Article Sep 4, 2018

A viral photo shows the problems with in vitro fertilization (IVF)

A picture showing a beautiful baby girl surrounded by over 1,100 IVF needles is making the rounds on the internet. Here's a picture of the image:  

According to the description of the photo, "After trying to get pregnant for four long years via IVF, Patricia and Kimberly O'Neill, a couple from Arizona, finally welcomed a beautiful little girl, London, into the world via C-section on Aug. 3. To celebrate their beautiful baby girl and the long road they traveled to officially become parents, they hired photographer Samantha Packer of Packer Family Photography to capture their experience in an image — and it's no surprise it went completely viral when she shared it on Facebook."

What we can surmise from this picture is that 1,161 IVF needles were used signifying all the injections necessary to help this woman conceive via IVF.  

Before I get to the larger issue of IVF, it should be noted that the couple above is a lesbian couple, which is both sinful and puts the question of natural procreation aside entirely. The baby girl in this story is, tragically, being denied her right to a father. Still, regardless of this being a homosexual relationship, the reality of one woman’s infertility and experience with miscarriage (battles my wife and I have experienced as well) means I do not want to harshly condemn one woman’s physical hardship. Miscarriage and infertility can physically afflict all women, regardless of whether their sexual desires are sinful or pure.  

A sensitive issue  

But to the broader issue of infertility or miscarriage afflicting heterosexual couples, like all instances where IVF factors into decision-making, an absence and holy longing exists. The practice of IVF is used when something has gone wrong. The desire for children should be praised, and the corresponding childlessness should be grieved. All throughout Scripture, barrenness is a source of great grief and shame. The Scripture speaks to infertility with vivid reality, and Christians, of all people, should be the most compassionate in talking about this subject (Gen. 30:1; 1 Sam. 1:5-10). Christians should be sensitive to infertility, miscarriage, and children conceived through IVF without forgetting the importance of discussing what is lurking behind this now-viral picture—the morality of IVF itself.  

IVF is an enormously sensitive issue for Christians to discuss, because the availability of IVF makes it possible for couples to conceive who otherwise could not. Telling would-be parents they should not utilize IVF as a last resort to become parents can seem uncaring, unloving, and depriving a husband and wife of something (children) that God considers a blessing (Ps. 127:3). We should not minimize this longing. It is a primal desire given to us by a loving heavenly Father. The longing for children is by nature and by choice.  

A complex issue  

But IVF is not a morally neutral procedure. It is not like a flu shot or a hip replacement. The issue of conception—and where conceptions occurs—requires a certain context. The natural means of conception poses no ethical dilemma.  

With the use of IVF, however, at least two dilemmas immediately arise. There’s an issue of the means and the results that follow from IVF. There can be more embryos created than can be implanted, and the excess embryos are either destroyed, used for research, or frozen—what are called "Snowflake" babies. How do we balance the good of wanting children with evaluating technology that can also lead to denying a whole class of persons—in this case, embryos— their right to exist?  

This photo raises questions that do not have a clear answer: How many embryos (children) were created over those seven attempts? And how many remain frozen? How many were destroyed or used for medical research? Even where technology can allow the fertilization of only one embryo that would prevent the death or destruction of other embryos, IVF still is problematic because it participates in the larger ecosystem of utilizing reproductive technologies that dispense with the one-flesh union of husband and wife. And moreover, there is no guarantee that the use of IVF even to fertilize one embryo will lead to the successful implantation and development of the child. To employ an unnatural method of conception where the possibility of failure exists is in a different category than the possibility of infertility or miscarriage realized by the natural means of conception.  

But to a broader theological principle, children are not hatched. They are not to be clinically developed in a petri dish by white-coated scientists. Children are an outflowing of marital love. The union that seals the marriage covenant, according to Scripture, is the same union that is designed to bring forth new life under the right conditions.  

A human dignity issue  

As a part of our holistic human dignity ethic, Christians must understand that the life of a frozen or destroyed embryo is just as precious as the enfleshed child. For us to minimize their humanity and personhood is to unwittingly fall prey to the pattern of thought that so dominates our culture's thinking about children being the product of choice and the will, rather than as a divine gift.  

The reality, however, is that IVF creates children that are conceived distinct from the one-flesh union of husband and wife (Gen. 1:28; 2:24). The medicalization of conception is an issue that Christians must confront. We must examine our desire for children with the pattern for how God designed children to be conceived. We have to caution that the godly desire for children not become an idol that would allow Christians to bypass the marital intercourse that brings children into this world and in the process, create a whole host of ethical dilemmas that challenge human dignity.  

Wisdom and ethics  

One of the greatest dilemmas around IVF is how commonplace it has become, even among Christians. Because there is no verse that explicitly prohibits IVF, many Christians see the availability of this technology as evidence of God's common grace to bring relief from infertility. Advanced technology that brings new questions to the experiences of life and the limits we are willing to impose on such technology is one of the greatest challenges facing the Christian church. For example, imagine a pill that would allow humans to live to be 350 years of age. Is that moral? Should Christians endorse it—or even use it? Hypotheticals like that, and realistic devices like IVF, show how questions of ethics and morality are not as cut and dry as finding the right Bible verse. This means pastors need to compassionately shepherd and disciple our churches to understand that the availability of technology cannot mean its unquestioned use.  

For an excellent resource on how to counsel a couple considering IVF, see ERLC fellow and Union University ethicist Ben Mitchell's article. ERLC fellow and Oklahoma Baptist University ethicist Matt Arbo has also written an excellent book, Walking through Infertility: Biblical, Theological, and Moral Counsel for Those Who Are Struggling.

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