Infertility is one of the most difficult challenges Christians can face. In any given church, there will be people—family members, friends, fellow Bible study members—who long to conceive, but seem unable. In a time of incredible medical advances and seemingly on-demand treatments, how should Christians think about wise and godly options? More particularly, what do Christians need to be aware of in the midst of the marketplace of assisted reproductive technologies (e.g. IVF)? At our October 2020 event, we heard from two leading Christian doctors—Professor Jonathan Morris and Dr Megan Best—on what needs to be considered as Christians seek to face infertility faithfully—whether personally, or in support of others in our communities.
Links referred to:
- Video from our October event
- Event handout (PDF)
- Megan Best’s book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, published by Matthias Media
- 2021 Priscilla & Aquila annual conference program information
- Information about the Moore College Preliminary Theological Certificate
Runtime: 1:23:22 min.
Chase Kuhn: Infertility’s one of the most difficult challenges Christians can face. In any given church, there will be people—family members, friends, fellow Bible study members—who long to conceive, but seem unable. In a time of incredible medical advances and seemingly on-demand treatments, how should Christians think about wise and godly options? More particularly, what do Christians need to be aware of in the midst of the marketplace of assisted reproductive technologies?
In this special episode of our podcast, I’m pleased to share with you the audio from our recent live event on “Facing infertility as a church family”. Our guests were Dr Megan Best and Professor Jonathan Morris, and I’m thrilled that these two agreed to present for us as I can’t think of two better Christian thinkers to help us consider how as Christians we can face infertility faithfully, whether personally or in support of others in our communities.
As with other recordings of events, we ask that you forgive any differences in audio quality. And now I hope that you enjoy listening.
CK: Welcome to the Centre for Christian Living live event. My name is Chase Kuhn. I’m very glad to be welcoming you. I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College, and the Centre for Christian Living is a Centre of the college that exists to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And tonight’s issue that we’re focusing on is a very common one in our churches, but not always talked about, and that’s the issue of infertility.
And tonight we’ve phrased the topic as “Facing infertility as a church family” deliberately trying to broaden the conversation out amongst more people in our churches, recognising that it’s not just couples that may be struggling with infertility—it might not just be first-time would-be parents, perhaps, struggling with infertility: there might be couples struggling with secondary infertility. But there also might be many single people longing for children in your church, and we may have people around us in our small groups and in our congregation that may someday face infertility and need to be prepared. And so tonight, we’re trying to broaden the conversation to thinking well on these things from God’s word.
I’m looking forward to introducing my guests this evening in just a moment. But before we do, I just want to say how important it is that we recognise just how sensitive a topic this is for many people. Undoubtedly there will be people that are watching tonight that are finding this very difficult emotionally. They might be in a real season of longing for a child and finding it very difficult even to come to an event like this online—maybe in the privacy of their home—or in their small group. And we just want to say that we do care about these things. We’re trying to be sensitive tonight, and we want to offer as much help as we can. And first thing we want to say is that you’re not alone in this struggle: there are a lot of people walking through this struggle. Personally I know at least seven couples that are dealing with infertility at the moment.
But secondly, we want to encourage you to talk to people about this, and part of holding a live event like this is to open up exposure to good resources to a whole host of people so that we can have the conversation—to get it out of the privacy of our own homes and get it into thinking about these things and praying about these things together as a church family. Later on tonight, we’ll have time for questions, and so we’ll try to answer as many of these as we can, and if we can’t get to all of them, we’ll try to follow up some way later on.
But finally, we also want to say that we believe in the word of God: we really believe that the word of God serves as a light to our path and that it offers a balm that soothes every sore. And so, I want to read to you from Scripture just as we begin and before I pray from Isaiah 54 a passage that tries to bring comfort and cheer—even in the barren ones—to praise in the promise of a future—a future of wholeness amongst God’s people where he’s showing compassion to them. So please listen with me to Isaiah 54:
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.
“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer.
(Isaiah 54:1-8 ESV)
This word, of course, was coming to the nation of Israel, forecasting a time of great hardship in their life. But I think it speaks to us personally now as well, and gives us hope of what it means to be caught up as one of God’s people with the promise of a real future amongst his people—a future with him in prosperity.
So let me pray for us as we continue in our evening. Lord, we thank you that you know our deep longings and desires. You know when we hurt and we feel alone. Grant each man and woman who listens this evening your comforting care and wisdom for living in this broken world. We pray that you will lead us in the way everlasting and that we will trust your fatherly goodness to us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Megan Best: Amen.
CK: I’d like to introduce to you now my guests this evening. It is such a joy for us to have two, I think, world-leading experts in this, and I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, but for me, I can’t think of two people I would rather have here tonight presenting on this topic. First of all is Dr Jonathan Morris, who serves as the Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Sydney. He has a subspeciality in maternal fetal medicine, caring for women with high-risk pregnancies. In fact, we were at dinner earlier this evening and he told me he delivered a baby through C-section today, and it just was normal business for him in a very high-risk situation, which is amazing. And in 2019, he and his wife Kath spent nine months working in a mission hospital in Tanzania that provides maternity care to some of the poorest women in sub-Saharan Africa. And he attends church with me, actually, at North Sydney—at St Thomas’s. So it’s great to have a friend here with me.
Another friend of mine is Dr Megan Best, who I’m very glad to have as well, who works as a palliative specialist, a medical ethicist and a researcher at the University of Sydney and the University of Notre Dame. She teaches bioethics and writes on bioethics, and one of her books I use in my ethics class here at Moore College, and I actually often recommend it to people in my church and many churches around frequently. It’s entitled Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. I’ll just hold it up for you here in just a moment. It’s published by Matthias Media about eight years ago. I highly recommend this as a resource for you for following up on much of what we talk about this evening in this session.
The program this evening will be semi-conversational in style. What I’m going to do is allow Jonathan and Megan a brief opportunity to introduce much of the material that sits at the foundation of our discussion. And then after each of them have given us a brief presentation of material, I’ll move into a conversation with them trying to tease out some of the implications of what they say for our lives as we think about infertility in the church. And finally, we’ll have a chance for question and answers for our live audience.
In order that I don’t take up any more of our time, I will give over the talk to Jonathan for our first instalment to help us understand where we’re at right now within medical technology. Thanks Jonathan!
Navigating fertility issues
Jonathan Morris: Thank you, Chase. And good evening and it’s a pleasure to be here this evening. As Chase has said, my name’s Jonathan Morris and I’m an obstetrician/gynaecologist and I’m practising here in Sydney.
1. Fertility and infertility
I concede from the outset that this isn’t an issue that’s affected me personally: we’ve been blessed with children, and one story I’d like to tell is at a family holiday, we try and ban technology. So we play board games. Do you remember those, Chase? Yep? Board games! One our favourites is Articulate and for those who don’t know it, you draw a card and there’s a word on that card, and you’ve got to describe it as quickly as possible so your team members can guess it—so you can get through as many as possible, and there’s an egg timer dripping sand and you’ve got, you know—it’s a race—and with four boys, this is competitive. So one of my sons picked up this card and, you know, very excited, he said, “You need one of these things to get drugs!” And the answer, of course, was “prescription”, but my youngest son said, “dealer”. [Laughter]
And I guess it illustrates to us that some things that we think we see the same, we see very differently. And I think this is an issue where there are many different ways that people view it. It’s also an issue—people are in different spaces, and as Chase’s mentioned, I just want to reiterate, I know there are people listening tonight who will be considering the impact of fertility problems in their life. There will be people out there who are considering embarking on assisted reproductive technology. There will be people out there who are undergoing artificial reproductive technology. There will be people who’ve tried and have no children after trying artificial reproductive technology. And there will be people who’ve undergone artificial reproductive technology and have children, and possibly have embryos left.
