Why the Southern Baptists said no to IVF

Public debates about IVF and advanced reproductive technology aren’t new.
Public debates about IVF and advanced reproductive technology aren’t new.

Summary

A resolution affirms the moral goodness of new life, but not of all means to achieve it.

The Southern Baptist Convention—whose nearly 13 million members make it the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.—is often described as a “barometer" for evangelical sentiments nationwide. Yet last week the convention did something few Christian bodies have done: It adopted a resolution opposing the use of in vitro fertilization.

Public debates about IVF and advanced reproductive technology aren’t new. Yet when the practice emerged in the 1970s, religious institutions often viewed it as a medical marvel that would rarely be needed. Some, like the Catholic Church, developed teachings on the matter within years (in that case, that IVF is unacceptable). Others, like the Southern Baptists, needed to be prodded.

That catalyst finally came in February, when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in LePage v. Center for Reproductive Medicine that embryos—frozen in repositories or in utero—are legal persons under the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. The logic struck many as obvious and unobjectionable: Christians acknowledge that life, which begins at conception, is sacred and must be protected. Frozen embryos are no exception.

Many Southern Baptists were thus surprised when otherwise “pro-life" politicians dissented from the court’s decision. Perhaps most prominent among them was Donald Trump, who urged the Alabama Legislature “to act quickly to find an immediate solution to preserve the availability of IVF." Within days it did so by significant margins, providing blanket immunity to clinics from any civil or criminal liability related to the death or damage of a human embryo. The tension revealed the need for Christians to rethink the issue.

All Christians affirm the moral goodness of procreation. Protestants of a conservative or evangelical persuasion profess that every human being is made in God’s image and ought to be welcomed without reservation. The SBC resolution states that “all children are a gift from the Lord regardless of the circumstances of their conception." But the statement denies that all sexual relationships, acts and medical technologies that seek to bring about new life are morally equal.

It has taken many evangelical Christians too long to figure this out. The same was true of abortion when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade (1973). Evangelical denominations typically haven’t empowered formal bodies to monitor novel practices and technologies for the purpose of formulating official responses to them. Consequently, they’ve sometimes failed initially to grasp the import of developments such as IVF. Though the resolution expresses the convention’s judgment, it isn’t binding on individual churches.

Essential to understanding the issue is acknowledging how the technology and its uses have changed in recent decades. Standard practices within the industry lead to the production of multiple embryos, even when the goal is a single pregnancy. There are now, according to some estimates, at least 600,000 and perhaps more than a million embryos frozen in storage. Many will be destroyed in the procedure, discarded or used in medical research. Current practices also select embryos on the basis of genetic testing, reminiscent of early-20th-century eugenics.

Add to these concerns that IVF, abstracted from the moral context of marriage between a man and a woman, allows for a human-reproduction market advertised to same-sex couples and single women. A vast international market for IVF and surrogacy treats babies as commodities, not gifts.

The SBC resolution drew predictable criticism, with some describing it as insensitive and excessively political. That’s backward. There is zero political gain to be had by opposing IVF: According to Gallup, 82% of Americans think the procedure is “morally acceptable." The convention’s resolution is instead a matter of institutional integrity. Southern Baptists claim to cherish the dignity and sanctity of every human life, from fertilization until natural death. That commitment can’t apply only when abortion is at stake.

The SBC resolution also acknowledges the pain of infertility and assures that those who experience it are heard by God, “who offers compassion and grace." Such families may be called to parenthood through adoption, or to other life-giving ministries. The statement nevertheless encourages Southern Baptists “to reaffirm the unconditional value and right to life of every human being, including those in an embryonic stage, and to only utilize reproductive technologies consistent with that affirmation."

The Southern Baptists’ position on in vitro fertilization will be derided as strange and retrograde. But the destruction and commodification of human life is sufficiently important to risk derision.

Mr. Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mr. Walker is an associate professor at the seminary and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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