i

Reproductive Technologies: Blessing or Curse, Dilemmas for Christians

Jan F. Dudt

Ordained Servant: February 2024

Ethics

Also in this issue

Abuse: No Joke, No Myth

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Remember Your Medium, Chapter 11[1]

Redemption in Christ: A Review Article

How to Read and Understand the Psalms by Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

We Have Waited for the Snow

The pace of new technological developments is staggering. It is difficult to process the potential impact they can have on our lives and culture. It is even hard for those of us who teach and work in technological fields to keep abreast of the trends and to process them with biblical discernment, insight, perception, and wisdom. Thirty years ago, Neil Postman expressed concern in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.[1] His assessment was that when a technology is admitted to a culture, it plays out its hand. That is, new technologies end up shaping us in ways we do not often think of or are even aware of as the technology becomes commonly used. In our technology driven society we tend to assume that the next technological advancement is inherently an improvement over the old. The assumption is not always warranted. We as Christians need to be skeptical. Currently our western cultural context seems to be increasingly willing to distance itself from any informed Christian assessment of the new. Some Christians may think technology is neutral, and whether it is used for good or evil is dependent on the purposes and ethics of its use. However, that claim may be debated. Technology always reflects a practical use of information rooted in God’s created world. It is true that it can be used for good or evil. The same can be said of things created good, such as sex, food, drink, words, the list could go on. Ultimately these good creations are either used in the good service of the Creator, or they are used in service of Satan. So, in a way there is no neutrality.

What seems shocking to many is that some of the latest modern technologies appear to be sinister from the start. Indeed, they still reflect the created order or else they would not work. However, the motivation behind them taints the possibility of them ever being used ethically, especially if the culture rejects biblically informed ethical principles.

It becomes the job of Christians to work with these technologies and develop the ethical frameworks for using them, if they can be used at all. Central to biblically informed ethical use are definitions we find in Scripture for humans being in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), the nuclear family as being the only sanctioned way of bringing children into the world (Gen 2:24), and the value of the human body as an essential part of the image bearing human (1 Cor. 6:19–20, 1 Cor. 15). No other arrangement than the married husband and wife is considered a legitimate means of human reproduction. Behind it all is the Creation Mandate to be fruitful, multiply, have dominion, and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28; Ps. 8).

Being in a fallen world has meant that the situation becomes complicated in the face of these principles. One or both parents may die, leaving a single parent or orphans. In our culture out of wedlock births are epidemic. This often creates single parents or opportunities for adoption, a legitimate biblical solution. Infertility has plagued our species from the earliest times. Solutions for infertility are old—for example Abram, Sarai, and the traditional surrogate Hagar (Gen.16).

Making this even more complicated is the modern global decline in birthrates. Major portions of global populations are currently significantly below the sustaining birthrate of 2.1 children per woman. Hence, they are at risk of serious population decline. According to World Bank data, the average European births per woman is 1.5, with many European countries being less. China is at 1.2, Japan is at 1.3, South Korea is at .8. In North America the situation is also in decline. Birthrate for the USA is at 1.6, Canada is at 1.4, and Mexico is at 1.8. In all these places the cultural value of the nuclear family and fertility has been in decline for decades. The long-range prognosis for such trends is not good. In fact, they are extinction trajectories.

Invitro Fertilization (IVF)

Yet these countries are often world leaders in developing reproductive technologies. For example, in England, in vitro fertilization (IVF) was first successfully used in 1978 to reproduce a child from a married couple who were struggling with infertility. The embryo was implanted in the mother after in-lab fertilization was accomplished. Louise Joy Brown was born July 25, 1978. It is true that technology like this helps us regain lost dominion that results from the fall. Infertility due to biological impairment would not have been a situation of the pre-fallen economy. We can be thankful for the recovery of fertility for those struggling with the loss.

