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Our two-fold task

On IVF, we have a lot of ground to regain

A container holds frozen embryos and sperm in liquid nitrogen at a fertility clinic in Fort Myers, Fla. Associated Press/Photo by Lynne Sladky

Our two-fold task

Whatever policies result in the aftermath of the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision that effectively granted frozen embryos the legal status as other children, here is one sure reality: Pro-life Americans have been caught largely flat-footed by the decision, unaware of the deep moral complexities tied to in vitro fertilization. Not only are many flat-footed, but many have also found themselves supporting IVF. After all, how could it be anything other than pro-life to encourage the presence of children in the lives of infertile couples?

Nowhere has this confusion and vacillation been more evident than among ostensible pro-life quarters like the Republican Party. In the aftermath of the decision, consultants and politicians alike have rushed to distance Republicans from the Alabama court’s decision. You cannot blame the politicians when they go where public sentiment is. But that requires the ethics response to play double time in the need to speak clearly, boldly, and compassionately. Blame falls in many directions, not least upon the failure of the evangelical church to disciple its people and the politicians who sit in their pews. Evangelicalism’s largely blasé approach to IVF is an indictment on how our bedrock belief about Scripture’s sufficiency is practically undermined when some believers demand chapter and verse explicitly prohibiting a given practice.

The fact remains that opposition to IVF comes largely, if not exclusively, from socially conservative Christian intellectuals and institutions that have studied the issue for years and have sought—with little apparent success—to draw attention to IVF’s problems. Providence now affords us the ability to shed light on this topic. But allow me to suggest: How we go about the educational process surrounding IVF will be just as important as what we teach.

The immediate instinct by some conservative Christians may be to swiftly condemn all these public pro-IVF statements by Republicans as capitulations to the culture of death done in the name, ironically, of a so-called culture of life. I understand that instinct and, certainly, pro-life Americans who understand the moral problems of IVF should use this opportunity to speak clearly and compassionately about the practice. Right now is indeed a good time to educate Americans about IVF.

And yet, as an ethics professor, here’s another reality we must consider. Before putting citizens and politicians on blast, we must understand that the vast majority of Americans, even pro-life Americans and Christians, do not even have the category for knowing why IVF is, in fact, morally problematic.

There’s an important lesson here that I try to practice as an ethics professor: Sometimes ethical education is not merely helping individuals land on the right conclusions—it is getting them to see the moral problems lurking in the floorboards themselves.

One may not like the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision, but let me tell you, it was a very morally and intellectually honest opinion.

IVF has two central moral problems. First, it disrupts the bodily connection that Scripture depicts as the exclusive context for conceiving children. Severing conception from sexual intercourse, according to the moral logic of Christian ethics, will introduce a multiplication of problems downstream. Once that holy and inviolable seal is broken, other problems will follow (like surrogacy, gamete donation, etc.).

That leads to the second problem: What should be done with excess embryos whose development remains suspended in a refrigerated state? Will they be discarded through selective reduction, to expire, or used for medical research? As the pro-life argument goes: Regardless of the degree of development present, the essential nature of the person remains the same from their existence as a zygote to their death in old age.

One may not like the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision, but let me tell you, it was a very morally and intellectually honest opinion. If Christians believe that unborn children in the womb deserve legal protection, so the logic goes, so do frozen children outside the womb.

Christians really do believe that frozen embryos are human beings and, thus, persons. To put it in Christian language, these embryos are our neighbors. It is unjust to commodify and transact these image bearers—our neighbors—against their will.

One of the biggest challenges facing pro-life America is that when complex bioethical issues arise, it’s virtually impossible to have serious moral debates. Complexity is reduced to actuarial tables of political risk and political gain. I understand that impulse even as we must fight through the discomfort to shed light on an industry that purports to promote happiness but has a very dark side to it that treats human beings like chattel and the bodies of women as little more than wombs for rent.

I understand the political winds facing Republicans. Opposing IVF is surely a political loser, regrettable as it is to admit this out loud. That does not for one second, however, factor into our calculations about the need to speak truthfully and compassionately in this situation. And there are various policies being discussed by groups on how to regulate the Wild Wild West of America’s artificial reproductive technology regime more tightly. But for now, before we put people on blast, let us be about the process of catechesis and discipleship to help our communities better understand why IVF is so problematic.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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