IVF and respect for the dignity of human life

This past Thursday through Saturday I was at the CBHD summer conference which was focused on genetic and reproductive technologies. One of the sessions that I found most interesting was the final session on Saturday in which representatives of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions of the Christian church discussed how their traditions view reproductive technology with a focus on in vitro fertilization. The Roman Catholic representative expressed some of the reasons why the Roman Catholic Church takes the position that all use of IVF is impermissible because it violates things that they see as essential in how God designed human beings to come into existence within a marriage relationship. The Orthodox representative said that while some Orthodox churches such as the Roman Orthodox Church have taken a specific position on IVF, most Orthodox churches see the decision about whether to use IVF in the treatment of infertility as a decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis with the infertile couple seeking the guidance of their bishop or spiritual mentor. The Protestant representative made it clear that there is not one Protestant position and identified himself as coming from an evangelical Protestant viewpoint. He said that most who have that point of view are primarily concerned about the moral problems of such things as the use of third-party gametes, surrogacy, and the destruction of excess embryos. He stated that IVF would generally be considered permissible as a treatment for infertility as long as those more problematic things were avoided.

During the question-and-answer time the Protestant representative was given a question about whether the fact that the destruction of human embryos was a necessary part of the development of the technique for IVF made the use of IVF today morally problematic. His response was that moral concerns about how it technique was developed would not impact the decision to use that technique now since those things were all in the past. If the format had allowed I would have liked to have asked a follow-up question. It seems to me that those who did the embryo-destructive research to develop the technique of IVF did so with a lack of respect for the dignity and value of the life of human embryos and that the lack of respect for the dignity of human embryos has continued to be a characteristic of the practice of IVF. Those who perform the procedure treat human embryos as an object to be manipulated to obtain the desired objective of a successful pregnancy. They encourage infertile couples to produce multiple embryos to improve the efficiency of the process. In almost all cases they evaluate the microscopic appearance of the embryos to choose which embryo to implant, not based on the moral value of the each human embryo, but based on its likeliness to produce a successful pregnancy. For the most part they seem to have no concern that the production of multiple embryos to improve the efficiency of the process will result in many of those embryos losing their lives. The lack of respect for human life that was present in the development of the technique of IVF has persisted in the way that human embryos are treated by those who practice the technique today.

One of the things that the representatives of all three Christian traditions agreed on is that we have more areas of agreement in bioethics than we do areas of difference. The representatives from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical Protestant traditions all agreed on the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. This includes an understanding that human embryos are persons with high value because they have been created in the image of God. Is it morally wise for a Christian couple to put themselves and the lives of their children into the hands of those who do not show respect for the life of human embryos? Since I was the one who asked the question regarding the concern about the way in which IVF was developed, I wish I had found a way to put this broader question on the 3 x 5 card.

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Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund
4 years ago

One Protestant writer who I asked about IVF some years ago called it “[within limits as noted for Protestantism] morally acceptable but not commendable.” A useful shorthand?