Infertility affects 1in7 couples in the UK . After pregnancy infertility is one of the reasons why women most commonly visit their GP. Many of these couples will seek some form of treatment for their infertility. How is a Christian to respond to infertility? What are the ethics of IVF? Are all treatments equally valid? What about where there is third party involvement (e.g. surrogacy or sperm donation)? Should we seek to have children by any and every means?
But there is also the community side of infertility, how do churches care for those struggling with infertility? What do we say to those struggling with these issue, are there do’s and don’ts?
In this article we are going to explore some of those issues, it is no sense designed to be exhaustive but it will hopeful get us thinking. But before we begin on the subject proper it is worth standing back and thinking about how we reach ethical decisions. There are a number of ways people determine their ethical approach; gut feeling – it feels right, emotional response – it makes me feel good, conscience – But I don’t feel guilty therefore…, consensus – It’s what most people do, consequential – It gives the best outcome, authority – it’s what so and so says, reason – its logical, and relativism – there is no right and wrong just individuals. We all have these somewhere in our thinking, but as Christians the challenge is to think Christianly about these things!
Romans 12:1-2 tells us that we need transformed minds so we aren’t conformed to the world’s way of thinking making decisions based on the above. Instead the believer is to have a transformed mind, so that they know what God’s will is. Thinking Christianly means thinking God’s thoughts after him.
There are 2 key questions to ask: 1. What would God have me do? 2. How would he have me do it? The answer to these is found in the Bible.
Basic building blocks
How we think of the world is key, the Bible reminds us of 4 key things which will affect our thinking:
Creation: the world was perfect, man was in God’s image
Fall: the world we live in bears the consequences of rebellion, this affects everything in it and throws up the ethical dilemma and affects our ability to make moral choices
Redemption: Jesus Christ comes to redeem us from sin, and calls us to repent and follow him.
2nd Coming: We are to live in the light of eternity, judgement and new creation.
A principled approach
There is a danger of looking for proof texts in the Bible, instead we are better to look for a rounded biblical approach, what does the whole bible reveal about this issue and God’s view of it?
However, the Bible is not searchable by index on these issues instead we need to look for the enduring principles. “Theology and ethics are inseparable in the Bible. You cannot understand how and why Israelites or Christians lived as they did until you see how and why they believed as they did.” C Wright
Fundamental to all Christian ethics is the summary of the law which Jesus gives us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Ethical decisions cannot be viewed coldly and dispassionately, each decision is an opportunity to reveal our love for God and for those in the situation.
So back to IVF.
Beginning at the beginning
In Genesis we clearly see that God gives to Adam and Eve a command to fill the earth and subdue it “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” . However with the fall the fertility and security that have been features of God’s good world governed according to his word come to an end.
Infertility is one of the many frustrations which result from the fall about which we read in the Bible. Key characters like Abraham and Sarah experience infertility and we see the heartbreak and pain that go with it in characters such as Hannah . Infertility is something that is a cause of great heartache and grief and if the bible is honest and open about it so ought we to be. In the Bible God overcomes infertility in the two cases mentioned above, part of the overcoming now rests in the hands of medicine.
The Bible commends having children but at the same time does not say that you are somehow incomplete without them. And as people and churches we want to reflect this teaching in the way we react to and speak about it.
Infertility is the result of sin and living in a broken world and it is immensely painful for those involved.
So what about IVF?
The difficulty here is that there are no exact passages that deal with such a process. So where do we turn?
Firstly we need to discern what issues IVF raises.
When is a baby a baby? The Bible is clear that at the moment of conception life begins . In IVF hormones are given to induce over ovulation so lots of eggs can be harvested, as many of these eggs will be fertilised as possible, from these it is hoped to have a large selection of embryos from which to select the most robust to implant. Each of those embryos is a life.
However here other issues arise:
How many eggs do you have fertilised? Often only one will be implanted at a time, others will be frozen with an 85% survival rate, for implantation later if required/desired. Is freezing ethically OK?
What about ‘abnormal embryos’? If an egg fertilises abnormally or is deemed to be weak (cell division hasn’t reached 50%) often clinics will suggest such embryo’s are discarded. With a biblical view on when life begins such things are unconscionable.
There are other issues which we do not have space to examine or even begin thinking about: what about sperm or egg donation? What about surrogacy?
IVF is a very difficult process for those embarking on it. So how should the church community support couples looking at the process.
Understand their suffering – to have a longing to have children and be unable to fulfil it brings with it all sorts of complex feelings and reactions; guilt, blame, and inadequacy to mention a few. However for some it throws up other question; why? Why hasn’t God answered my prayers? Understanding this will enable us to love and support couples as they go through this painful trial.
Things not to say – ‘You shouldn’t question God!’, ‘ I’m sure God will give you children in his time.’ ‘ I know someone who...’ ‘Just don’t think about it...’ There are lots of other things that are said in a well meaning way but which fail to recognise the struggle or the pain involved.
What to say – Listen and empathise, listening is underrated and therefore underemployed. Infertility is not something we can solve or fix but we can listen to those suffering. Treat the individual(s) as whole people, they are not defined by their infertility. Pray for and with the person – pray that they would trust God, that he would be very real to them, pray for contentment. Be sensitive and helpful about when and where you spend time with them.