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In defense of the frozen children

The Alabama Supreme Court rules that the protection of human embryos extends beyond the womb


In defense of the frozen children

In a stunning development, the Alabama Supreme Court just declared that IVF embryos are legally defined as children under the state’s law and constitution, and thus deserve protection, whether or not they reside in a woman’s womb. The 8-1 decision has set off a firestorm, with many predicting the end of IVF procedures in the state. But there is another firestorm that still needs to happen, and that will require pro-life Americans to answer some hard questions many have been working overtime to avoid.

The Alabama case emerged from an incident in which embryos from three Alabama couples were apparently destroyed when an unauthorized person gained access to embryos stored by the Center for Reproductive Medicine in Mobile. This person caused the embryos produced by the three couples to be destroyed. The couples filed suit, and a lower court found that Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act did not apply to a human embryo located outside of a mother’s womb. The couples appealed to the state’s Supreme Court and, just days ago, that court handed down a decisive ruling and boldly declared that unborn children are children “without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics.”

With precise language, the majority opinion declared that there is no “extrauterine” exception to the Alabama law. In incredibly clear language, Justice Jay Mitchell stated: “All parties to these cases, like all members of this Court, agree that an unborn child is a genetically unique human being whose life begins at fertilization and ends in death.” Furthermore: “Unborn children are children under the Act, without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics.”

Almost immediately, critics charged that the decision would shut down all IVF procedures in the state, and that the effects would ripple out, threatening far more than IVF. Some on the left immediately charged that this would further complicate pro-abortion arguments. They are surely right, and thankfully so.

The hard thing is that many who consider themselves to be pro-life have refused to extend their own logic to the huge moral crisis posed by IVF procedures. The blunt and unavoidable question is this: Do pro-lifers really believe that “unborn children are children?” If not, we have been lying. If we really do believe this, how do we reckon with millions of frozen children locked in an indefinite freeze and destined for destruction due to IVF procedures?

IVF technology requires the moral alienation of goods that God intended to come together.

More than 20 years ago, I wrote a major essay raising this issue among evangelicals. Published in a book on IVF issues, my argument caused an uproar and I was reminded, quite unforgettably, that many evangelical Christians do not want some issues to be addressed. We understand the desire for a baby—and honor it. But IVF technology requires the moral alienation of goods that God intended to come together. A man plus a woman plus marriage is the right context for children to emerge with no moral complications. Any alienation from that context brings, at the very least, moral risk.

Donor sperm or eggs bring risks. IVF furthers that risk by alienating the gift of life from the conjugal act, at the very least. The same technology that can allow a heartbroken young married couple the promise of pregnancy and a baby can, with donor gametes, be used by a same-sex couple or even a single woman to “have” a baby. A single man or male couple can hire a surrogate to “have” the baby for them. Thanks to IVF, the entire process can now be made into a market for babies as commodities, with sperm and eggs and embryos and rental wombs available in a dark market.

Closer to home, the problem is most evident in the embryos that are not transferred to a womb or are not carried to term. Prevailing medical practice in the United States calls for the creation of multiple embryos and, in most cases, for the transfer of multiple embryos into the womb. Thereafter, doctors often advise (or demand) the “selective reduction” of some embryos after pregnancy is confirmed. This means the targeted killing of some embryos. The same procedure often comes with genetic screening—a form of human prenatal quality control. In many cases, medical authorities demand agreement for both selection and reduction before proceeding with treatment.

Christians welcome every human life, every single baby, and celebrate that life. The baby is a moral good, a person made in God’s image. But not every technology or medical procedure (or sexual act) is made legitimate simply because it leads to babies. For Christians, the moral risk is greatly lowered by using only gametes from the husband and wife and by transferring all embryos to the womb (perhaps in successive pregnancies) with none abandoned and none “reduced.”

No one said this issue was easy or unemotional. But Alabama’s highest court has just put it on the nation’s agenda, and it falls squarely on the Christian conscience. The court’s reasoning is unassailable. A human embryo is a human being wherever that embryo may be found. If that is not true, the pro-life movement has been lying. If it is true—and it is true—then evangelicals had better make certain our affirmation of human dignity and the sanctity of human life is clear. All unborn children are children.

R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also the host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.

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