These are big issues, and ultimately—obviously—we’re hearing different views. But ultimately, it’s not a question of what I say or Megan says, but it’s about turning to the Bible—biblical lens on everyday issue. And tonight we’ll consider those.
Before we do, fertility: we live in a terribly stressful age where expectation is huge. I often say even in pregnancy, the one thing we don’t do is congratulate women at the beginning of pregnancy anymore; we warn them of what may go wrong. And I guess expectation is something that we need to consider in our church families. I had the joy of seeing our eldest son married recently—prepared by Chase, he was. But, you know, the common worship says things which we’d attest to—“Marriage is a gift of God in creation … It’s the delight and tenderness of sexual union.” But it does go on to say, it’s “a foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured”. The more older version from the 17th century says, “Marriage is ordained for the procreation of children”. From the very moment that we celebrate a wedding, there is this expectation that the couple will be provided with the gift of children.
And as we unpack things tonight in our church families, we need to reflect upon some of the realities that we know about fertility. Fertility itself is something that is affected by many things. Often the analogy we use is the likelihood of falling pregnant in any one cycle, it’s a bit like rolling a double six to get out of jail in Monopoly: you know, you can really wish for that to happen, but sometimes it just takes time. And so I think all the discussions about fertility problems need to be grounded with the fact that even the most fertile of couples, it may take time. And that’s something that’s really important to reflect upon as we will consider some of the pressures that there are for people to embark on assisted reproduction.
However, the facts of fertility problems are also clear to us. The reality is that despite what we hear in those wedding vows, we live in a world that is fraught with difficulty. We know that as Christians, the world is not as it was intended to be, and it is a fact that one in ten couples may suffer some problem falling pregnant. And so, fertility issues are common. Not to say that they all need to be addressed by modern technologies, but there are fertility issues that may be related to lifestyle, to things like weight—things that may be correctable. So, firstly, we need to consider—a fertility issue needs to be tackled holistically, needs to recognise that sometimes things take time, and needs to take into account the individual circumstances of any couple.
We do know that as people age, the likelihood of falling pregnant, it is reduced. And that obviously means one needs to reflect upon how do we prioritise the timing of trying to have a child in our lives? These are all important issues.
2. Assisted reproductive technologies
I suppose, though, if couples are having difficulty falling pregnant, we then need to consider what options are there. And I won’t go into detail about the options prior to seeking or considering assisted reproductive technology. But that is really important. You know, I would certainly urge people to consult a general practitioner, who will help them through some of the general aspects of fertility, and not too readily resort to some of their higher end reproductive technology experts, because I think it is important to reflect upon assisted reproductive companies.
Over the last decade, there has been a huge investment in companies to try and help people fall pregnant. It’s obviously an area that, for some many, is emotive, it’s evocative, it’s personal, it’s poignant, and it’s real and relevant. And whenever we long for something and desire something, obviously there are people there to meet that need. Reproductive technologies have done amazing science. What they do is remarkable, and that is undeniable. But I think it was Don Carson who says that anything of value can be corrupted. And so, we do need just to reflect upon some of the modern ways in which reproductive technology companies work. I think it’s telling that these large companies—particularly locally—have been bought by private equity consortia.
Now, that in itself is because it is a business, and so it’s very hard for a couple who are vulnerable to go into a business where, essentially, there are targets, its cycles are renumerated, and that’s the monetarisation of something which is so difficult for a couple. It is very stressful undergoing IVF or reproductive technologies. It does require, therefore, for one to reflect upon some of the issues that face us as Christians before embarking upon the consultations and thinking, “Well, what is my worldview? What is my biblical view?”
If we consider IVF, essentially it involves the collection of eggs, usually by artificially stimulating ovaries to produce eggs. These are retrieved. They’re then mixed with sperm, embryos are produced, normally now they’re grown for between three and five days in the laboratory, and often those embryos are even frozen before they’re reintroduced, because the most recent evidence has suggested that a frozen embryo transfer is slightly superior to a fresh embryo transfer.
So necessarily, IVF involves the production and collection of embryos. Some of those embryos don’t survive in the three to five days of culture prior to being assessed for their suitability for transfer. And so, it is a process that involves the creation of many embryos. Best practice is only to transfer one embryo at a time in any one cycle. Anywhere between two and half a dozen or more embryos are collected. So it—a question is, you know, what happens to those embryos? Obviously if a pregnancy results, that is a very joyous thing. But it does leave couples with the dilemma of what to do with any surplus embryos.
So this very briefly is artificial reproductive technology.
3. Recent developments in reproductive genetic carrier screening
It’s interesting to reflect upon where this technology is taking us. And I have a heading there about some of the recent progress in reproductive carrier screening. The biggest divestment of the Medical Research Future Fund—nearly half a billion dollars—has gone towards a community program that’s being evaluated to screen couples either planning a pregnancy or early in pregnancy for common genetic diseases. There’s some 700 of them. And the idea is that if couples are shown to carry the same recessive gene, which would give a one in four possibility of having a baby with a congenital illness, some of which undoubtedly are very severe, that couple are offered an IVF cycle to be able to produce embryos, test them and reintroduce those that lack the gene and essentially not proceed with those that are shown to carry the gene.
As Christians, we need to think, “Where is this leading? The moment these genes, it’s decided by a panel of experts—and undoubtedly they address very severe life-threatening diseases like Spinal Muscular Atrophy. They also include conditions like cystic fibrosis. I’ve cared for women with cystic fibrosis who themselves are pregnant. And in the future, undoubtedly, there’ll be pressure to screen for people who may be carry a gene for late onset cancer—maybe a gene that carries a possibility of having slightly less than normal intelligence.
As Christians, I think we’ve got to foresee these issues; as a community, I think we need to debate them. Because already these techniques are being introduced into practice—lauded by our leading politicians. And as a society, it strikes me—you know, today I asked a half a dozen of my colleagues—people haven’t heard about this. And so it’s being introduced into practice without any societal discourse.
4. Navigating fertility issues
So finally I suppose how do we navigate fertility issues? I think as Chase alluded to, it’s so important that we start contemplating the possibility of fertility issues way before they occur. This should be something that’s discussed. We shouldn’t have this normative behaviour assuming that we have family services—that we have a childrens church. I think within our communities, we’ve got to recognise this is a real issue that people face. Not everyone will be provided with the gift of children. And we need not to normalise behaviour so as to unintentionally exclude people from our communities.
As a couple who maybe face difficulties, I think it’s important to get good advice. And I suggest that advice, firstly, should come from a general practitioner, rather than going straight to a specialist. Address some of the lifestyle things that can potentially improve fertility.
For those who would wish to go further, I think that needs to be done asking some very clear, but very difficult questions. And I think those questions essentially revolve around “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?” We know from Genesis 1 that we are made in the image. But we also know there is one who is made in the image, and that is Christ himself. We need to think “When does life begin?” And I think the beginning of life is a key issue in these discussions.
And once again, it’s interesting to reflect that Jesus’ conception is announced in the Bible to be fully human: Jesus came. We know of his conception. He was a two-stage embryo. And as Christians, we need to think, therefore, does life begin at fertilisation? Does life begin at implantation? Does it begin later? And I think as we go through this evening, I think it’s these key questions that will begin to shape our view as to what as Christians we would find is biblical, and how can it help guide us. But as I say, they’re big issues and, you know, my prayer tonight, really, is that we do this lovingly, we recognise that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28) and certainly this is about trying to prepare people to think differently. And certainly, you know, my prayers are for those who find this a very difficult subject. Thank you.
