Thursday, October 27, 2011

Some reflections on Assisted Reproductive Technology

I had a really great evening at the Moore College Centre for Christian Living on Monday night, lots of thought provoking stuff which I just posted about here. I strongly encourage you to read that post first to put these thoughts in context.

Some random thoughts:
My personal conviction is that Christian couples should all discuss ART during pre-marital counselling. These decisions need to be made before they become an issue, and not in the emotion of the situation.

It is too simplistic for people to say, "I'm against IVF". It does not reflect a Christian understanding of intervention which seeks to minimise suffering and pain, not as an absolute, but as an expression of God giving us knowledge and understanding of his created world, and as a reflection of the hope of things being put right when Jesus returns. In its simplest form IVF is the combining of a single egg and single sperm brought together outside the body ('in vitro' is literally 'in glass' or 'in a test tube') and then transferred back. It is the bypassing of the fallopian tubes. We have heart bypasses, we have fallopian tube bypasses.

Often driving an aversion to all ART is that unnatural is wrong. But what is unnatural? It is unnatural to put a broken arm in a cast as that is providing an external support. But it is also unnatural to have a radius and ulna which aren't straight. In a very basic sense, ART is in the same category as fixing a broken arm, or dentistry. Sure, there is more to it, but the theological understanding driving all forms of medical intervention is the same. Though, clearly ART is different in that it involves human life.

People seem to forget that God is in control of all of life. There is no guarantees that ART will produce children. The success rate is still very small, but God is just as involved in the science lab as in the bedroom. This will affect how Christians go about ART, not if they will. Some forms of assistance have very few moral issues. Furthermore, a couple will only fall pregnant if God chooses for it to occur. An infertile couple will not have children at any cost, but children to the glory of God.

A recent objection I have come across with ART is its history of development. Embryos have, and continue to be destroyed as part of the research and development in the field. Is a Christian using some forms of ART implicitly condoning and supporting these ungodly actions by paying for their services, even if they follow a biblical approach (as outlined in the previous post), in good conscience? This is a hard one, and I would want to offer a few things in response.
1. God has put us in a world where right and wrong are often not black and white, but shades of grey. The history of many medicines and especially vaccinations has involved testing (oftentimes bad) on human subjects. Does this mean we shouldn't use the Rubella vaccine because it was originally created from a cell line of an aborted foetus? The history of development, though we wouldn't condone it, does not mean Christians are unable to receive the benefit of it.

2. But again, ART is a little different, for it is also the ongoing research which continues to trouble Christians, and which in theory, as infertile Christians use ART they are supporting this process. This again is a difficult issue. However, as Christian couples would not be supplying the embryos for research, their support is a byproduct of the cost of their treatment. The answer to these questions are complex. For the reality is that as our government pays for aspects of ART through Medicare, every taxpayer also contributes to the field. No doubt much of the money for research similarly comes from government grants. But I don't think we should stop paying our taxes.

3. It is really a deeper issue of supply as well. We need to make sure if we have an objection based on both
a. Supporting a flawed system, and
b. Having the profits of a business used for immoral purposes,
then we need to make sure we don't stop with ART. If we applied the same standards to our food and clothing of not being willing to financially enable people to continue to exploit other humans then we probably wouldn't own an iPhone or MacBook. We almost certainly wouldn't wear anything from Nike. We wouldn't eat any chocolate products (not just chocolate bars, but all chocolate) or drink any coffee (unless its fairtrade). My point isn't to excuse the use of ART if in using the treatment financial advantage is given which allows further morally corruptible research. But I'm saying the fact that we all wear clothing and eat food and use technology which often props up corrupt and exploitative practices shows that our ethical approach must be more nuanced. The morally neutral product is difficult to find. It might be that somehow ART research crosses a particular line for some people, but don't pretend it's some unique area where you are financing the 'killing of people' anymore than owning your iPhone does.

So I would hope at the least that any arrogant dismissal of using ART would be replaced with a humble acknowledgment that there is great complexity in the moral landscape God has placed modern day Christians in. However, as always we must reflect upon our ability to do good to our neighbour, even the unborn ones.

I'm really looking forward to reading Dr Megan Best's book when it is released. It has a clever title: 'Fearfully and wonderfully made'.


  1. Thanks so much for these posts Izaac, I like your line of thinking. In my experience, it is sometimes those who have not experienced infertility themselves that are very quick to write off IVF. I think it's too easy for those who have never experienced it to take the simplistic viewpoint, because they've never had to think about it themselves.
    The book sounds very interesting, I look forward to reading it as well. Thanks for the heads-up :)

  2. I am thankful to God for IVF. Many precious people I know came into the world through it.

  3. Yep Karen, I too have noticed people dismissing all ART prior to facing the issues personally.

    As I mentioned at the start of the post, I believe the best place to make these decisions is not in the emotion of facing it personally. The person who ignorantly dismisses ART, and then changes their mind because their circumstances change, is bound to feel some degree of guilt, even if their final position is more in line with the biblical one. It is difficult then to know whether 'the good' is being determined by what is right biblically, or merely being changed dependant upon the situation.

    These comments are not to say that ART is either right or wrong, merely that there is great benefit in removing the conversation from both naive dismissal and emotional approval.