However, ethical issues remain a concern with IVF. The issue of human embryos being produced in unsuccessful trials is troubling. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH),[2] the implanted embryo to birth success rate is about 30%, compared to 24% for natural conception to births.[3] The pre-implantation embryo selection process in the lab may be increasing technological success over natural conception. This practice would be problematic for prolife Christians desiring to give all embryos a chance for development and delivery.

A big problem with IVF is the fact that the technology is not solely used by married couples. It can be used by single women using sperm donors to fertilize their eggs, or lesbians and gay individuals looking to have a child with the help of surrogates or sperm donors. In addition, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 2% of live births in the US are the result of IVF.[4] Not all of them are children of a married husband and wife. Even married couples may find that excess embryos from IVF procedures are unwanted, relegating these embryos to be stored indefinitely in liquid nitrogen at -320° F. These pre-born humans have a grim future unless their parents give them a chance at life, or a surrogate mother, hopefully married to a husband, steps forward to adopt them. Christians need to be aware of the issues as they make biblically informed choices regarding their families. For example, adopting an embryo from cold storage and navigating the dynamics of relationships with the child’s genetic parents can be challenging.

It is conceivable that IVF as a reproductive solution can be helpful for married husbands and wives. However, thinking it through should involve much prayer and seeking wise counsel. This technology should not be used except by those who are husband and wife creating their child together. And all embryos so produced should be given a chance to be brought to term.

Sperm Banks and Cryo-preservation

Sperm banks have been around for decades. Donor men are paid to donate their sperm, retained in liquid nitrogen cold storage. Sperm can be used sooner or later. Liquid nitrogen storage is nearly indefinite. The obvious ethical concern in this technology is the payment for sperm donation to fathers who have no intention to raise the children they sire, let alone be married to the mother. Profiled donors, often remaining nameless, are selected by women for artificial insemination or IVF. Some of these women are acting as surrogate mothers for anyone desiring to adopt a baby with traits hopefully mirroring those of the father or mother. In any event, it is thought that 30,000 to 60,000 births a year occur with the use of sperm donors. Many of the women are single or are lesbians who want to have a child. Some of the fathers are seeking contact with the children they anonymously fathered. Some are exploring the parental rights they have as biological fathers. One donor father who knows he fathered 96 children, went on a 9,000 mile trek through North America to contact the children.[5] There have been cases of half-sibling couples marrying and having children before they realized they had the same father. These obvious ethical concerns mean that sperm banks used this way are not options for Christians.

Yet, this technology can preserve a husband’s sperm for married couples that face the potential onset of the husband’s infertility due to disease or trauma. In this way, an unfortunate effect of our fallen world can be addressed. Lost dominion can, in part, be regained.

Two Types of Surrogacy

Surrogate motherhood has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Traditional surrogacy, the type used by Abram, Sarai, and Hagar, where the surrogate as biological mother carries the man’s offspring, is still around. It is banned in many European countries but is legal in the USA. The surrogate is the biological mother of the child, and her name is on the child’s original birth certificate. How many children are born annually by way of traditional surrogacy is hard to know. Married couples and homosexual couples have used traditional surrogates. And they may pay dearly for it, $120,000 to $200,000. However, the ethical concerns experienced by Abram and Sarai are compounded by our modern cultural turmoil. For example, John Stonestreet and Maria Baer report in Breakpoint,[6] produced by the Colson Center, of a gay couple who wanted their surrogate to abort the baby because of fears that a premature baby would be at risk to have certain medical issues. The mother had contracted aggressive breast cancer and was advised to be induced to deliver so she could start cancer treatments. The child, born at twenty-five weeks, could have survived but unfortunately died soon after delivery. Legal issues compound the ethical crisis. In California, parental rights laws would have likely required the mother to abort at the behest of the gay couple who contracted her services.

