In vitro fertilization, Southern Baptists, and moral relativism

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In vitro fertilization, Southern Baptists, and moral relativism

June 17, 2024 -

Glass hearts in a test tube. By adragan/

Glass hearts in a test tube. By adragan/

Glass hearts in a test tube. By adragan/

Some stories in the news appeal only to a certain percentage of us. Stereophonic’s win for best play in last night’s Tony Awards is relevant to you if you happen to follow the American theater. Bryson DeChambeau’s dramatic victory yesterday in the US Open is primarily interesting to golf fans like me. The Hajj pilgrimage that began Friday is obviously a Muslim event.

The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) typically falls into the same category. While the SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in America, its membership comprises less than 4 percent of America’s population. And “resolutions” adopted at its annual meetings, since they have no binding authority on any Southern Baptist church, institution, or member, typically are even less newsworthy to the larger culture.

But such was not the case last week in Indianapolis, where “messengers” (the SBC’s term for those who vote at the annual meeting) adopted a resolution on in vitro fertilization (IVF). The vote was widely understood to “condemn” or “oppose” the practice, which combines eggs and sperm in a laboratory to produce embryos.

Full disclosure: I became a Christian in a church affiliated with the SBC, earned two graduate degrees from a Southern Baptist seminary, taught philosophy of religion on that seminary’s faculty, and pastored three churches connected in various ways to the SBC.

However, my purpose today is not to speak to or for Southern Baptists, but rather to explain the issues related to the SBC’s IVF resolution as they relate to those interested in the subject, some of whom are dealing personally with the pain of infertility. I will then offer biblical reflections on the larger cultural context of this debate.

Three positions on IVF

In my website paper on this subject, I explain IVF in detail, including its history, five procedural options, and various ethical issues. With regard to today’s discussion, three positions are typically supported by Christian ethicists today.

One: Some believe that any method of procuring sperm and egg apart from the natural sex act is immoral and therefore oppose IVF altogether.

Two: Some believe that life begins at fertilization—the moment when the egg and sperm are united. If this is the case, IVF is appropriate with these caveats: an embryo created in a laboratory should not be used for scientific experiments, its genetic material should not be harvested, and it should be implanted in the mother’s womb as if it had been created there.

In this view, an embryo created through IVF is a human being.

Three: Some believe life begins at implantation—that moment when the fertilized egg is implanted in the uterine wall, typically six to twelve days after fertilization. If this is the case, an embryo created in a laboratory is not yet a person. It would thus be ethical to produce numerous embryos through IVF, test them for viability and various genetic conditions (a process known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis), implant the most viable embryos, and freeze or discard those that will not be implanted or even use them for medical or scientific purposes.

In this view, an embryo created through IVF is akin to a human organ which can be transplanted or not as is medically appropriate. This is the way IVF is typically practiced, producing as many as 1.5 million embryos now in cryogenic freezers throughout the US.

How I counsel couples facing infertility

Most media coverage claimed that the IVF resolution adopted at last week’s SBC meeting condemns IVF in its entirety. However, it actually called on Southern Baptists to “reaffirm the unconditional value and right to life of every human being, including those in an embryonic stage, and to only utilize reproductive technologies consistent with that affirmation.”

As Baptist Press, the official news organization of the SBC, later reported, this resolution “does not call for an end to IVF treatment, as some have wrongly concluded.” Rather, it encourages the use of reproductive technologies that honor “embryonic human life,” a signal that the authors believe life to begin at fertilization.

As my paper explains, I agree with their assertion, offering five reasons for my position. As I have counseled couples experiencing the tremendous pain of infertility, I therefore believe IVF is appropriate so long as every embryo created through this procedure is then implanted in the mother’s womb. If additional embryos are created and frozen, they must eventually be implanted in the mother’s womb or adopted by others who implant them.

In my view, embryos produced through IVF are human beings, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by the Lord (Psalm 139:14).

“Blessed are the people whose God is the Lᴏʀᴅ!”

There is a massive cultural issue behind this debate with which we will conclude today.

We can interpret God’s word through the prism of personal opinion and pragmatic outcomes, or we can interpret personal opinion and pragmatic outcomes through the prism of God’s word. I encourage you to choose the latter, always.

Viable pregnancy can be more likely through IVF if multiple embryos are produced and tested for viability, then those not selected are frozen or discarded. If, however, you agree with me that each embryo thus created is a human, we will refuse such pragmatism. Imagine birthing babies to be used for “spare parts” or as “backups.” In my view, unused embryos are the same. I take my position because I believe it most fully aligns with the biblical declaration that life is sacred from the moment it is created.

Whatever your position on this issue, I encourage you to choose it because you understand it to be the most biblical position you can take. The Lord counsels his people to refuse popular culture in which “everyone [is] doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8). Rather, we are to obey his word “all the days that you live on the earth” (v. 1) and give him our “finest” service (v. 11) to experience his joy (v. 12).

Here’s the bottom line, according to God:

“Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).

Such holistic obedience is for his glory and for our good, as David reminds us: “Blessed are the people whose God is the Lᴏʀᴅ!” (Psalm 144:15).

How “blessed” will you be today?

Monday news to know:

*Denison Forum does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in these stories.

Quote for the day:

“As a nation, we must choose between the sanctity of life ethic and the quality of life ethic.” —Ronald Reagan

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