Introduction to Megan’s talk
CK: Thank you very much, Jonathan. I really appreciate you helping us to understand the scene right now that we’re faced with and some of the tensions that are put upon us as we find ourselves in these difficult situations.
One of the key things that you finished with is the importance of Christians understanding when life begins, and that’s the very next segment that we’re going to turn to. Megan Best is going to help us think through various positions on when life begins and ultimately help us think about what the Bible says about that, so we’ll turn over to Megan now.
Infertility: When does life begin?
MB: Thank you very much, Chase. And thank you everyone for tuning in. During some of my segment, I’ll be referring to the handout. You were emailed a link today that connects you to that handout. Also, you can go to the CCL website and click on “Events” and that slideshow will be available there as well.
But as Jonathan has just mentioned, one of the central issues that we need to think about in the whole question of IVF is “What is the moral status of the embryo?” Is it morally permissible to destroy a human embryo? Because if it is okay, there are significantly less ethical concerns about the whole process.
Well, Christians have a moral compass, and that’s the Bible. Our question, then, is, according to the Bible, is a human embryo a human being? This is an important question to us, because the Bible also teaches that we should not kill innocent human beings. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.
Well, there’s no key verse in the Bible that tells us when human life begins. The Bible isn’t a scientific textbook. The Christian argument for life commencing at fertilisation is put together by combining a number of themes that we find throughout the biblical text. For example, the Bible makes the link between conception and birth in many places in the Bible, such as Genesis 4:1, when Adam lay with his wife Eve and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. In Isaiah 46:3, God speaks to Israel as “you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth” (NIV 1984).
The Bible recognises that all human beings bear the image of God and therefore deserve to be treated with respect, including the very young, as Jonathan just mentioned in Genesis. The incarnation, I think, is a powerful reminder of how important the unborn human is in God’s eyes. As Jonathan just mentioned, in order to take on full humanity, Jesus had to come to earth as an embryo. The Bible describes the relationship we can have with God when we’re still unborn, such as during our formation in Psalm 139, we read,
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made …
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place …
There’s a similar passage in Job 10. These are only a sample of the Bible verses that illustrate these points, and I’ve gone into a lot more depth in the book that Chase showed you. But there is no doubt that in the Bible, a human being is seen as capable of having a relationship with God.
So in summary, the Bible teaches that we’re to treat all human beings with respect for the whole of their lives, because we are made in the image of God. It is not our respect that gives anyone dignity; it’s rather because they have innate dignity, we owe them respect. We need to remember that we were all once embryos too.
We can also look at the question of when human life begins by looking at the science. So now we’re on the first slide that you can see in the “Biology” section of the handout.
The first slide shows you a cross-section of the female reproductive system. This is how the majority of us are conceived, where the ovary releases an egg and it gets fertilised by sperm as it travels down towards the uterus.
On the next slide, we see that human conception begins with fertilisation of an egg by a sperm. And this creates a single cell called a zygote. The female human gamete is actually called an oocyte. “Egg” is a more culinary term, but I’ll use it tonight for the sake of familiarity.
From this point, development is a continuum through pregnancy and childhood to adulthood. All the DNA required for the full maturity of the organism is present in that first cell. So in embryology terms, in the zygote, we have a member of the species homo sapiens.
Cell organisation begins almost immediately, even before the genome is activated. So we’re not dealing with what is often called “just a clump of cells”.
On the next slide, you can see how the first cell division occurs within 24 hours of conception, and it continues while the embryo travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus.
The next slide shows a picture of an embryo at the 32-cell stage. Different types of cell—different types of tissue—are shown in different colours, and these tissue types correlate with what will become the embryo and the placenta.
The next slide shows you that at the end of the first week, implantation begins, where the embryo attaches to the uterine wall of the mother and her blood supply starts to nourish the baby. Sadly this doesn’t always occur successfully, in which case, you’ll have a very early miscarriage.
At week 3 on the next slide, the future spinal cord begins to develop and the heart tubes begin to fuse. Blood cell production begins.
In week 4, the embryo measures just 3 mm in length, but the heart is actually starting to beat in a regular rhythm. You have development of the brain, thyroid, eyes and ears beginning. And remember: you once looked like this. I think part of the PR problem of the embryo is that at its very early stages, it doesn’t look particularly human.
At week 5, the mouth, noise, sinuses, lungs, arms, hands and legs begin to grow, and the embryo’s own blood supply begins to circulate.
In week 6, you have beginning of formation of the feet, ears, nipples and bones, and arms and legs have lengthened.
Week 7, the trunk’s lengthened and straightened, and the upper arms are longer and bent now at the elbow. Kidneys start to develop.
In week 8, the facial features continue to develop, with eyelids and ears taking shape. So at this stage, you have the beginnings of all essential internal and external organs. So you can see that even at this very early stage, an enormous amount of development has already taken place.
Now at 8 weeks, we stop calling it an embryo and start calling it a fetus, and at three months, the fetus reaches a length of just over 8 cm. The face and body are now formed, and all the organs are beginning to function. They just need to mature for the remainder of the pregnancy.
At four months, tooth enamel is developing. The fetus is producing its own hormones, and by now, the baby can feel pain.
At five months, the two sides of the brain are beginning to develop differently, and the baby can get hiccups.
At six months, the hair begins to grow. Gas exchange is possible in the lungs, and the baby can smell and detect light with its eyes.
At eight months, things get a bit squashy in there.
And at nine months, we hope for a healthy baby at term.
Now, I don’t think anyone would disagree that a newborn baby is a human being who deserves care and protection. So my question is, if you look back over all those pictures, when did it stop being a human being?
I would suggest, as everything it needed to fully develop was in that first single cell—the zygote—and it directed its own development since then, that it would be arbitrary to say that life began at any point after fertilisation. That is, biologically, when the sperm and the egg joined, human life began. Any embryology textbook will tell you this. There is no doubt in biological terms that we’re dealing with a human being from the time of fertilisation. The embryo, from the time it’s created, is a unified unique dynamic self-directed whole. It is not a clump of cells.
Research has confirmed that from the moment the sperm enters the egg, it starts to organise its development. Now, even though an embryo has moral significance, at that first cell stage, the sperm or the egg on its own are not morally significant, and it doesn’t really matter what happens to them individually. It’s when they join together to make a zygote that we need to start recognising this organism as a human being.
But despite the unequivocal scientific evidence that human beings exist from the very first cell, we now live in a world where technology doesn’t always operate within a framework that values human life from its beginnings. Instead, unborn humans can be seen as a resource to use, rather than a gift to cherish.
So how did it happen? How did our society end up here? Well, people who support destruction of human embryos or don’t think it matters what happens to an early human embryo have suggested that legal protection is only due to human persons, and that you’re not a person just because you’re a human being.
Let me explain. We know traditionally it was believed that what made humans different from animals was our capacity to reason—to be able to think things through. A human person was someone who could reason. Therefore, it was considered that all human beings were human persons. This is certainly the view that has been held for the most of human history. Until recently, it would have been inconceivable to think that any human being was not a human person.
But the definition of human personhood underwent a change last century when political expediency intervened. In 1954, a minister who was trying to legalise abortion published a book to argue that unborn humans weren’t human persons. Joseph Fletcher argued because he wanted to legalise abortion. Obviously if the human embryo wasn’t a human person, then abortion would be much easier to justify.
