On Surrogacy, IVF, Evangelicals Are Dropping the Ball Again

Pregnant woman with male doctor to woman abdomen in exam room to listen to heartbeat.

With assisted reproductive technologies (ART) accelerating at a dizzying pace, two procedures have gone from extraordinary interventions to routine workarounds for infertile couples, without evangelicals seeming to take much notice. Most see in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy (which is just IVF with a third party) as either harmless “treatments” for the inability to bear children, or as miraculous and beautiful gifts on the part of “surrogate mothers” and “donors.” That’s a shame, because there’s a convincing case to be made that theses practice amount to the exploitation of women, the creation of virtual orphans, the destruction of human lives, and commercial manufacture of children.

Before I offer my reasons for this bold condemnation, a history lesson is in order. Back in the 1960s and 70s when the legal debate over abortion was heating up, evangelical Protestants were, to put it as mildly as possible, AWOL. Writing at the Huffington Post a few years ago, Jonathan Dudley chronicled how the major leaders, publications, and organizations of American evangelicalism forty years ago either openly declared their support for legal abortion, or defended the permissibly of killing the unborn.

In 1968, just five years before Roe v. Wade, Christianity Today held a symposium of evangelical leaders to determine “the conservative or evangelical position within Protestantism” on “the control of human reproduction.” In their joint statement, they concluded that “the performance of an induced abortion” is necessary and permissible under certain circumstances, among which they listed “family welfare, and social responsibility.” “When principles conflict,” they continued, “the preservation of fetal life…may be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life.”

The Southern Baptist convention concurred, calling on members of the denomination in 1971 to “‘work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

In other words, forty-six years ago, the position of America’s largest evangelical and Protestant denomination on abortion, as well as that of America’s leading evangelical publication, was indistinguishable from that of the modern Democratic Party. Only Catholics at this point opposed abortion with any clarity. The vast majority of evangelicals were on board with this until Francis Schaeffer and a handful of others reminded them of the historic position of the Church.

And opposition to abortion was the historic position of the Church, both Protestant and Catholic. The early church fathers were far from silent on the question, condemning chemical and surgical abortions on various grounds, both biblical and philosophical. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament, calls abortion “murder”. Early councils, like the Synods of Elvira and Ancyra, imposed harsh penalties on those who procured abortions. Even Thomas Aquinas, whose ambiguous position on fetal ensoulment has caused confusion, never breathed a word against this consensus on abortion.

The Reformation, though dissenting dramatically from Rome on matters of salvation and ecclesiology, made no break with the established tradition on abortion. Martin Luther regarded it as a great evil and an affront to God when mothers “expel tender fetuses.” He also wrote with great pathos to a woman who’d suffered miscarriage, assuring her that her unborn child did not require baptism to be saved, which of course assumes its humanity. Similarly, in his commentary on Exodus, John Calvin writes, “The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being (homo), and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.” Other Reformed authors, like John Owen, made similar remarks.

The point here is to show that American evangelicals in the middle of the 20th century were profoundly out-of-step with Christians throughout history on the question of abortion. I show this because I want readers to realize that it’s not unreasonable to suggest those same evangelicals are inconsistent with Christian history when it comes to much newer bioethical issues like IVF and surrogacy. I find that doubly likely, given the attitude of Catholic ethicists (who got abortion right) to these emerging reproductive technologies.

Why are these procedures immoral? The case is straightforward. Paying a woman for the use of her uterus reduces the mother-baby bond to a commercial transaction. It deliberately severs a child from part of his biological origin, prompting (and the research for this is emerging) a lifetime of confusion and agony about who his parents really are. It says to a child, “it does not matter whose womb nourished and bore you, and you have no reasonable claim to even know that woman.” Very few seem to have given thought to how devastating that can be.

In philosophical terms, surrogacy is the use of human persons purely as means to fulfill commercial ends, rather than as ends in themselves. It purposely fractures the most basic and universal human relationship, and treats children as goods to be manufactured and purchased, rather than blessings to be received. It creates brokenness in order to fulfill the desires of adults.

In addition, surrogacy and IVF both nearly always involve conceiving and destroying or abandoning embryos, which are unique human individuals. Even non-destructive surrogacy and IVF increases the chances of implantation failure and/or miscarriage for each embryo.

Some have suggested that creating children in test tubes and then gestating them in a hired womb isn’t morally different from adoption. In both cases, they say, children are separated from their natural mothers and fathers and placed with unrelated families. But this comparison doesn’t work, for several reasons. First, you don’t buy a baby in adoption. You pay legal and processing fees. We may be inclined to sneer at this distinction, but it’s meaningful, morally, just as it’s meaningful morally whether you kill five innocents by accident when you bomb a terrorist headquarters or kill those innocents on purpose. Intent is relevant.

But there’s a much more important distinction between adoption and the baby-creating technologies so many evangelicals accept without question. Adoption is the remedying of a sin or tragedy that’s already taken place. It’s redemptive in nature. It replaces and repairs what has been broken–it takes orphans already made and turns them into sons and daughters. And to that extent, it mimics the action of God, Himself, in salvation. Surrogacy, on the other hand, is the equivalent of making orphans in order to adopt them. It creates brokenness to fulfill adult desires.

And make no mistake, conceiving a child and letting her gestate in a rented womb for nine months, establishing all the mysterious bonds mothers and children establish during that time, and then tearing them apart and demanding they never see one another again, is creating brokenness. No child should be forced to wonder whether her real mother is the woman who gave birth to her or the woman who gave her her nose.

Likewise IVF, though less problematic if the parents use their own sperm and eggs (as opposed to donor gametes) still typically results in discarded embryos, i.e., ending unique human lives. And even those rare parents who intend to bring all of their embryos to term have created lives which they cannot possibly promise a future (a healthy womb is never guaranteed).

In addition, both IVF and surrogacy often involve reductive abortions, sex-selection, and what can only be described as a form of embryonic eugenics (screening embryos for genetic defects before implanting them). Both technologies are also very frequently used by gay couples who, by nature, cannot conceive children, which brings up a whole new set of concerns.

As you can probably tell, the ethical problems with these assisted reproductive technologies are difficult to exhaust, and as with the abortion debate, Catholic theologians and philosophers have done an exemplary job of articulating them. Evangelicals, on the other hand, appear to have dropped the ball again, and if we want to avoid a similar about-face when the implications of these technologies become fully known, we need to take a closer look at the ways our culture is manipulating human life, rather than blindly accepting them.

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