EMPTY ARMS - CRYING HEARTS
By Dave Stevens, MD
We had just finished prayer in the pastor’s study and were walking to the sanctuary where, having spent eleven years as a medical missionary in Africa, I was planning to preach a mission sermon. I changed my plan when the pastor said, “Some time I would like you to preach on an ethical topic. Frankly, I struggle to advise the many that come to me for counseling with infertility, contraception, end-of-life and other issues.” I did a quick message change!
Like this pastor, you probably have struggled to provide medically accurate and Biblically sound advice to your members with new issues cropping up almost every week. Yet, if they don’t get a scriptural based view of ethics from you, they are likely to base their decisions on secular media reports. In this column, I want to give you basic principles and point you to some understandable resources from experts you can trust. Let’s examine one issue this month.
Mary and John have been unable to have children after five years of marriage. They are planning to visit an infertility specialist, but first want your advice. What principles should you share?
Children are a gift and responsibility from God. Parents are entrusted with providing them love, nurture, training and protection. The family is formed as a man and woman make an exclusive marital commitment for love, companionship, intimacy and spiritual union. The inability to have children need not diminish the fullness of family.
Infertile couples may choose to adopt an embryo or child, an option that emulates God’s adoption of us as spiritual children. They may also seek reproductive technologies to assist them in having a family, but they must realize that not all technologies are permissible for Christians.
Three Biblical principles guide our decision-making. First, conception resulting from the union of a wife’s egg and her husband’s sperm is the biblical design. Second, individual human life begins at conception and God intends for us to protect it. God himself became a one-cell embryo through the divine conception of his son, Jesus, who sanctified all stages of human development. Third, God holds us morally responsible for our genetic offspring.
Applying these principles, it is acceptable for Christian couples to take medications to induce the development and release of the egg or to have surgical intervention to correct anatomic abnormalities hindering fertility. Artificial insemination using the husband’s sperm and in vitro fertilization using the husband’s sperm and wife’s egg with subsequent transfer of the embryos is permissible.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) must be undertaken with specific safeguards. In IVF, the woman is given large doses of hormones so as many as 10 to 15 eggs may be surgically harvested in one cycle. Presently, eggs cannot be preserved, so they are normally fertilized with sperm to create embryos. An IVF specialist will insert 2-3 embryos into the uterus and then freezes the remainder in liquid nitrogen to preserve them for later use. If one cycle is unsuccessful, two or three more embryos are thawed out for a second or subsequent attempts. If the woman becomes pregnant, she and her husband may save their embryos for five to seven years for later implantation to have more children.
Cryopreservation raises the possibility of embryo destruction if a couple completes their family or is unsuccessful after two or three IVF attempts. Since God hold us morally responsible for our genetic offspring and life begins at conception, couples starting IVF need to commit to only create the number of embryos that they are willing to implant or give up for adoption (see www.embryodonation.org for information on donating and adopting embryos). Donating them for scientific experimentation (stem cell research), destroying them or letting them die is not morally permissible.
Using donor eggs or donor sperm is problematic since it introduces a third party into the marriage relationship and confuses the God-ordained structure of the family.
Other reproductive technologies are inconsistent with God’s design for the family. They include selective abortion for fetus reduction in multiple pregnancies, surrogate mother procedures and methods of sex selection. Since life begins at conception, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, a form of eugenics, is unbiblical since some embryos are discarded. Human cloning results in many embryonic deaths and also raises many other moral issues.
A good resource for you and those you counsel is the “The Infertility Companion,” a book jointly published by Zondervan and CMDA. It is available at Christian book outlets or at www.cmda.org.
Though the science of reproductive technologies is complex and changing, the ethical and Biblical principles that guide us are unchanging. With over two million infertile couples in the U.S., some are sitting in your pews.