Fletcher wrote that the human person must not merely have the potential to reason, but they must be able to exercise it at the time. This wasn’t based on scientific discovery; it was just driven by the political debate around abortion. Fletcher went on to argue that if the human embryo is not a human person, then it doesn’t merit legal protection. He argued that not only embryos and fetuses, but also newborn infants, would have to be classed as non-persons. He explicitly accepted that infanticide or the killing of infants would be justifiable on these grounds. So you see how dangerous this type of thinking is.
But the idea that has influenced the treatment of human embryos more than anything else, I think, is that endorsed by the Warnock Committee in the UK in 1984. The Warnock Committee was asked to advise the UK government on whether human embryos could be grown in a laboratory and destroyed in research. Their recommendation was that it should be allowed up to 14 days of development. 14. This decision has influenced policy makers around the world ever since. Interestingly, at the time the decision was made, the longest anyone had ever grown a human embryo in the laboratory was nearly 14 days. Very convenient. The science they used to justify their decision is now out of date. Yet the Warnock Report has remained influential ever since 1984, and it’s written into laws and scientific guidelines in at least 17 countries, including Australia.
So let’s stop for a minute to see where we are so far for the basis of our legal decisions about the treatment of unborn humans: out-of-date science and very little public debate about the intricacy of the early human embryo’s development, and secondly, philosophical debates with an agenda to create an artificial standard of what a human being must achieve before it is worthy of legal protection.
But the ethical argument ultimately underlying this perspective is a theory of consequentialism: the end justifies the means. Our community has decided that while the destruction of human embryos may be regrettable, it is justified, because of the potential consequences of its destruction. The benefits, such as a healthy IVF baby, justifies the use.
But saying you might as well destroy embryos and fetuses if it’s beneficial for you depends on the idea that a human embryo is not a human person deserving of protection. It is, of course, an extension of the idea that the species homo sapiens is not special in any way, and that we’re just an accident of unguided evolutionary development—an argument which aims to remove God from the equation completely.
Before I finish, I just want to add a further complication by explaining that even Christian doctors may at times not be concerned about protecting early embryos. And this has a reason: first, I want to say that those who don’t object to destruction of embryos are not necessarily monsters who don’t care about unborn human beings. Most of them—the ones I’ve met, anyway—are driven by a desire to help their patients. They honestly don’t believe a human being exists before the time of implantation, because that’s what they were taught at university.
There was an artificial change in the definition of when human life began in 1972. At that time, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists deliberately changed the definition of conception so that instead of pregnancy commencing when the egg and the sperm began at fertilisation, they said that conception started about a week later when the embryo was implanted into the womb. And the reason they did that was to be able to market contraceptives—particularly the contraceptive pill—to widen the contraceptive market, because contraception—stopping conception—had more opportunities to work if conception started a week later. The full story’s in my book.
They didn’t have the authority to do this. They weren’t embryology experts. The real experts—the embryologists—still maintain that human life begins at fertilisation, when the egg and the sperm join.
So in summary, the centre of the debate is disagreement over whether developing humans deserve to be protected—whether they have a right to life. We’ve just seen the scientific evidence that a human life begins at the point of fertilisation, when the egg and sperm joined. This is not even vaguely controversial in scientific terms. But philosophers have influenced public debate by reframing the issue in terms of needing to protect only human persons, and arguing that personhood must be earned. This runs directly counter to the biblical notion that our value lies not in what we have done, but because of the God in whose image we’re made.
Finally, I think it can be helpful to remember that the value of a human being is not determined by a scientific formula. It can’t be decided by a democratic vote. The value of a human being for Christians must be based on our understanding of morality as given by the God who made us. Human embryos are just that: human, and we need to do all we can to protect them from the earliest hours of their existence. Thank you.
CK: As we take a short break from our program, I’d like to tell you about a few resources. First, I’m delighted to announce that our live event program for 2021 is now available. Next year, the major theme for all of our events will be community. Under this umbrella, we’ll think about how community can be good for so many different people, how we can deal with sin together, what it means to forgive, and how we can raise the next generation. These events are designed to be engaged in community. Our hope is that you will be part of the conversation we’re facilitating, that you’ll consider these events will others from your church, and that the topics will benefit the communities that you’re a part of. Our first event, “Can Christian community be good for you, me and everyone else?”, will be held on the 3rd March in 2021.
Also, for those who are looking for a way to stay fresh in their thinking as Christians, and perhaps looking for something to benefit their growth in the coming months, can I recommend to you that you consider the Moore College PTC? This is a course intended for Christians at various stages of life to learn more about the biblical, theological and historical foundations of our faith. We have over 18 units available online for you to engage with, including various books of the Bible and areas of doctrine. I personally can’t think of many better things that you can be doing with your time in the coming months than to enrol in a structured course intended to help you grow as a Christian. You can find out more information online at distance.moore.edu.au. Again, that’s distance.moore.edu.au.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Thinking through the practicalities
CK: Thank you very much, Megan. I really appreciate that. We have so much to work from now, hearing from both of you. I’ll begin more or less where you ended. I mean, you’ve just given us a very helpful presentation about the beginning of life—both from a scientific and from a biblical perspective, that life begins at fertilisation. Help us to situate that in why that’s so important now—just in case it’s not obvious for others, but as we’re talking about infertility, are we then trying to say that even an embryo that’s formed in a test tube is a human being?
MB: Yes. Whether the sperm and the egg join in the woman’s body—in the fallopian tube, in the first slide of the handout—or whether they join in a petri dish—it actually is, rather than a test tube—
MB: —but a test tube sounds good.
CK: Oh, I—I—
MB: Whether they join together in glass in the laboratory, that first cell represents a human being in either scenario.
Embryos in a normal IVF cycle
CK: Now, in a normal cycle of IVF, for example, how many embryos would they be hoping to see develop in a petri dish?
MB: In a normal IVF cycle?
CK: A normal cycle of IVF. Ideally, what would they say in the marketplace?
MB: I think it does depend on the laboratory. But I would think 10-20 would not be unusual.
CK: Okay, so 10-20 human lives are being started—
MB: Did you want to update that?
CK: —in the lab.
JM: So it is contingent on ovarian reserve in the mothers. Some mothers—typically those older—the numbers may be less than that—but typically for younger women, those numbers—
MB: You’d aim for those numbers.
CK: So the reason why this becomes so important, then, is if we are saying that an embryo is a human life, we are now saying that we have 10 human persons developed in a lab that are either being—
MB: Yes, and we need to remember that that’s not done as a malicious thing. I think—
MB: —the IVF doctors really do want to help the couple in front of them have a child.
MB: And we know that not all embryos may continue to develop to become a live birth.
MB: But there’s no equation that tells you how many embryos equals so many live births. And so, to save the woman from going through an extra cycle of collection of eggs, often they say, “Well, let’s just make the full number we need up front and freeze the extras, and we’ll just transfer them and we hope we get enough live births from this collection of embryos”.
But I can think of one woman that came to talk to me who had four children and 10 leftover embryos, and she was faced with the prospect of if she transferred them all—all her transfers had been successful—so if she had them all transferred, she was looking at a family of 14 children. And that’s why there can be an ethical problem—is what do you do if you have leftovers after you have the family you always hoped for?
CK: Yes, thank you. I’m trying to bring as much of this into the light as possible, never trying to doubt the intentions—that people are desperately wanting a child, doctors are wanting to give the best chance of success at bringing a child into life. But what we’re trying to say is that actually, each embryo that is formed is a human life, and therefore now, what do we do with the other embryos? And what happens to those embryos and therefore those human lives?
