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

September 4, 2018

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.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24