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Ethical and Theological Considerations on IVF from the Southern Baptist Convention

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May 15, 2024

1. What do Southern Baptists believe about life, marriage, and family?

Scripture clearly speaks to the dignity and value of every human being, no matter their location or capacities (Gen. 1:26-28, Ex. 20:13,  Josh. 20:3–6, Psalm 139:13, Prov. 6:16–17, Luke 1:41). This value is not dependent on what one does or contributes but simply on the fact that they are made by God as biological human beings on whom God bestows value. As German theologian Helmut Thielicke states, “God does not love us because we are so valuable; we are valuable because God loves us.”1Helmut Thielicke, Nihilism, trans. John W Doberstein (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), 110.

Though there are no resolutions from the Southern Baptist Convention which explicitly reference IVF or ARTs, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, in Article XVIII, The Family, offers some guidance: 

“Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race. … Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord.” 

In over 20 resolutions over 40 years, Southern Baptists have been incredibly clear on the personhood and value of the preborn from the moment of conception/fertilization.21980 Resolution “On Abortion,” 1982 Resolution “On Abortion & Infanticide,” 1984 Resolution “On Abortion,” 1986 Resolution “On Sex Education & Adolescent Pregnancy,” 1987 Resolution “On Abortion,” 1988 Resolution “Pro-Life Actions of SBC Agencies,” 1989 Resolution “On Encouraging Laws Regulating Abortion,” 1991 Resolution “On the Sanctity of Human Life,” 1992 Resolution “On Fetal Tissue Experimentation,” 1993 Resolution “On the Freedom Of Choice Act, Hyde Amendment,” 1994 Resolution “On RU486, The French Abortion Pill,” 1995 Resolution “On Surgeon General Nominee Dr. Henry Foster,” 1996 Resolution “On the Partial Birth Abortion Ban,” 1996 Resolution “On Requiring all Political Parties to Include a Pro-Life Actions Platform,” 1999 Resolution “On Human Embryonic & Stem Cell Research,” 2000 Resolution “On Fetal Tissue Trafficking,” 2002 Resolution “On Partial Birth Abortion,” 2003 Resolution “On Thirty Years of Roe v. Wade,” 2008 Resolution “On Planned Parenthood,” 2015 Resolution “On the Sanctity of Human Life,” 2017 Resolution “On Defunding and Investigating Planned Parenthood,” 2018 Resolution “On Reaffirming the Full Dignity of Every Human Being,” 2019 Resolution “On Celebrating the Advancement of Pro-Life Legislation in State Legislators,” 2021 Resolution “On Abolishing Abortion.” This emphasis on the value of all human beings, especially the preborn, is not dependent on the location of the child. Thus we are opposed to the willful destruction or even donating to scientific experimentation of non-implanted human embryos wantonly created in the typical IVF process. 

2. What are the problems with IVF from a theological and ethical perspective? 

While many claim that IVF is simply a treatment for infertility, there are a range of ethical considerations with the process. Many individuals feel and even have been told by doctors that IVF is their only hope for biological children, and thus, these conversations must be conducted, and policy crafted, with the utmost care and wisdom.

At a very basic level, the way IVF is routinely conducted now, which includes over fertilization of eggs without a clear plan for implantation, freezing of leftover embryos, and even the destruction of these human embryos once a couple has succeeded in getting pregnant or no longer desires to keep them, is extremely problematic. It is within the jurisdiction of the state to promote the good of families and restrain the evil of treating these human beings as disposable or simply a means to an end.

The selective reduction of embryos based on the chances of implantation or pregnancy to term clearly violates human dignity and the guidance from Scripture. Though it does not necessarily occur in the womb, the willful destruction of fertilized embryos conducted in the typical practice of IVF is not theologically different from abortion procedures.

Christians should also weigh whether the practice itself violates certain theological principles. Namely, the question of severing procreation from the sexual union, and the anthropological question of “making” children as commodities rather than “begetting” them as gifts from God.3Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? Human Procreation and Medical Technique (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Christians must take seriously the teleological and biological orientation of sexuality and reproduction. While procreation is not the only good of sexual union (among which we might include intimacy, companionship, relational restoration, pleasure, etc.), it is clear that the sexual union of one man and one woman is teleologically oriented toward procreation. When God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, that command entailed the possibility that it could be fulfilled, namely through the sexual union of the couple. Protestant denominations have typically been less prone than Catholics to keep necessarily unified sexual act and procreation. Southern Baptists have never taken an official position on birth control, instead only condemning those forms of birth control that are abortifacient in nature.4In this schema, the categories of birth control would include the following: 1) No Birth Control; 2) Natural birth control (selective abstinence, rhythm method, natural family planning); 3) Non-abortive birth control (barrier methods such as condom or diaphragms, medicines such as spermicides, or permanent methods such as vasectomies and tubal ligations); 4) Possibly abortive birth control (Hormonal contraception); 5) Abortion. Protestants have generally agreed that the first three categories are acceptable for a couple, though some have questioned the moral good of permanent procedures. Protestants have generally argued that category 4 should be evaluated and Christians should avoid hormonal contraceptives that prevent implantation of the fertilized embryo because it is abortifacient in nature. But contraceptives that prevent fertilization whether by stopping the release of eggs or thickening of the mucosal lining over the cervix and preventing sperm from reaching the ovum do not run afoul of this prohibition. Category 5 is morally sinful.   However, it is theologically problematic to separate procreation from the sexual union of the man and woman in the marriage covenant.