I mean, one question, to put it starkly, is discarding an embryo the same thing as abortion, effectively?
MB: Yeah. It may be more difficult emotionally: you have more time to get attached to a child in the womb.
CK: Because the baby’s growing in your womb—
CK: —rather than in—
MB: In a—
CK: —a lab.
MB: Rather than in a lab.
MB: So you might have a different relationship. But in ethical terms, it’s still a human life.
CK: Yeah, that’s very, very, very strong, isn’t it.
CK: Now, just moving the conversation a little bit, I mean, I think we feel the weight of the ethical issue now. I think it was already apparent, but it—it’s becoming even clearer and clearer.
Jonathan, you mentioned before that there is really a marketplace for these things now, and I just wonder, what kinds of things would you help Christians to be aware of as—you started hinting at these things before. What kinds of things would you want Christians to be aware of as they begin approaching something like treatment for infertility—in the marketplace?
JM: Thanks, Chase. Undoubtedly I think the decision to engage with one of the larger ART—artificial reproductive technology—companies or services—is quite a step. I think those sort of measures—that general practitioners and general specialists can offer in terms of, you know, using medications, sometimes, to help a woman ovulate, or potential interventions that can help increase the quality of the partner’s sperm, for instance. You know, those sort of things can be offered by the generalist.
So I think the first thing for a couple to consider is the implications of going that extra step, because, like all things, I think it’s important to put these foundations down prior to engaging with a service that, again, through all good intentions, functions on the fact that the more embryos they produce, the greater the likelihood of success. And it is very difficult, therefore, to put one’s own views, values and considerations forward when, really, it’s not front of mind for those who are providing care.
So I think that what’s really important is really to wrestle with these issues. You know, what do you think about the beginning of life? What are my views about the number of embryos if I am to undergo IVF? How many embryos will I be willing to have produced?
MB: How many babies?
JM: How—how many babies would I wish to have? And these—I think these discussions need to be at that early interaction, because I do fear that sometimes you may be swept along in the industry, which, undoubtedly is IVF, and face really difficult decisions later on. So I think as a community, we need to be aware of these issues. Obviously we need to think about how in our church community—how is the topic of fertility issues—how careless are we when, you know, we ask people who don’t have children, “Are you having children?” Or, you know, we often assume, and we don’t know the back stories to so many couples that we come across. So I think it’s so multifaceted, isn’t it.
But I do think as Christians, it’s really important to put those foundational pillars down and certainly as Christians, there may not be agreement, but I think it’s really important that individually, we know where we stand with our conscience going forward. Yeah.
Unhelpful questions and attitudes
CK: Thank you. You’ve raised some great points there. I mean, just to make sure we don’t miss what you just said, there’s some very unhelpful things that we can say to people like, “When are you going to have kids?” “Are you going to have kids?” “Are you guys trying?” Even sometimes when peoplehave had children, “Are you going to have more?” Because there are some people that have struggles having more kids, and they might find themselves waiting years for more children. And so, being more sensitive about the kinds of questions we ask, thinking that we’re—
CK: —being chums—yeah.
MB: Yeah. Or families with one child being criticised for being selfish, ’cause they’ve only got one child, when in fact, they have secondary infertility, and they can’t have another child, despite their efforts. And that can be very hurtful.
CK: Yeah, absolutely. And I think we often assume that just because somebody has a child, they might not be struggling, which is certainly not the case.
The IVF cycle and chance of success
CK: Just coming back to a few things you said here, Jonathan, and Megan, you can feel free to jump in as well, I mean, success rate for IVF: am I right that it’s about 25 per cent in a cycle? Is that right?
JM: Again, it is contingent on the age of the couple.
JM: But overall, that sort of success rate is—per cycle—is correct.
CK: Yeah. Which is why there’s going to be a push for higher numbers of embryos, trying at a better chance of success. Let me just ask, I mean, in terms of some of the ethics we should consider, let’s say somebody decides in their conscience that they’re happy to go forward with IVF and they’re willing to have, say, four children. Will doctors will respect that wish that they will only create four embryos?
MB: It certainly can be done. But in my experience, the couple needs to keep saying it every time they go to the clinic. People in the clinic—including the doctor, the embryologist—may not really believe you. It is so opposed to their own worldview; they may not understand why you’re saying it. So if you do want to go down this path and you do want to respect the lives of your embryos, you need to be prepared to fight for them. And you will need to keep reminding the clinic that not only do you want a limited number of embryos created, but you don’t want any of them discarded; you want them all transferred at some point to give them a chance at life—as long as they’re alive, that they should be transferred.
CK: Yeah. And what—I mean, is it a clear-cut, then, that if we limit the number of embryos we decide to see developed, are there no ethical complications at that point, or are there ethical complications that remain in saying, “I’ll have four embryos?”
JM: So, again, just to frame this, the normal cycle, as Megan has alluded to, is the mother is stimulated to produce as many eggs as possible. They’re retrieved usually through an ultrasound technique, and those eggs are fertilised. The normal approach is to fertilise as many as possible to culture those embryos that do fertilise for five days to the blastocyst stage, and those embryos are inspected once every day or every second day, and in that process, the embryologist begins to score the embryos such that by Day #5, they’re deciding which ones they think are worthy of freezing, and the others, because there’s fragmentations and there’s appearances under the microscope—so normally the conventional view is that around 20-40 per cent of those eggs that fertilise are sufficiently high quality that they can be used. So the normal IVF cycle, the approach to it is there will be attrition in that first five days, which is what Megan has—
MB: Which is part of the normal cycle.
JM: Now, one could say, well, that happens—you know, who knows what happens each month while trying to fall pregnant? But a—
CK: Yeah, a couple could be having normal intercourse and that could be happening internally.
MB: And—and no one knows.
JM: And nobody knows. And, again, Psalm 139, I mean it is poetic, but it’s poignant, isn’t it. You know, “I was wonderfully made in that darkest place” and suddenly we’re, you know, under the bright light of a microscope. And I think as Christians, we’ve got to think, “Can we hold that comfortably or is there a tension there?” And I think Christians will think differently about that. So the question is, is the wilful production of a number of embryos, recognising that they will perish—some of them will perish in that first five days—is that something that sits comfortably with me, given my view of, you know, what the Bible guides us? ’Cause to me, that’s the issue. If the thinking is, well, that could happen naturally, people may find that comforting. Others may find that confronting.
CK: Yes. Something different, I guess, naturally is you have that happen month on month while you’re alive internally in your body. If you freeze four embryos and something happens to you, those embryos remain, even though you don’t. So there’s always the potential of the embryos enduring longer than even, perhaps, you or your opportunity to have children implanted in your own womb, I guess.
JM: Oh, there’s all sorts of—
CK: All kinds of other complications as well.
JM: That’s right.
MB: I think we also need—I entirely agree with what’s been said, and I want to say, ethically, there is a difference between actively deciding to let embryos be discarded and them naturally failing to develop within the body. I think, ethically, that’s quite different and I—I just wanted to say that.
But I think we also need to remember, as Jonathan alluded at the beginning, is that the whole modern pregnancy industry is now aiming towards making sure only perfectly healthy babies are born. And the way that is achieved is by genetically screening embryos after they’ve been grown in the laboratory before they’re transferred. There’s increasing pressure for parents to agree to having genetic screening of their embryos, which is called “preimplantation genetic diagnosis” or PGD, and any embryos which don’t have the genetic profile that’s preferred by the parents are discarded because of their genetic makeup. And I think that is highly problematic that we would discriminate against embryos because of their genetic profile.
