In Vitro & Stem Cells: An Unwitting Hypocrisy

I’ve been bothered — agitated — for some time about a very hypocritical situation in the American evangelical church.

A May 9, 2003 New York Times article said:

Fertility clinics in the United States have accumulated some 400,000 frozen human embryos, about twice the number estimated, since 1986 when the in vitro fertilization procedure began, the first official inventory has found.

The calculation is likely to influence the debate over human embryonic stem cells, which are derived from surplus embryos.

About the same time, my husband and I had given up on fertility treatments and were on the way to adopting our second child from China (the first came the natural way).  During the treatments, I attended a support group at my church for women in similar straits: wishing to be pregnant, but so far unable to.  Several women in the group had used in vitro as a fertility method.

It really bothered me.

For those of you who don’t know, the in vitro procedure involves removing eggs from the woman and a ton of sperm from the man, fertilizing the eggs in a test tube, and re-implanting some or all of the resulting embryos into the woman’s womb to develop for 9 months before birth. If not all of the embryos are implanted, the rest are frozen for later use.

The women in my fertility group didn’t seem to either know or consider the ethical issues surrounding in vitro.  As a consequence, many of these women became unwitting hypocrites, adding their embryos (their children!) to the freezers that embryonic stem cell scientists want to access.  We say “no embryonic stem cell research” while populating the freezers.

What bothered me more was that it seemed no one was advising otherwise.  Pastors weren’t educating their parisioners about in vitro, informing them of the ethical consequences, as far as I could tell.

I’ve talked to Focus on the Family (their ethics person and a board member), my pastor, my OB, a local clinic that helps folks adopt embryos, emailed folks involved in like issues, and I feel like I get nowhere.

So I am blogging.

If we Christians believe that abortion is wrong because we believe that an embryo is human, then serious ethical issues with in vitro arise:

  • These embryos, if not implanted and allowed to be born, will eventually die and will certainly never hear the gospel (and the Bible is definitely unclear about the eternal destiny of the unborn, so better to be safe than sorry).
  • If several embryos are implanted, there’s a very good chance that some of them will die or have birth defects due to “overcrowding” (by the way, this is true of any kind of fertiliy treatment if it leads to multiple conceptions — for example, “in the case of the McCaughey septuplets from Iowa, two of the seven were born with cerebral palsy.” -Monday January 8, 2007 CityNews.ca Staff. Who’s responsible for the deaths or birth defects resulting from any kind of fertility treatment?)
  • The jury is out whether the act of implanting or unfreezing the embryos causes damage and/or death
  • If a life is successfully conceived in the test tube, but implanted in an inhositable womb (often the cause of infertility) and it dies, who is responsible?

This is a plea for pastors to educate themselves and their congregations.

It’s a plea for Christian couples to reconsider in vitro.

It wasn’t until after I finished my 6 months of treatment that I thought about the overcrowding issue mentioned above (we stopped short of in vitro). Fortunately, I never conceived, and had I, the lackluster condition of my aged eggs suggests that I would have conceived twins at worse.

And if you have gone through fertility treatments or in vitro, please don’t heap guilt on yourself. I am not trying to do so. I didn’t even think of some of these consequences until after the fact. Who was there to tell me? And if you have frozen your embryos and can’t implant them all, you can give them up for adoption via many programs springing up around the US, including http://www.nightlight.org/snowflakefaqsap.htm

Oh, Lord: How often I have asked you what you want me to do about this. I’ve felt so alone and voiceless ever since I thought about these issues. I am sure the medical field is aware of the ethics here, but why isn’t the information reaching the pews? Is there more you want me to do than write this post, to be viewed by only dozens, if that? Please show me. Amen.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “In Vitro & Stem Cells: An Unwitting Hypocrisy

  1. Well…

    Most Protestant pastors don’t think about it.

    FYI….When Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in the US, most evangelicals were silent. The only church that had any cogent stand against it was the Roman Catholic church. The evangelicals got on the band-wagon in 1980, just in time for the Presidential election. The Republicans figured out how to clinch the Evangelical vote every time: become the party of family values — that’s a side bar, but an interesting one. It tells how little hard thinking the evangelical church has done on ethical issues.

    When it comes to ethical issues: sexual, reproductive, social and economic, you will find that the Roman Catholic Church has done lots of thinking and has come up with good materials.

    As you would guess, Lorraine, they are in agreement with your asessment about in vitro. 😉

    When it comes to most ethical issues, my default positon is that of Rome.

    Theoden

  2. This was one of the reasons we didn’t go that route, preferring the turkey baster method (IUF). Didn’t work for us.

    It is something most people never think about.

  3. A key thought that I’d like to comment on plus a thought to add…

    “Pastors weren’t telling their parishioners to stop in vitro”
    I can only wonder if pastors/spiritual leaders had told women about the ethical implications & demanded or advised women to not participate in in vitro practices or procedures; if on the table for debate today, we’d be having discussion about how the “church” is trying to control peoples lives, right down to who has kids, how they have kids, how many kids, etc. The point is that though we should look to our spiritual leaders for guidance, we have a responsibility as well to dig deeper for answers (yes,no,wait), by relying on the ultimate guide, the Holy Spirit.

    “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should”: I mean this as something to put on the table for us all to consider not to chastise women that have opted for in vitro. Where I’m going is this: Science has enabled man to accomplish many remarkable medical advances. As your post illustrates, the perceived benefit though at first seemed good , there are residual implications on a spiritual level, which trumps our personal desires. Had there not been a curiosity & the ensuing research to solve the “problem” of infertility, there might not be this ethical dilemma now. I realize that none of this provides a solution that results in child bearing for the Christian woman; suppose however; for the infertile Christian woman that God has other plans that involve more than being a biological mother.

    As for your fruitless efforts in talking with the local clinic, your pastor etc; perhaps it is a calling that you be the one to educate people. 🙂

    Grace and peace be with you my friend.

  4. roughly 70% of all natural pregnancies do not develop regularly and the embryo dies often at very early stage or later, mostly without people notice it. who is responsible for this?

    for me, an egg, which has conceived is a cell and not a human being. it makes not sense to confuse these things, and it it is not morally high standing to do so.

    but i do agree with you that in vitro fertilization poses many ethical problems, including higher risk of handicapped children and twins, or three or four emryos, some of which die early or late in pregnancy and lead to complications, which may endager the life of the embryo which is still alive.

    a life of a woman and of a man too, makes sense even if you do not have own children. there are many people out there whom you can help.

    i find this is a good and important post!

    Longing: I have no problem with frozen eggs. It’s when they combine with sperm to create an embryo that many Christians say life begins. If we say that this embryo is a human, then we need to look at the ethical implications of that position with regard to fertility practices. Yes, it’s true that 25% of pregnancies result in “spontaneous” abortion and I’d personally say God is responsible for those that happen naturally. Better him, than me!

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