The Christian View of IVF

The title is an intentional misnomer. There is no one Christian view of IVF, and there won’t be until Jesus returns. As a Christian and an IVF patient, I’ve had to navigate a LOT of rhetoric and conflicting viewpoints to establish my own beliefs about IVF. If you google the phrase “Christian view of IVF,” you will find a plethora of opinions that are loosely, if at all, based on the Bible. Most of the opinions are based on statistics and bad biology. I have been thinking for months about whether to share what I believe and how to share it in a way that would make sense and hopefully encourage some of you who may agree with the Pope’s position that IVF is a “grave evil” to dig a little deeper. I think the most sensical way is to organize this as a statement of common opinions followed by a rebuttal, so here goes, and be warned this is a lot longer than most of what I post.

Opinion: IVF is unacceptable because some embryos will be destroyed or will not survive the process, and any unused embryos may be frozen indefinitely or destroyed. The only thing these unused embryos need is nourishment to grow into full-term babies.

I thought I’d tackle the toughest one first, and I know this is the one point that will alienate more than a few personhood amendment followers. I believe that some form of life begins at conception; I do not believe human life can form until it is implanted in the uterus. I also believe that you cannot form an opinion about this without studying the biological as well as the biblical basis for this. If all an embryo needs is nourishment to become a full-term baby, then it would not necessarily need a womb; science can’t reproduce the effect that implantation has on an embryo. Obviously, that is a necessary step in creating human life beyond the cellular life form of an un-implanted embryo. Read very clearly here that I do not agree with abortion; once an embryo has been implanted, it should stay there. That’s a whole other topic, so that’s all I will say. The biblical basis for claiming that life begins at conception, end of story, is usually Psalm 139:13 that says, “You formed my inward parts and knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Other oft-quoted verses are Job 31:15, Psalm 22:9-10, Isaiah 44:2, and Isaiah 44:24, all of which describe a person being formed in the womb. I don’t disagree that life begins in the womb, and you’ll have a tough time proving anything more specific than that with the Bible. As eternal beings, conception as the beginning point of human life might also be an arbitrary biological point on the timeline; Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139:16 both speak of being known by God as a person before any biological beginning – “before I formed you in your mother’s womb” and “every moment was laid out before a single day had passed” both imply that we are eternal beings that God created and knows intimately, both before and after our earthly life span. I realize that this may seem inconsistent with the thought that biological human life begins at implantation, but, then again, this view makes conception just as arbitrary a point for creating laws and moral codes to protect unborn children.
As far as the embryos that don’t survive, here is the biological fact to consider: this happens all the time in nature. I don’t know if there is data with an approximate number, but over the reproductive lifespan of a married woman, there are easily dozens of eggs that become fertilized but do not for some reason implant. When that happens, the woman’s body doesn’t respond to the fertilized egg/embryo as a pregnancy. The embryo is wasted in the menstrual cycle. No one bewails the loss of these embryos because no one ever knew of their existence. The embryos that don’t survive IVF are representative of that many naturally wasted embryos. A woman is born with a certain number of eggs and no more. The only difference in those eggs becoming naturally occurring embryo losses over a time span of months and those embryos being lost via IVF procedure is that more eggs are fertilized at one time and we can know exactly how many there were. If three embryos are lost in IVF, it represents three failed months of attempting pregnancy without intervention and three embryos that would not have survived in the womb had they been traditionally conceived. As for the embryos that are not used, every couple has to decide what to do based on their situation and beliefs. I personally find that freezing them for an indefinite period is wrong. If you view those embryos as human lives, and you leave them on ice forever, how is that different from leaving a loved one on life support in a brain-dead state until they die of old age or opportunistic disease? Where most Christians would not have any moral objection to the termination of extreme life support or to DNR orders, many are content to leave embryos frozen interminably so they don’t have to confront the problem of what to do with them.

Opinion: IVF is unacceptable because it only has a 20% success rate; no one should willingly risk the life of a child with those odds.

This statistical argument angers me on many levels. According to this line of thought, I should be sterilized since I have a less than 10% chance of a successful outcome without intervention solely based on the number of miscarriages we’ve had. For me to get pregnant naturally or otherwise would be child endangerment. Of course, the problem with this argument is that it doesn’t take a rational view of any other statistics, like those surrounding miscarriage. It is estimated that 20% of all diagnosed pregnancies end in miscarriage and perhaps as many as 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage when very early unknown pregnancies are included (this stat came from the March of Dimes, but you’ll see it a lot if you research miscarriage very much). If a naturally occurring pregnancy has a 1 in 5 chance of failing, possibly even as high as a 1 in 2 chance of failing, why aren’t we berating all women for getting pregnant and risking these innocent lives? Again, we’re willing to assume some risk and loss in nature but not from science.

Opinion: IVF is tantamount to cloning, gene manipulation and genetic selection.