Gestational surrogacy is also fraught with ethical concerns. In gestational surrogacy the surrogate mother carries the IVF embryo of a married couple, or an embryo from an unmarried woman and man. The surrogate would not be genetically related to the child. Christian women have been known to carry babies for married couples when the genetic mother could not carry the baby to term. Typically, this surrogacy is considered an act of kindness on the part of the surrogate, whether she is monetarily compensated or not. Risks associated with pregnancy are still a concern. Parental rights issues remain. And abortion may be considered if the developing child does not meet the expectations of the biological parents. Gestational surrogates typically are asked to meet the industry’s standards of being healthy women who have had a couple healthy natural pregnancies. However, as altruistic as it may sound, payment for the service is typical and the commodification of physical humanity remains a grave concern. How does one put a price tag on human bodies?

Gestation by way of artificial wombs

Perhaps the most chilling advancement in reproductive technology is the “progress” being made in development of artificial gestation, artificial wombs. The technology is progressing rapidly. Mice can be gestated from conception to 50% full term. Sheep can be taken from two-thirds term to delivery in artificial wombs. This technology is being consider for human trials by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).[7] The initial rationale is to offer treatment to babies that would otherwise face the risks of premature delivery.

Few premature babies survive if born before twenty-two weeks of gestation. Premature babies born after twenty-eight weeks are still at high risk of various medical conditions later in life. Premature babies put into artificial wombs (like those developed for sheep) and allowed to develop closer to the normal forty weeks could be heathier. This assumes that the technology works and does not create more of its own associated problems.

Experimenting with the early stages of the technology is problematic. Prolife concerns would include making sure trials were not conducted on healthy mothers and babies, putting them at unnecessary risk. Trials would defensibly be offered as experimental treatments for otherwise hopeless cases where the baby would die if not gestated artificially. That decision may not always be clear, and parental rights can easily be violated. Yet increasing the likelihood of infant survival would be desirable.

Ethical, lifesaving use of artificial wombs would make the new advancements attractive. However, in our ethically confused culture it is quite possible that there would be many violations of Christian ethics in the development and use of the technology. Developing the technology in today’s ethical environment would certainly mean that some level of human embryonic and fetal experimentation would be part of the development plan. If the technology is advanced by means of purposefully experimenting with unborn humans, Christians would have to cry foul. However, in the past, overt human experimentation has been avoided at times by the use of experimental procedures that have given a ray of hope in an otherwise hopelessly desperate situation. I would imagine the first cesarean section on a human was such a case. Eventually, the technique was perfected, largely through trial and error.

One can imagine a very sinister use of artificial wombs. In those counties with declining populations due to low birthrates, as seen in Europe and East Asia (North America is not far behind), it is conceivable that the technology could be used to prevent population collapse to avert economic and cultural ruin. In places where the traditional family is in crisis, central authorities may employ artificial wombs to avert demographic disaster. Governments would be engaged in raising and educating the children by means that would entirely circumvent the traditional family with nightmarish results. Pray that it never comes to this. If it does, Christians will be faced with profound challenges, from evangelism to nearly unimaginable social issues. We can always rely on God’s grace to see us through. Opportunities to be salt and light to a desperate people would never be greater.

Humans as GMO

Genetically modifying humans is another deep ethical concern facing us. Presently, the only known genetically modified humans are the three Chinese girls who were genetically modified to be HIV resistant. The idea was to avoid the risk of them contracting HIV from their HIV positive father. Chinese doctor He Jiankul led a team using the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR to edit the genes of the IVF embryos of the genetic parents. Experiments were carried out on human embryos and fetuses carried by surrogate mothers. Dr. He successfully modified three young embryos but was eventually jailed for his efforts. The Chinese authorities took exception to Dr. He’s freewheeling pursuit of scientific advancement.[8] It is fair to say that this technology was advanced by human genetic experimentation that resulted in the death of trial embryos and fetuses. In a regime that has little concern for humans as imago Dei, the biggest issue was doing the work apart from the approval of the central authorities. For Christians, that is not good enough. The protection of human life from experimental trials and certain death is the bigger issue. Altering human genetics may be acceptable if it corrects a genetic defect and human life is preserved. However, defining what is a genetic defect is not always clear. For example, is lactose tolerance or lactose intolerance a defect? Most would think that hemophilia is a defect worth correcting if the correction could be done without jeopardizing human life, as it is a condition recognizably due to the fall. However, the gain must not come at the price of destroyed human life.

