New Directions in Assisted Reproduction: A Brave New World
Before long, giving birth will be similar to choosing fruit in a grocery store—you determine the best color, size, and make-up, and discard the unwanted. This would not be possible apart from new Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) and other trends that enable more invasive pre-natal testing.
ART, which has been employed for decades, includes all fertility treatments that involved an egg and a sperm. These procedures entail surgically removing an egg or several eggs from ovaries, fertilizing the egg with sperm in a laboratory, and then implanting the fertilized egg in a woman's body. The most common procedure is in vitro fertilization. According to the Center for Disease Control, about 1 percent of all infants born in the United States each year are conceived using ART. These technologies are often used to treat infertility and are growing in use for homosexual couples, single parents, and for those needing surrogates.
But a new trend allows for increased control over which embryos are actually implanted and which ones are destroyed. New Genetic Testing Technologies evaluate embryos for disease and the potential for chromosomal abnormalities before in vitro fertilization. Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine began developing this technology as an answer to couples who are carriers of genetic disease, such as cystic fibrosis.
"The main trend we are seeing is the introduction of genetic screening of embryos, where parents get to decide which are the preferred characteristics of their child, whether it be screening for a disease, or in some places for gender," she told me. "Sometimes the disease screened for may not have any chance to develop until the person is an adult. Then any embryos without the 'preferred characteristics,' even if they are completely normal, are discarded."
Best is a medical doctor based in Sydney, Australia. Along with her work as a doctor, she is trained in medical ethics and teaches at a local university and seminary. She is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Sydney and is working on a thesis on the spiritual needs of patients. She will be coming to the United States in April to lead a workshop on "New Directions in Assisted Reproduction: How Did We End Up Here?" at The Gospel Coalition National Conference.
Christians face many dilemmas, some more obvious than others, with new methods of reproduction. Best acknowledges that the Bible does not specifically address ART, so Christians must look instead at what the Bible does address—human life.
"Obviously the Bible is an ancient text, and there are no specific passages that mention anything like assisted reproduction. However, there are themes that help us understand the meaning of childbearing and our responsibilities as parents that can be applied to the use of ART," she explained. "Regarding the value of unborn human life we have the verses about man made in God's image (Gen. 1:26-27), wonderful passages about God's molding us in the womb such as Psalm 139, and recognition of the unborn Christ while in his mother's womb—Luke 1:41-44 for example."
Regarding our responsibilities as parents, Best says Christians must research what the Bible says about marriage, family, and commands given to mothers and fathers. She is concerned that "new technologies have been introduced that allow for the donation of eggs or sperm from another party if either the husband or wife has none. You no longer need to be married, or even have a partner, in many places to get access to these services. Surrogacy, where a different woman to the intended social mother carries the child, is increasing. So you see the number of 'parents' a child can have keeps increasing, when you consider genetic parents and surrogate parents as well as social parents."
To be sure, the desire for children is not inherently sinful. We Christians ought to celebrate childbirth, especially in Western countries where the rates have steeply declined. And the agony of infertility is excruciating for families no matter their beliefs. "We are torn between what is possible and what is permissible," Best says. "We need to think carefully about these issues as Christians living in a fallen world."
So how can you discern whether motives are good or bad? According to Best, the desire for control is a warning sign. We want to be able to control the outcome of our lives as well as the lives of our offspring. And the outcome we often seek is comfort.
"I think that at the heart of the issues raised by assisted reproduction is our desire to be in control of our lives, and that includes having children when we want them, who are normal and not overly needy so we can continue to live in comfort," Best says. "This is what our world teaches us to expect. But our God does not dispense with the vulnerable, even if they are inconvenient, but instead carries them close to his heart. So should we."
Anyone considering ART must carefully consider the potential consequences and dangers for both the mother and the also baby. Developing human beings, for one, face the danger of being discarded. Because the technology is still developing, we do not yet fully understand the dangers for women receiving the treatments as well as donating the eggs.
ART also puts Westerners in a position to exploit woman in developing countries. "Some developing countries now market ART in ways that exploit women with little income," Best says, "so that they make themselves available to donate eggs and act as surrogate mothers just for the money, at great risk to themselves, as rich Westerners go for cheaper options to treatment than they can get at home."
And as the use of these technologies continues to increase, so does the acceptance that makes it more difficult for Christians to express concerns.
"Regulation around the world of these technologies varies enormously," Best explains. "The United States is among the least regulated in the developed world. This makes it even harder for Christians to work out what is ethically okay and what is not. As more extreme practices are introduced, the less extreme ones can look relatively harmless."
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