I have seen more than one opinion piece claim that couples can choose the gender of the eggs that are implanted, and we are only days away from genetic screening that would allow couples to choose more desirable traits and not transfer the embryos that may have less desirable qualities. Maybe there are labs that do this. Our doctor has yet to offer or guarantee that we could choose the gender of the embryos we transfer, and the genetic testing to make this guarantee risks damaging the embryo, which I’d guess is why our doctor hasn’t even mentioned this option. There is a bit of selection that occurs before transfer: every doctor I’ve ever heard of chooses the strongest looking, most well developed embryos for transfer to have the best chance of those embryos being able to implant themselves once they make it to the womb. Couples are generally screened for genetic abnormalities that could cause life endangering genetic birth defects for which their offspring might be at risk before any doctor will proceed with IVF. That allows doctors to know if there’s a genetic reason for recurrent miscarriages or infertility, and it allows couples to choose whether or not to proceed if they could pass on a risky gene, all without creating embryos to test. I’m sure that there are and will be doctors in the future who will manipulate the genetics. I do agree that this practice is wrong, and as a patient the only way to avoid this and ensure that you are not supporting doctors who encourage genetic manipulation is to do your homework before you choose a doctor and to report any abuses you see. I’m not sure how and where to draw all the lines, and the ethics of cloning and gene manipulation have been hotly debated in the scientific community for decades.

Opinion: Couples who choose IVF are “tinkering” with God’s work in the process of having children. Maybe these unnaturally conceived children were never meant to be born.

I invite anyone who holds this opinion to reevaluate their use of modern medical procedures and then come back to the discussion. We accept medical tinkering all the time in the form of medicine, surgery, respirators… The list is longer than ever before in history. If you have no problem with organ transplants or pacemakers or insulin pumps, I think your logic is inconsistent if you disagree with infertility treatments on “tinkering” grounds. And you’ve also limited God by stating that children conceived through infertility treatments were never meant to be born. Either God is all-powerful or he’s not. Do you really think God would allow the birth of a child he couldn’t love or use to glorify him? I suppose this opens the free will versus predestination argument, but I don’t think it’s a terribly important topic for anyone to spend a lot of time on. Either God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, or he’s not. End of discussion. 😉

Opinion: Perhaps infertility issues are a sign from God that the couple should adopt. There is too much emphasis placed on having biological children, especially when there are so many orphans who need homes.

Malarky. I would no more try to tell someone, friend or stranger, that their present difficulties were a sign from God unless God directly told me to. We don’t go around telling cancer patients that breast cancer is a sign from God to eat more broccoli and never miss a screening test. God certainly sends us signs, but there is no biblical basis for telling anyone that God is telling them to adopt just because they are dealing with infertility. The most often quoted passages about being patient through infertility are about Sarah and Isaac (read Genesis) and about Hannah and Elkanah (read Samuel) and neither passage speaks of either couple adopting as a means of fulfilling God’s promise to give them children. Sarah took matters into her own hands as her future granddaughters-in-law would also do, and Hannah waited for God to intervene on her behalf, but both gave birth to their promised children. God does give us signs, and sometimes he uses other people to show them to us, but resist judging the signs you think you see in someone else’s life unless you feel God leading you to point them out. You have no idea what God has put into the hearts of a couple struggling with infertility, and we’ve usually considered and prayed about every option you’re going to throw in our faces. If you’re still sure that we as a society are placing too much emphasis on biological children, consider this verse in the New Testament: “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” 1 Timothy 2:15. I have yet to hear a decent answer about why this verse is even in the Bible if we are all saved through faith. As a Christian woman, how am I supposed to interpret this in my life? Do eight (now nine, actually) consecutive miscarriages imply that I am not able to be saved? Personally, I find this verse extremely difficult to live with because it only speaks judgment to me. Men tend to skip this one because it doesn’t really apply to them, and they can’t understand the female perspective of this idea. Trust me men, there are a lot of hurdles presented to women in this single sentence, the least of which is a direct emphasis on biological children.

Opinion: IVF is an expensive procedure, and the couple would be better off not wasting their money on something that may or may not work; they should spend that money on adoption since it’s a sure thing.

IVF is expensive, but adoption costs just as much or more unless you manage a private adoption that doesn’t require any agency assistance. Since most adoptions go through an agency, most adoptions cost more than IVF. Some couples have insurance coverage for IVF and other infertility treatments, reducing their cost. And adoption may be more of a sure thing statistically than IVF, but it is not a guaranteed sure thing. All of us must be good stewards of the money God entrusts us with, so all of us have to make these decisions based on our financial status. We all have to make responsible decisions, and I agree that it is irresponsible to spend so much on IVF or any other infertility treatment that you have nothing left or are facing extreme debt. We’ll be facing a decision point soon about whether to begin the adoption process or whether to give IVF one more shot. No matter what we do, we have to make sure that our financial house is in order before proceeding.

The bottom line is this: we are all human, and none of us has a complete grasp on the will of God at every moment; we pray, and we seek counsel, and we make the best decision we can based on the direction we think God is leading us. If you think that anyone, especially a Christian, lightly makes the decision to try IVF, you’d better keep thinking. If you as a Christian feel that IVF is morally wrong, then you should not ever under any circumstances do it. If you feel that God is leading you in any direction, you’d better follow, whether it’s IVF or serving the homeless or sharing your faith with strangers. Go where God has prepared for you to go, and you’ll be walking in the right direction. Don’t go, or run the other way, and God will bring you back (maybe in the belly of a giant fish…) to where he wants you to be. In the meantime, if you feel tempted to tell someone going through IVF that they are a murderer or perpetrating a great evil, stop. This tactic will not work unless you are a proven and inerrant prophet. If you really feel led to confront someone, you should speak from love and not the hateful words that fill out so much of the rhetoric surrounding IVF and other fertility treatments. And, if you feel that you should confront me, tread lightly and lovingly; I have had lots of time to pray about what I believe and about our current course of action, and my b.s. rhetoric meter is pretty sensitive.

My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. (1 Corinthians 4:4 NLT)