Cloning Humans

Human reproductive cloning is banned internationally. However, cloning human embryos for therapeutic experimentation, for example the development of embryonic stem cells, is acceptable in many countries, including the US. President George W. Bush issued an executive order in the summer of 2001 that cut off federal funding for many forms of human embryonic stem cell research. However, research could still be conducted with private funds. President Obama rescinded that order in March 2009 to remove politics and ideology from the issue and to let science be science. His explanation was an incredible statement full of politics and ideology.

However, reproductive cloning may well be on the horizon. Artificial wombs, genetic modification, the decay of the nuclear family, the rise of central authorities that have little regard for the human as the bearer of divine image, paves the way for the unthinkable. I was at a stem cell conference in 2007 when a researcher claimed to have cloned himself using somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same technology that produced Dolly the sheep and Barbara Streisand’s replacement dogs. The research was done to produce stem cell lines for regenerative medicine. The work was done in the UK where law requires the clone to be terminated at the 16-cell stage. However, it is conceivable that the clone could have been implanted into a gestational surrogate mother and brought to term.

Undoubtedly, these reproductive technologies will be used as the future unfolds. Christians who understand the authority of Scriptures will be faced with opportunities for countercultural testimony and practice. We will be called to buck societal trends. Legal battles will occur. These are already realities. However, we will be faced with how we treat humans brought into the world, regardless of the technology used. Christians need to recognize all humans as image bearers of God. We will then need to fashion our cultural response accordingly. It is not a new thing that humans have reproduced by other-than-God-sanctioned means. However, it is biblically clear that all are to be recognized as imago Dei.

Technologies are already in motion that assault the image of God. Genetically engineering humans with non-human genes and human-animal chimeras are all possible. We can assume that those unrestrained by God’s definitions of the created order are already making “progress” with these. Christians will increasingly be found to be in nearly intractable situations. We need to be praying for Godly wisdom, discernment, insight, and perception to remain faithful to our calling to protect the imago Dei as we realize our call to take dominion and subdue the earth.

Endnotes

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).

[2] Mahvash Zargar, Sorour Dehdashti, Mahin Najafian, and Parastoo Moradi Choghakabodi, “Pregnancy Outcomes Following In Vitro Fertilization Using Fresh or Frozen Embryo Transfer,” NIH National Library of Medicine, v.25(4), Oct–Dec 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8489809/.

[3] C. E. Boklage, “Survival Probability of Human Conceptions from Fertilization to Term,” NIH National Library of Medicine, v.35(2) Mar–Apr 1990, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1970983/.

[4] “ART Success Rates,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/art/artdata/index.html.

[5] Amy Dockser Marcus, “A Sperm Donor Chases a Role in the Lives of the 96 Children He Fathered,” The Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2023.

[6] John Stonestreet and Maria Baer, “Why There’s No Such Thing as ‘Surrogacy Gone Wrong,’” Breakpoint, Colson Center, August 14, 2023, https://breakpoint.org/why-theres-no-such-thing-as-surrogacy-gone-wrong/.

[7] Max Kozlov, “Human Trials of Artificial Wombs Could Happen Soon,” Nature, September 14, 2023,

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-02901-1.

[8] Sui-Lee Wee, “Chinese Scientist Who Genetically Edited Babies Gets 3 Years in Prison,” New York Times, December 30, 2019.

Jan Frederic Dudt is a professor of biology at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, February, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: February 2024

Ethics

Also in this issue

Abuse: No Joke, No Myth

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Remember Your Medium, Chapter 11[1]

Redemption in Christ: A Review Article

How to Read and Understand the Psalms by Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

We Have Waited for the Snow

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