God will ever be able to do that. Whether in utero or in vitro, conception always happens by God’s providence, never by science.
Conceived by Science has a few other issues. In chapter 11, Connors makes a leap from what the Bible says about Christians being temples of the Holy Spirit to all people being temples of the Holy Spirit. In the same chapter, Connors writes excitedly about her other-worldly experience worshipping at a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. Her opposition to the gifting of frozen embryos to other parents hinges on a tenuous distinction between “donation” and “adoption,” as if what we call it determines whether it’s ethical. She writes about the procurement of sperm via masturbation and argues that this necessarily involves evil – but if it’s done between a married man and woman to have children, is it wrong? I’m not convinced at all.
The Pope Should Be Proud
That brings me to the bottom line with this book. Connors is a devout Roman Catholic. In an interview published last year she spoke about her serious Roman Catholic commitment. She described how she prays to and feels a special connection with St. Anthony of Padua before she preaches and proclaims the Word of God. She takes her faith seriously, which is more than you can say for most Roman Catholics. So, as a result, she also takes seriously what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about IVF. As it happens, the Roman Catholic Church is unequivocally opposed to IVF, for exactly the reasons Connors gives in Conceived by Science. I can’t help but read it as an attempt to convince evangelical Christians that Rome is right on this.
Please don’t get me wrong. There’s certainly a lot of helpful stuff in this book. It’s informative on some of the abuses and issues around IVF. I don’t want to write it off entirely. For example, the penultimate chapter has a valuable warning against making the desire for children into an idol. That said, I continue to find Dr. Gootjes’ overall evaluation of IVF more persuasive. While IVF might not be the first choice for addressing infertility, it isn’t necessarily unethical from a biblical perspective. As long as the sixth and seventh commandments are honoured, I can’t say that it is categorically evil. If a Christian husband and wife can find an IVF provider who operates within those ethical parameters, it can be a way for them to honour God by being fruitful and multiplying.