Similarly, a discussion of the process of IVF creates a new way of thinking about children from previous generations. The term “test-tube baby” reflects this new reality in that the child was created not in the sexual union of mother and father, but from biological components brought together in a lab. Despite the trivial language referring to preborn human life, this does not diminish the humanity of the child, who as an image bearer holds equal status and dignity to all other people including children. The nature of the child’s “production” takes a natural process and treats the child as a product of mutual desire, rather than God’s gift. Thus, where desire is lacking or where desire is lacking to the degree needed for multiple embryos, they can be simply terminated or stored. The treatment of children as mere disposable commodities, possible only within a framework in which they are already devalued, is a natural outflow of a process that began by treating them as products to be manufactured rather than people that were begotten. 

On the basis of the above, Southern Baptists believe that Christians should in general oppose IVF because by its very nature it separates procreation from sex and treats children as products rather than people. Though we should be hesitant to call it sin, it is morally ambiguous enough to be problematic and should be discouraged as a matter of wisdom and prudence.

3. Is there a way to conduct IVF that minimizes our ethical concerns?

IVF practices which encourage couples to harvest and fertilize more eggs than they plan to implant, which leave frozen embryos in indefinite stasis, and which encourage selective reduction, should be discouraged. All of these violate the principles of human dignity and the image of God, particularly those that encourage abortion for implanted embryos. We would strongly support any reforms that would ban or limit these procedures and disincentivize the overproduction and destruction of embryos.

Though there are ways to avoid the most problematic ethical elements of IVF (the over creation and destruction of human embryos), Christians should also consider how their participation in the procedure could support and encourage the practice at a wider societal level, including by individuals who participate in the more problematic ethical practices. Christians are not directly responsible for the unethical actions of others, but they may bear culpability for how their actions support an inherently unethical practice. Because it is impossible to address all the fundamental theological concerns with IVF (namely it’s violation of the one-flesh sexual union), it would fall into this category. Again, while possible to remove the most egregious ethical concerns, it is impossible to carry out the procedure in such a way as to totally remove all moral concerns.

Though there may be ways to minimize some ethical concerns regarding the practice of IVF, it would be impossible to alleviate those concerns entirely and operate free from any moral concern.

4. How do we view those who have been created through IVF?

Ethical concerns about the procedure are not the same as ethical concerns about children born as a result of that procedure. In the same way that we oppose non-marital sexual unions as outside God’s good design for sexuality and marriage, we do not oppose the children born as a result of those unions. Children, no matter how they were conceived or even where they are located (in or outside the womb), are full image bearers of God and possess inherent dignity and worth. No discussion, debate, or decision on the ethics of IVF can or should ever diminish the value of children created through this process.

We also recognize that IVF may meet a very real need in the life of couples. The desire for children is a moral good and Godly desire. As rates of infertility rise and couples find pregnancy difficult, it is natural to seek medical help so as to restore, where possible, the capacity for children. 

The ethical concerns listed above (violation of one-flesh union and the treatment of children as products, not people) flow from our concerns about God’s design for human flourishing, not a desire to disparage children conceived by IVF. They arise from our desire to see all children treated with dignity and respect (which is why we oppose the destruction of fertilized embryos) and are related to our beliefs that parents have unique obligations to their children because of their biological relationship and that sexual intercourse is reserved for the marriage covenant.

5. What should be done with the roughly 600,000-1,000,000 already frozen embryos?

Because of the history of IVF and the nature of the large number of frozen embryos currently in stasis, any evaluation of policy measures should include language of ending their indefinite containment. Each fertilized embryo is a person made in the image of God. As a child, they deserve the chance to be implanted and born. 

We strongly support embryo adoption and believe policy steps should be taken to make it more affordable and accessible. There may be policy debates about how best to go about ending the practice of indefinite storage, and how best to encourage implantation in a humane and ethical manner for both mother and child. However, it is deeply morally problematic to leave the fate of over 600,000 children in limbo indefinitely. 

