The Centers for Disease Control reports that there are an estimated 6.7 million women of childbearing age who are unable to have children. 10 to 16 percent of all couples cannot conceive. To overcome the pain and despair of infertility, science and medicine have collaborated to develop an array of Artificial Reproductive Technologies (ARTs). The most common and effective ART is In-vitro Fertilization (IVF), developed in 1978 in the UK.
Simply speaking, this procedure occurs when a doctor extracts eggs from a woman and mixes them with sperm in a petri dish to generate human embryos. The selected embryos are then transferred to the woman’s uterus in hopes that at least one will implant in the uterine lining, resulting in a pregnancy and birth of a baby. While we celebrate all children generated through IVF, just like every child conceived in a womb, we must consider some serious potential concerns with IVF.
Many Christians consider IVF an acceptable means to overcome infertility. Most also agree life begins “at the moment of conception,” when the union of the sperm and egg generate a new human embryo. Committed to protecting all human life from that moment, they are largely unaware that IVF carries great risk for the destruction of embryonic humans. Those who are truly committed to the principle that life begins at conception and that all human life, including embryonic, is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), will want to take a deeper look at IVF. Several facts about the procedure are especially worthy of consideration.
What most don’t know is that whenever an IVF procedure occurs, a doctor will generate more than just the desired number of embryos. This is where the moral problems begin, especially for Christians. Dr. Richard Scott, who runs a fertility clinic in Morristown, NJ, generates a minimum of 12 embryos, but usually only implants four, a number he considers more potentially successful.
But what happens to the extra embryos? They are frozen and most often forgotten. A recent estimate states that there are at least 600, 000 left over frozen embryos stored in fertility clinics across the country.
Several options are available to address these leftover embryos. The embryos can be thawed and implanted to give them a chance at life, either in the mother’s womb (the best option), or an adoptive mother’s womb. They can be turned over to labs where they will be destroyed and used for embryonic stem-cell research, or, as Scott says, can simply be discarded as “biohazard waste.” Trinity International University Ethics professor Dennis P. Hollinger states, “One of the most troublesome ethical aspects of IVF is the destruction or neglect (if frozen) of embryos,” and that such is “quite common.”
We often give little thought to the surplus embryos conceived through these technologies, but as Christians who believe that life begins at conception, we should consider the implications of this fact carefully. These hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos are our fellow humans, created in the image and likeness of God, just like we are.
“The connection between in vitro fertilization and the voluntary destruction of human embryos occurs too often. This is significant: Through these procedures, with apparently contrary purposes, life and death are subjected to the decision of man, who thus sets himself up as the giver of life and death by decree,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith writes. To be the giver and taker of life created in God’s image is not our prerogative. We are in the image of God, but we do not possess His authority over life and death (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 1:21).
Would-be users of IVF, especially Christians, need to reflect deeply on these matters and ask hard questions like: Exactly how many embryos will there be after IVF? Of these, how many will be implanted and how many left over and frozen? Before implantation, how many will be “de-selected” because of genetic problems (which the couple will most likely never hear about)? Of the implanted ones, how many will die naturally due to low success rates inherent in the technology (even the highest success rates to date are 40% for women under the age of 35 and these rates drop drastically after that age)? What will become of the frozen embryos? Will they be destroyed in embryonic stem-cell research or donated to a single parent or a gay or lesbian couple? Will they be simply thrown out as “bio-hazard waste?”
Such questions are important. Good ethics involves not just answering questions, but raising them. Hopefully such questioning will cause us to pause. We should consider how precious human life is and be very careful how we go about generating it. Should these technologies be our solution to infertility, especially when they lead to so much destruction of human life? Should we, as believers, tolerate the blatant disrespect and degradation of these embryonic human beings?
Are there solutions? Perhaps one possibility is to freeze eggs and sperm instead of embryos, but this is another whole topic with its own ethical questions. Another alternative is to generate only the exact number of embryos to be implanted, thus 1-2. This would be safest, although admittedly not cost-effective and more likely not to result in pregnancy. Finally, there is the option of embryo adoptions. More people are doing this in our country. Just last year I had the privilege of counseling a couple through this process. Early in 2013, they adopted an embryo and during the Christmas season gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. We can counsel and encourage this kind of rescue mission in our churches.
Although we cannot agree on every point, as Christians we can at least agree that when excess embryos from IVF are frozen, they are placed in immediate danger and face a destiny that is uncertain. Their fate lies completely in the hands of human decision-makers who never were meant to possess such powers of life and death in the first place. Seeing that God sets forth principles to safeguard the life of those created in his likeness (Genesis 9:6, Exodus 20:13), shouldn’t we, those who profess to follow him, also provide for the safety of our embryonic neighbors, and love them as we love ourselves? It’s something to think about.
For documentation of this and other facts and statistics contained in this article, please contact Lori at Lori@reachoutcolumbia.com.
Will Honeycutt has been a professor of contemporary issues and apologetics at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, since 1995. He lives in Forest, VA, with his wife of 27 years and their adult daughter and is privileged to teach college-aged adults in his church. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Image courtesy: ©Thinkstock/zilli
Publication date: November 14, 2014