Ethical uncertainty

A few days ago I sensed that the students in my medical ethics class left feeling frustrated. We had been talking about whether it was ethically permissible from a Christian worldview to use in vitro fertilization for treatment of infertility. We agreed that the creation of excess embryos that would not be implanted was not permissible and that there were serious concerns about conceiving a child by the use of donor eggs or sperm and by the use of a surrogate mother. We had difficulty agreeing on whether IVF itself without any of those things was permissible.

We could see that some people would see IVF as a reasonable way to treat the problem of infertility and find it permissible as long of the other things we had concerns about were avoided. We also saw how others would see that there were things inherent to IVF that would make them think that it was not permissible. Those things included the separation of conception from the natural expression of love in a marriage, the instrumentalization of the body, treating the making of a child like a manufacturing project, and destruction of embryos in the development of the process of IVF and by those who practice IVF even if not done in this specific instance. The question was whether those things were significant enough to override the good of having a child.

We were not able to resolve this. That left the students feeling uncomfortable.

For many of the things that we face in life it is clear what is right. Our biggest problem is actually doing what we know to be right. But there are some times when it is not so clear what is right. Even Christian ethicists whom we respect may not agree on some issues. Learning how to deal with uncertainty is a difficult thing to do. It takes a fairly high level of maturity to learn how to make the best choices we can and trust God to help us find our way when things are uncertain. Life is not always clear. I hope that one of the things my students can learn is that we can trust God even when it is difficult to see clearly what the right choice is in a specific situation.

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Jon Holmlund, M.D.

See also my comment on Steve’s post for this week. One possible stance w/r/t IVF wihtin marriage is what I take Brent Waters’s position to be: “permissible but not commendable” was the phrase he used when I asked him about it. He, of course, takes the line that procreation is about preparing to receive a gift, not about contracting out a project. That, in turn, is a reminder that our reflection should be based more on metaphysics than just on “principles.” Personally, though it’s hard, I cannot escape the conclusion that IVF is a practice of which we in the… Read more »