6. Though we generally do not think IVF should be practiced, are there ways it could be done more ethically?

We are strongly opposed to the introduction of a third party in the sexual union (i.e. donors of sperm or egg and especially surrogacy). At a theological level, the introduction of third parties confuses the biological relationship between parent and child (i.e. Is the mother the woman who donates the egg, the woman who carries the child to term, or the one who raises/cares for the child? Is each one the mother?). These questions are complicated by a patchwork of state laws that do not always coincide with one another. Though we do not want to see federal protections for the IVF and broader ART industries move forward, any legislation that does come about must consider how the industry might be regulated to protect vulnerable women from exploitation, especially younger less affluent women who may choose to harvest eggs or carry a pregnancy out of financial need.

This commodification of fertility is related to the same worldview/philosophy that routinely treats preborn children as mere products. Additionally, unless vulnerable women are protected, they may be placed in situations where the contractual obligations incentivize them toward payment rather than the best interest of themselves or the baby (i.e. A contract that pays a bonus for a full-term pregnancy could incentivize a woman to delay potentially life-saving treatment for herself or the baby involving early delivery if she needed the bonus). Like IVF, while there might be ways of doing surrogacy better, there is no way to do it which would alleviate the core issue of introducing a third party into the one-flesh union. 

Additional regulations that should be considered by any federal legislation would include not incentivizing the fertilization of more eggs than are implanted, prohibiting the destruction of non-implanted fertilized human embryos, and prohibiting the use of non-implanted embryos for scientific research. In addition to these regulations, any federal approach should also include robust support for infertile couples including health care coverage for true fertility treatments (IUI, testing, etc).

Also, expanding access to embryo donation registries and regulating privately held registries to make sure they have consistent care for human embryos cryogenic freezing, robust protocols for who has access to these cryogenic units, and standardized procedure for dethawing/preparation for donor implantation. These provisions should also encourage and lower the burdens for embryo adoption among couples seeking to conceive. Given the overwhelming amount of human embryos on current registries, we want to encourage couples to consider embryo adoption over the creation of additional embryos given that these lives have already been created. Our goal is to give these children already created through the ethical compromised process of IVF a chance at life. 

It should not cost more for a family to create life within ethical bounds or adopt embryos than it does to take life through abortion procedures. Whatever state and federal governments can do toward this reality would be welcomed.

7. What questions should be considered when defining terms like “infertility”?

Infertility is not defined simply as the inability to achieve pregnancy. The World Health Organization and American Medical Association define infertility as the inability to achieve a pregnancy after 12 months (or more) of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse.5https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/infertility; https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/ama-backs-global-health-experts-calling-infertility-disease; These organizations have recognized infertility as a disease of the reproductive organs of the male or female which may require treatment (i.e. obstruction of the vas deferens resulting in a dysfunction in the emission of semen, tubal disorders in women as a result of abortion procedures or untreated STIs, hormonal disorders for both men and women, etc.). Recognition as a true medical condition also brings encouragement for insurance carriers to provide coverage for treatment, even in the absence of specific diagnoses of underlying causes. 

Implicit in the definition offered by these medical organizations is the fact that childbearing is the natural result of heterosexual intercourse. The biological systems themselves are for procreation and when functioning properly should achieve pregnancy. Medicine therefore aims at restoring those abilities rather than intervening and circumventing the natural processes of procreation. Treatments for infertility which address the underlying causes of the infertility are to be commended as good and in line with medicine’s goal of restoring proper function to the body. Medical procedures for infertility which intervene to circumvent the body’s natural processes should be avoided unless medically necessary.

While the medical organizations’ definitions are biologically and theologically correct, it can be misapplied to certain situations. Implicit in the definition of the WHO and others is the capacity for procreation to occur. Thus, if there are no contravening factors, the natural processes should result (usually) in a pregnancy. The reproductive systems of males and females are oriented toward this end, and need one another to achieve it. 

However, the WHO definition recognizes as “infertile” a number of groups (same-sex partners, those not in sexual relationships, etc.) who would not be able to achieve a pregnancy even outside of true medical conditions. The sexual relationship of a same-sex couple (male or female) would meet the surface level definition offered by the medical organizations. It fails however to meet the implied capacity for procreation to occur. Infertility is therefore not just the inability to achieve pregnancy, but the inability to achieve pregnancy where the capacity to achieve pregnancy exists. Similarly, individuals not engaged in a sexual relationship are not engaging in the activity necessary for procreation. Thus, they are not actually infertile, even by the definition of the WHO.

Though we are not advocating for any federal legislation to define fertility, any federal legislation seeking to do so should recognize both the biological facts of a couple’s inability to conceive under the framework which accounts for their capacity to conceive. This will necessarily limit infertility discussions to heterosexual couples.

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