Forty years ago, the world heard about Louise Brown, the first “test-tube baby,” born by what was then a new “reproductive technology” called In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Fast forward to today, and most families and communities personally know someone who has participated in IVF.
The rise and widespread practice of IVF—from Louise Brown to today—happened with relatively little discussion when compared to other issues. Yet it brings with it a whole host of ethical dilemmas and even some unintended consequences.
Consider a consequence being seen in the U.K., where according to a BBC report, the IVF rate is up while the adoption rate is down. To be specific, “In the last 40 years since the first ‘test-tube baby’ was born, adoptions in England and Wales have fallen by 62 percent. Meanwhile, IVF success rates for women under 35 have nearly tripled.”
What we see in our neighbors across the pond has implications for us in the United States, which can cause Christians to pause and reflect.
When dealing with hot topics like IVF, we must remember this is connected to couples, real women and men, who are experiencing the anguish of infertility. The infertility struggle can be devastating, affecting an estimated 10 percent of the population.
Thankfully, we serve a God who cares and sees the suffering of those who are infertile. In reading the Scriptures, we see that infertility is a topic that God cares about. Because we believe every life is sacred, we give thanks for everyone helped through infertility. Further, we give thanks for every child who has been conceived through IVF, knowing they are made in the image of God and have infinite worth and value (Gen. 1:27).
When issues surrounding infertility come up, it can be difficult for Christians to navigate. That is why I am thankful there are resources to help us, like a helpful new book, written by an Oklahoma Baptist University ethics professor Matthew Arbo. His book, Walking through Infertility: Biblical, Theological, and Moral Counsel for Those Who Are Struggling, is an ethics primer but also a pastoral guide.
Arbo’s book offers comfort and compassion for all those who struggle with infertility, providing hope and help on key issues ranging from adoption to IVF, foster care to medical treatments.
Regarding IVF, Arbo said in a recent interview, “There are a couple things I say in the book. One is for couples who are thinking about (IVF), then one for that couple that has already and who face other kinds of questions about what to do… It is important to realize that it isn’t a treatment; it is an option. We’re not treating the person; we are externalizing reproductive matter.
“There are some theological concerns about the disconnect between procreation and the sexual act between a man and a woman in a marriage covenant. It was the way it was designed by God. Although it is understandable why a couple might want to have a child of their own, it would be a mistake to pursue that course when the means of achieving it are questionable. There also is a back story to IVF. It required clinical research to refine its techniques. In refining those techniques, there was a destruction of hundreds of thousands of embryos, and that was an acceptance of the practice in order to refine the techniques of IVF.
“Another concern is enhanced risk. Any couple that procreates naturally accepts that. There are risks in that we don’t know. But with IVF there is an acceptance of an enhanced risk, with all the moving parts and the storage and personnel.
“Then lastly is the concern about unintended consequences. We don’t know sometimes what will happen. A couple could decide to have six or seven eggs fertilized in a clinic and have them stored and have a few children through that measure, then conceive naturally. They then have embryos still frozen, and they don’t know if they want to still have those children. That is an example of an unintended consequence. You can avoid that by not pursuing IVF. I have tried to do this in the right sort of tone and give a proper moral assessment. That is why I say I caution against (IVF).”
Today, as we mark the 40th anniversary of Louise Brown, let’s thank God for her life and for every single person conceived through IVF, as well as for every couple helped through infertility.
Meanwhile, we can take time to reflect further about the ethics and consequences of this reproductive technology that, four decades ago surprised the world and that is still with us every day.