CK: Yeah, that’s very helpful. So, I mean, as we’re trying to get clearer, then, on what it might be for Christians to be doing responsibly, is there a firm line we want to be drawing? I mean, do we want to be that prescriptive? Or are there lines Christians potentially shouldn’t cross? Or is it more about consultation and then conscience? How do you advise Christians—I realise, professionally, you have certain things to hold to or to refer to. But how do you advise Christian couples in this space? I know that’s a very tough question to ask you, but I want ask it anyways.
JM: I think that it’s necessary for any couple to think about when life begins. I think it’s necessary for a couple to think through the implications of an IVF cycle in which undoubtedly a greater number of embryos will be created than will survive to five days. I think it’s also necessary to think about any process that results in excess embryos that decisions will be made about. I think that, you know, for some couples, that means that the very undergoing of IVF is deeply problematic and—and at odds with the Bible. Others, you know, may feel that the Bible, it’s consistent with, you know, producing as many embryos as I’m willing to have—have children. I think, you know, these are difficult, but I think as Christians, we’ve just got to be very careful that we don’t turn anything in that to our lives into an idol and pursue it at the cost of what we think the Bible’s saying
A “full” life?
CK: That’s the very next thing I wanted to go to, and I guess I’ll turn this to Megan, maybe, for a second. I mean, what is the greatest danger in this? There’s obviously pressures couples feel or even singles feel about what kind of—of things constitute a full life. And it’s very difficult for each of us to speak on this, because we each have children. But we can tell it from the other side, in one sense, that even marriage and even children don’t necessarily constitute a full life. But people believe that they must have certain things in order to be complete or completely human, or even maybe obedient to what God made them for. What do you tell couples that feel this kind of pressure and what is the danger there?
MB: I think we need to look carefully at the Bible and realise that you can be a complete human without getting married. You can be a complete human when you’re married and don’t have children. I think it’s all right for couples experiencing infertility, as we’re hinting, not to pursue IVF. There is enormous pressure in churches to have a family—to be involved with the children’s program—to get the chocolate at the door of church on Mother’s Day. We have this expectation that everyone will have families—that this is normal life. I think that we need to realise that you can have a fulfilling marriage without biological children. We haven’t even touched on the topic of adoption or foster children. There is an enormous need in Australia for foster parents. And some people would argue that it’s more ethical to adopt a child whose needing a home than to even consider having your own children, because that need is so great. How wonderful for a child with no family to be given a Christian home!
So I think that it’s okay not to go down the IVF path if you’re struggling with infertility. And even though it—it’s enormously difficult, I think, to come to terms with the fact that you can’t have your own children—if that’s what you were hoping for. We need to realise that having children is a good. It’s a—it’s a gift from God. It’s a blessing. And it’s okay to want those things. But it’s not okay to want it at any cost, as Chase had already said, and I think we have to remember that sometimes God has plans for us that we weren’t expecting. And it’s not something we can come to terms with overnight, but sometimes God is listening to our prayers and saying, “No, this is not a gift you will be receiving”. And we need to grieve that loss and start thinking about what else God might have in store for us.
CK: On that note—that’s very very helpful—on that note, I mean, how do we grieve and long together—especially in the face of others having what we want so badly? I mean, this impacts on singles, this impacts on those that are grieving family members or at distance—grief—it especially impinges on people that are desperate for children sitting next to somebody with a crying baby in the pew or being asked to help at kids church.
CK: How—how are we sensitive in the community? I mean, reflections from your own experience, maybe, or what—just wisdom.
MB: Look, I once just asked a couple—I had a couple in our Bible Study who didn’t have children and then eventually the wife said they couldn’t have children. And when I had my first child, I just went to her and said, “Tell me: do you want me to include you? Do you want me to invite you over to the christening? Do you want to be involved in my baby, or it easier for you if I just don’t talk about the baby in Bible Study?” And she said, “No, I want to be involved. I don’t want to be cut out of this part of your life.” And sometimes I think if we have a more open conversation …
There are people—I had a woman in my Bible Study group once—at ladies’ Bible Study at church with all the babies, and she said, “I just can’t keep coming. It’s just too hard to see these babies—people having babies all the time when I can’t.” And she couldn’t cope with being involved with the babies.
So sometimes I think, perhaps, we just need to talk about it a bit more and find out how individuals feel, rather than think that all infertile couples feel the same way.
CK: Yeah, and keep children in perspective: they’re a blessing from God, but there’s one author that I read that calls them, for many suburban Christians, for example, “immortality symbols”. So we celebrate our children as if they are everything: they are our legacy and we make all of our life about all of our kids, and photos and sports and whatever else, whereas there’s much more to life, even, than just childrearing. And hopefully there’s more to us than just being parents.
MB: Apparently those Christmas letters—you know the ones with “This is—”
MB: “—what my children achieved this year”—they can be very unhelpful for some people. So.
CK: That’s good to know. Yeah. That’s great. Anything you want to add on this, Jonathan?
JM: Well, I don’t write those letters! [Laughter] Look, the Christian life is one of grieving and longing. Again, you know, it was Don Carson—reminds us if you life long enough, you will suffer, and I guess suffering and disappointments come in every aspect of our lives. And, again, it’s a question of, you know, that longing when things will be right and God’s kingdom is established. Living for that whilst realising that your daily experiences is at times, you know—there is a sense of a loss there. There is a sense there’s something that hasn’t been attained. And, you know, that’s the Christian life. And I guess we are called for obedience.
And there are so many issues in modern life now where I think there’s a danger we become chameleon Christians: we are the same as everyone else. But, you know, the challenge is for us to be in this world but not of it, and I think this is one example where, you know, sometimes our choices, which may be countercultural, speak volumes to the faith that we have and the God that we believe and the hope that we have. Yeah.
CK: Yeah, learning to long is really a lost art in the Christian life, isn’t it. Looking on in hope, even while we recognise there are things we don’t have now that we wish we did.
Guilt and repentance
CK: Just quickly, if anybody’s feeling guilty, maybe, about embryos they’ve discarded, or maybe they’ve had children and they’re thankful for the blessing they have of children that have come through IVF, how do you help people think through these things that have been done as Christians?
MB: We have a God who forgives us when we confess our sins. If we can confess our sins, we’re forgiven on the spot. We have a gracious God who does give us good things. We should be thankful for the good things he’s given us. We need to repent of our sins and try to make better choices in the future.
CK: Anything you’d like to add?
MB: There is no condemnation—
CK: That’s very—
MB: —for those in Christ Jesus.
CK: Yeah, that’s a great, great thing. There are many things in our life—not just in this space, maybe, that we’ve achieved at by means that we would have otherwise chosen differently in hindsight. You know, we can still thank God for the blessings that have come in spite of these things.
MB: He’s an amazing God—that he can bring good things out of our bad choices.
CK: Yeah. Thank you very much.
CK: We’re going to turn to some question and answers here in just one moment. Before we do—
MB: And can I just say one thing?
CK: Absolutely you can.
MB: Female fertility starts reducing at the age of 27. Sure, we see Hollywood women having babies in their late 40s. They probably used a surrogate. Don’t wait too long. I think that another myth in our society is that we’ve got all the time in the world, when in fact, the biological clock is ticking, and it sounds so trite, but we need to be sensible. We need to start—if we have the opportunity—and not everybody does, to start when they’re in their 20s, that’s better than starting in your 30s.
