Article Sep 21, 2017

Basic Bioethics: Forty ways to make a baby

Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a monthly series on what Christians should know about bioethics.

From the time of Adam and Eve until the late 1970s, there was—with one notable exception—only one way to make a baby: the sexual bonding of a man and a woman. The number of baby-making methods increased to two in 1978 after the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby.” Today, there are about 40 ways to make a baby, almost all of which can be accomplished without sexual intercourse.

Until the 1970s, “reproductive technologies” focused almost exclusively on helping a couple prevent conception. Although the tools ranged from the benign (thermometers) to the controversial (the Pill), most people understood both how they worked and whether their use could be considered ethical. Now that we have methods which sound like acronyms for U.N. agencies — IH, AID, ICSI, IUI, GIFT, ZIFT, IV — few people understand what they are, and even fewer know whether they are morally acceptable.

The rapidity by which the baby-making process has evolved has outpaced our moral reflection. However, there are few considerations, ranging from the personal to the linguistic, which should guide our thinking about reproductive technologies.

Love Your Infertile Neighbor

Our moral reflection has been outpaced by the new baby-making technologies.

The first is the duty to our neighbor. No matter what we think of the new methods for making babies, we should never dismiss the reason that they were created: to alleviate the pain and suffering caused by infertility, a curse that has plagued couples throughout our history. The Bible frequently mentions the problem of infertility and of the seven women mentioned by name who were barren (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Michal, and Samson’s mother), six later bore a child. In each of these situations, Scripture implies God was directly responsible for delivering them from infertility. Today, the 2.5 million couples affected by infertility feel the same strain and longing, though they have the option of turning to technology, rather than God alone, for deliverance.

The number of people affected is humbling: After one year of sexual relations, approximately 15 percent of American couples are unable to conceive a child. This inability can become emotionally trying and leads many couples to seek out medical solutions to overcome their affliction. Every year couples spend millions of dollars on reproductive technologies for the mere chance of conceiving a child.

For Christians, medical intervention to overcome infertility may be acceptable, providing we do not violate established biblical principles or our consciences in the process. This consideration will necessarily limit the types of options that are available, but there are a number of methods, such as the use of fertility drugs, that do not lead to the most morally repugnant outcome: the production of multiple embryos that must be discarded or frozen and placed in storage.

Don’t Destroy Your Children

Whether out of ignorance or oversight, the pro-life community has until recently tended to overlook embryo destruction that occurs outside the womb. Unfortunately, though it has now caught our attention, we tend to oppose those who would destroy embryos for speculative scientific research while giving a pass to our fellow citizens who create “extra” or “spare” embryos out of the desire to have a child.

But while the motives may differ, all created embryos have the same moral status and deserve the same level of protection from harm. The pain of infertility does not provide an exemption to this obligation.

Fortunately, the first options that most physicians would consider are the least objectionable. Methods such as gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT), zygote intrafallopian transfer (ZIFT), intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), or in vitro fertilization can be approached in a way that is respectful of human life. Whether they are completely acceptable for Christians is a question worthy of debate. In the absence of clear scriptural guidelines, there are bound to be disagreements (I would almost always advise against their use, though I respect those who do not share my qualms). However, there are some methods and approaches that are indisputably unethical and temptations to act immorally abound.

A prime example is the routine practice of creating “excess embryos”, a practice that is common, though not essential, to the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF). The IVF procedure is inherently expensive, often costing between $10,000 and $30,000 per treatment and the likelihood of success is dismally low. Even the best of techniques offers less than a 50 percent chance that a live birth will occur. Because of these obstacles, couples are often tempted to set aside ethical concerns in order to increase the chances of fulfilling their desire for a child.

Christian couples, however, should never be willing to unnecessarily sacrifice an innocent human life. The extra expense required to avoid moral wrongdoing may be substantial or even prohibitive. But the cost of destroying the embryo is even higher. It is never God’s will that we kill one child in order to give life to another. If it cannot be done morally, then it must not be done at all.

In welcoming Louise Brown—the world’s first “test-tube baby”—into the world we ushered in an era of new ethical dilemmas, a Pandora’s box that includes human cloning, the creation of “designer” babies and the eugenics of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Whether we create a dystopian future for ourselves will depend on whether we humbly accept our limits and fully understand our obligations. We may have dozens of new ways to make a baby, but the purpose of baby-making remains the same: to bring into the world a human being created in the image of God.

Other articles in the Basic Bioethics series:

Why Christians should care about bioethics

How Christians should think about bioethics

How Christians should think about bioethics (part 2)

How to illuminate the Christian perspective

Rise 2017