And if you want to have a baby, you need to have sex regularly. And not everybody’s doing that, and at the time, this—they start to worry about infertility. So, you know, think about the basics as well if you want to have a child. And try to avoid some of these problems.
CK: Thank you.
MB: I just wanted to say it.
CK: That’s very helpful. Thank you.
CK: Just before we turn to the Q&A, we’ve got a lot of questions that have come through on Sli.do and we’re grateful for all the audience participation. Thank you very much! I’m grateful for what I’ve already heard, so much. It’s been so stimulating and I imagine there are going to be, again, more questions than we can answer.
Before we turn to that, I want to give them to a moment to have a drink and have a break. I want to give you just a couple of announcements. One of the things that the Centre—we’re trying to do is put as many good resources in your hands as possible. Karen, who you don’t see, she works behind the scenes as the assistant to the Centre, is curating these goods all the time—resources of written format that she’s transcribing, even, from live events like these; blog posts from students and alumni from the college; podcasts that we’re running twice a month; and we’re very excited about these kinds of resources that we’re working very hard to curate. Can I just encourage you to make good use of the Centre for Christian Living. Go to our website: ccl.moore.edu.au. Sign up for our enews. Subscribe to our podcastand you’ll get regular resources from us. And of course, you can always unsubscribe if you’re unhappy. But hopefully you’ll be very happy.
A couple of other things: we’ve given you dates for next year for our events for the Centre for Christian Living. But I’d also like to tell you about another one of our partner centres, the Priscilla & Aquila Centre, which is really trying to resource how men and women work together in ministry—especially trying to help women think about ministry in different ways. We have a conference coming up in February. It’s always very well attended. This year, we’re talking about “Genesis Women” and it’s on February 1st. Gary Millar and Fiona Millar will be coming down from Brisbane, and we’re very glad to have them coming, and I hope you’ll make it a point to join us for that conference, which is always a real treat. So please make sure you check that out.
Again, there’s more information in the handout on things you can check out—including Megan’s book, which I think is a phenomenal resource on these very issues. You can read up more on things we’ve been talking about today.
CK: What I’m going to do now is open up the questions from Sli.do and ask questions of our panellists. And so, live fire, here we go. Oh, the last ones were a bit live fire as well; you didn’t really know what was coming. [Laughter]
The ethics of donating surplus embryos
CK: The first question that’s the most popular is “Do you have a view on the ethics of a couple donating embryos they do not want to an infertile couple?”
MB: I do.
CK: Please share.
MB: First of all, I think that the situation we’ve already described where you have to work out how many embryos may be created for a certain couple, if you do decide to go down the IVF track. You shouldn’t be thinking at that stage, “Oh, if I have any extras, I’ll just donate them to an infertile couple”. I see donation of excess embryos as what we call a retrieval ethic: it’s the making the best of a fallen world. Ideally, we would not have unwanted embryos in storage. In Australia, I’d say there’s probably at least 100,000 embryos in storage. It’s very hard to know. But, you know, lots and lots and lots of frozen embryos in storage. Don’t go into this process thinking, “I’ll just donate the extras”. I think this is only something we need to do in an extreme situation when there really is no other way to save the lives of those embryos.
And if you do decide to go down that track, I would say I would view it ethically as a very early adoption. And what happens is you sign the embryo storage over to another couple and they start paying the storage fees, and then they start going through the system of having the hormones injected into the woman so that her body is ready to have an embryo transfer and—it’s a bit cheaper for them, ’cause they don’t need to go through the egg retrieval and sort of the preparation involved in creating the embryos. There are Christian organisations which facilitate this process. The babies born from this process have been called “snowflake babies”—
CK: “Snowflake”, yep.
MB: —to just remind us that each embryo has its unique DNA the way every snowflake is unique. So this is certainly one way that children have been born through discarded embryos in a way. But I see it as an act which is a last resort, rather than something you aim for at the point of creation of embryos.
CK: I really like the language shift you’ve used there, because just as we would talk about an unwanted embryo, that’s just like talking about, in some ways, an unwanted pregnancy. And if we talk about unwanted pregnancies, suddenly we’re in the language, then, of abortion.
CK: And I like that, instead, you’ve talked about the embryos being early adoptions, which is recognising, again, human personhood, giving a life over to someone else for birth.
MB: That’s right. And making sure that embryo has at least a chance at life. You don’t know if the embryo will develop.
CK: Of course.
MB: But you don’t know that it won’t.
CK: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Okay, thank you very much.
CK: The second question, then, is “Do you think there are issues with trying to play God by going down the ART path? At one point should we accept that this may not be God’s will for us?”
JM: Look, I think, in many ways, this is a foundational question. You know, when—you know, this is discernment, isn’t it, in a very personal issue. But I think it is the key: it’s about what once has—you know, a couple have to be prayerful about—is this God’s will? Has God got other plans for your life? And I do think that it’s an area where, you know, one really has to wrestle with, you know, what is obedience and what is seeking something that isn’t God’s will? I think it’s key.
Facing this as a church family
CK: There are a couple of questions here about how we face this as a church family. I think we’ve tried to attempt an answer at a few of these things, and I hope that will be satisfactory. Just as I go through them, though, can I just offer an anecdote that I’ve been so impressed with people in my church—in particular, singles that are wanting children or even married couples that have struggled, who have been very open with us about their struggle, and have even said things that are very helpful to them. So I can think of one single woman in our church that we love dearly who says, “I love your children and I love to be around your kids”. And we think, “That’s fantastic!” So she’s in our home often—much like a—a family member—loving our kids and they love her, and it’s a joy for them and for us, and of course, it’s not just, you know, being around our kids just to be around our kids, but it’s actually to be around us too. It’s like part of our family. If we’re more open about these kinds of things, then we know how to love each other better, and how to be more open and hospitable to one another. And I think that’s a really important thing for us—just to keep talking about these things in our church.
CK: Next question, then: “With life beginning at fertilisation, what does that mean for early miscarriage and for how we should grieve as Christians? Should this be the same as if we’re losing a child that were born at full term?”
MB: I think that many people grieve even at losing a very early pregnancy—particularly if it’s a treasured pregnancy. As I’ve already mentioned tonight, I think the longer you have a relationship with a child, the harder it is to lose that child. It is harder to lose a baby at term than a baby who is still at a very early embryo stage. But if you knew you were pregnant and viewed that child as—you know, once you’re pregnant, you’re a parent. And if you lose that child, you lose all the hopes that were wrapped up in that baby.
And I think it’s not just a problem for Christians; I think that throughout our society, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence around miscarriage. And I personally—I’ve spoken to many women who desperately grieve loss of a baby at the stage of a miscarriage, but felt they couldn’t tell people, because they weren’t really pregnant or they, you know—it wasn’t really a baby. I think by downplaying the humanity of an embryo or a fetus, we’re really robbing those mothers and fathers of that opportunity to acknowledge that they were parents and they lost that child.
CK: Thank you. That’s very helpful.
Single women using ART
CK: “What do we think about single women using ART to become pregnant?” I mean, I know a lot of single women feel pressure right now—this is different, I know—to freeze eggs early while they’re young, because their eggs are healthier—potentially more viable while they’re young. But that obviously is then priming them for a particular kind of procedure later in life. But what do we think about single women actually going the full step of ART to have a child as a single parent?
JM: So—I mean, with the advent of such technologies, anyone can have a family now and, you know, there are rainbow clinics who obviously advertise this service to couples in all sorts of different relationships, and single women too. You know, as Christians, we believe that the family unit is a mother and a father, and certainly that’s the biblical lens that we would see would help humankind flourish and society flourish. So it’s—
Again, I realise I don’t fully understand the struggles that some people who are single have. But ultimately, you know, once we begin to see a child as a commodity, which essentially can be obtained through these means, I think we’re missing God’s plan for our society and human flourishing.
CK: We need to be very careful, don’t we, about the kinds of ways that culture creeps in, then—commodification of children or other things. It really is a marketplace that we’re being sold things that we want and being told we can have—in fact, you should have—and suddenly I feel entitled to all sorts of things that otherwise may not have been possible.
MB: Yes, we have to think about the whole process from the perspective of the child, not just the perspective of the parent.
MB: Or the adult.
CK: Yes, of course. That’s right. And so you’re basically welcome them into a single parent home. And—
MB: And we’ve heard from donor offspring very much in the media that they resent the fact that they don’t know who their biological parents are—
CK: That’s right.
MB: —because someone decided that it was more important to have a child using anybody—you know, if they didn’t have their own egg or sperm and they had those gametes donated, and—
MB: —to have a child. But these children resent the fact that there’s been a lack of clarity in their biological heredity. So I think when you start to consider the perspective of the child, even more ethical issues arise.
CK: Someone’s coming back again just wondering is there an ethical way to go about IVF?
MB: I think we all have to be honest in realising that a large number of human embryos were destroyed in the development of IVF. So there are ethical problems in the whole industry, because that has been part of the way the industry has developed as new technologies have developed, and now human embryos are used for things like quality assurance and training of technicians: they’re destroyed in those processes. So we have to realise that there are ethical problems in the whole industry.
But if you are determined—if you think this is the right thing for you—if you are determined to go down this route, as I said, I would get educated upfront and find out what is involved in the processes, so you can be aware of ethical problems before you go into it. A lot of the ethical problems, such a leftover embryos, can creep up on you without realising. You need to know about it before you start. Pray about it before you start. And only create the number of embryos that you would be willing to have as children. Don’t set out without keeping in mind the ethical problems that can arise, or you will be caught out.
Also, because the success rate is only 25 per cent, I think, starting out, you need to have some sense of how much am I going to invest in this? Because one of the things we haven’t talked about is the cost of IVF. And it can be financially very expensive. But it can also be enormously expensive in terms of time and relationships. And we need to be good stewards in all areas of our lives, and we need to be very careful that we don’t allow the search for a child to be an idol so that other areas of our lives get neglected.
CK: Okay, that’s helpful. Anything else you want to add to that?
JM: So the question was …
CK: Whether or not IVF—if there is an—
MB: If it can be done ethically.
CK: —ethical IVF.
JM: If it can be done ethically. I think it’s a personal f—I mean, I wrestle with this, and many of our friends have children through IVF. I see many, many patients, you know—up to 4 per cent of the patients we care for are IVF pregnancies.
I think, though, embarking on an IVF cycle undoubtedly has a high likelihood of, you know, producing embryos that will not survive that—those first few days of maturation. And, yeah, I guess I personally struggle with that ethically.
CK: Thank you. In view of that, what alternatives could be explored as people start to face infertility? I mean, when do you even start talking about infertility realistically with people? I hear it’s changing—creeping earlier and earlier and earlier.
MB: Oh, look, I think what is diagnosed as infertility at times is impatience. I’ve been told of people diagnosed with infertility after six months of trying. But we know it can take two years for, you know—before over 90 per cent of couples get pregnant, they can take two years of trying. So I think we need to be—we need to be very wary of an industry that wants us to come along and start to use their products when, in fact, being more patient, perhaps things would have happened naturally.
CK: Yeah. When something is so wanted and somebody tells you “You can have this”, that is such a strong lure, isn’t it.
MB: It’s so difficult.
CK: Such a strong lure.
MB: These people are so emotionally vulnerable.
CK: Yeah. It’s very hard.
JM: Yeah, I mean, it’s—I think prayerful expectancy certainly has a place. I mean, it’s very common to see couples who’ve gone through IVF technology for their first child who fall pregnant spontaneously. I’ve seen many, many couples and it is common.
So I think that, you know, Megan’s advice is certainly—you know, the idea about planning parenthood for those couples who are in the position to do so is really important—you know, not delaying childbearing is a really important consideration. But certainly not rushing at, say, twelve months—eighteen months—isn’t unusual, and I think patience is required.
CK: And any alternatives that you explore before getting into the IVF cycle?
MB: Oh, I think you’ve given very good advice. You know, sometimes you might have a vitamin deficiency that’s stopping you getting pregnant. To see a GP who practises holistically—looks at your complete health. Sometimes the thing that’s stopping you from being pregnant’s got nothing to do with your reproductive system; it can be a different type of disease that has a treatment, and once you take the treatment, you become fertile and you can get pregnant. So you at least need to screen for those things. You need to aim for a normal bodyweight. As I said, you need to have sex regularly. There are some very basic things that make a difference to your fertility rate. And it seems, given the ethical problems in IVF, why wouldn’t you do those things first?
CK: Jonathan and Megan, I am so grateful for what you’ve shared tonight. It takes a lot of courage, I think, to be able to speak openly about these things—things that are very troubling for so many people, and once again, I want to say to our audience that if you’re struggling tonight, I really encourage you to talk to someone. Speak to your minister. Speak to your Bible Study leader. Talk to your Bible Study group. Ask for prayer. We’ve also given you some resources in the our handout to follow up just in case you’re really finding yourself at a place where you’re really grieved and at a loss. And so we hope that you’ll make good use of those resources if necessary.
Of course, you can always get in touch with the Centre through our website, and I would encourage you once more: check out Megan’s book. We’ve given you a few links as well to some other articles that you can read, and we hope that you’ll make good use of that. And keep thinking well on these things. Keep reasoning from Scripture prayerfully, and remember that we are longing for a better day, even in our grief—even in our longing—we know that there are great hopes held out to us in Christ, and much of what we anticipate in the future is actually provided to us in the church community and the people around us that can walk beside us and be family to us even when we don’t have, perhaps, even a family of our own.
I want to pray for us as we conclude our evening and then we’ll leave you for the evening.
Father, please, please help us to think well on these things. And please help those that are suffering right now, longing for children—a very good thing to long for, Lord. We pray that you’ll comfort those that are single and wishing that they had a spouse. We pray you’d comfort those married couples that maybe have been trying and are longing to have a child of their own—those that maybe have children and just can’t have another—please, Lord, bring comfort to them. Give each of us a patience. Help us to keep these desires in their place. Help us to continue to long, but not as those without hope. Let us remember your Fatherly goodness and care, and even when we don’t have everything we want now, let us know that you still love us and are providing for us. And we pray that you will keep us in faith until that day when we will be united with you and all of your people.
We’re grateful for the wisdom that’s been shared to us tonight. We pray you’d continue to bless Jonathan and Megan in each of their lines of work. Give them courage to stand as Christians in that space, and we pray, Lord, that you would protect life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
CK: Thank you all very much for joining us at the Centre for Christian Living. We hope you’ll keep an eye out and join us again next time.
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please subscribe to our podcast and also be sure to visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you can discover many articles, past podcasts and video materials.
You might also like to stay current with what’s happening through the Centre by signing up for our monthly enewsletter. We always benefit from receiving questions and feedback from our listeners, and if you’d like to get in touch, you can email us at email@example.com.
As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music provided by James West.