In vitro fertilization, embryonic stem research, genetic testing and human cloning are moral issues of our day closely related to the abortion debate. The underlying issues discussed in this series concerning the morality of abortion also apply to these important topics. Whether one takes and essentialist or functionalist view of personhood will also determine the morality of these practices and procedures.
Summary Concerning Abortion
We have seen that a person comes to be when a soul is present, and a soul is present from the moment of conception. Therefore a person is present from the moment of conception. From this it logically follows that abortion is morally wrong from the point of conception. The argument may be summarized this way:
- All people are valuable and worthy of protection.
- Therefore it is morally wrong to take the life of another person.
- A person begins to exist at the moment of conception.
- Therefore, it is morally wrong to take the life of a person from the moment of conception.
- Abortion takes the life of a person from the moment of conception.
- Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.
This argument does raise further questions. Premise one raises the question of whether abortion is morally justified in the case of rape. I do not think cases of rape invalidate the first premise. For abortion in the case of rape to be morally justified the first premise would need to be modified to read, “The people who are conceived consensually are valuable and worthy of protection.” I do not believe that is a true premise. I believe all people are valuable and worthy of protection, no matter how they came to be.
I believe this is a rationally sound argument in defense of premise one, and therefore the premise is correct. But I also have direct experience with the truth of this premise. I was the result of a “date rape” (I’ve written on my learning my familiar history here). I do not believe the facts surrounding my coming to be in any way make me less valuable and worthy of protection (and I am deeply thankful to my birth mother for sharing this conviction!) As I wrote in there, I did not deserve to die, as I was innocent of any wrongdoing worthy of the death penalty. I believe the same applies to all others who share a similar heritage. Premise one is true just as it is written.
Premise two raises another issue. If it is morally wrong to take the life of another person, does this imply capital punishment is morally wrong? There is much debate on the morality of capital punishment, within and beyond the Christian community. But all agree that it is morally wrong to take an innocent life, whether or not it is morally right for the state to take the life of one guilty of a capital offense. That is the point of premise two, and it is certainly true concerning the unborn.
Reasoning Applied to In Vitro Fertilization
In Vitro Fertilization (IVF, also known as creating “test tube babies”) is a procedure used in cases of infertility. A woman is given drugs that cause her to produce multiple eggs, which are then surgically extracted and inseminated in a petri dish (“in vitro”—Latin for “in glass”). Often quite a few embryos are created, as it is an expensive procedure, and there is the possibility that if only one embryo is created, it (she/he) will not survive implantation and gestation. Therefore multiple eggs are fertilized, and a number of the embryos are selected to be surgically implanted back in the woman’s uterus (or into a surrogate’s uterus). Some of the embryos are not implanted due to abnormalities, sex, or because they cannot all be carried to term. The unimplanted embryos are “discarded” or stored in case the first implantations are unsuccessful or when the couple desires to have another child. Eventually unimplanted embryos are “destroyed” or donated for medical research. Some are simply kept frozen indefinitely.
Due to the costs involved, if three or four eggs are successfully inseminated, they are all implanted. This gives the couple the best chance of having one successfully implanting and growing to term. Some countries place limits on the number that may be implanted, but the U.S. has no legal limit. This sometimes results in twins or triplets, but if more than that successfully implant and grow in the womb, “selective termination” of one or more of the babies in utero is requires for the health and safety of the mother who can not carry them all to term.
Given the arguments showing that life begins at conceptions, when in vitro fertilization results in killing an embryo it is morally wrong. This includes when the embryo is discarded, which is no less than killing a (very young, very small) person. This also includes donated extra, unwanted embryos for medical research, which is again non-voluntary experimentation on human persons leading to their death, a morally forbidden practice. Indefinitely freezing the embryos is taking away the right that person has to a normal, healthy life defined by natural development and growth (and often eventually results in killing the embryo, as storage is expensive). Finally, selective termination is another term for abortion, and is wrong for the reasons outlined above.
Catholic thinkers, and others who embrace a robust “Natural Law “ ethic, offer an additional reason in vitro fertilization is unethical. They argue the essential purpose of sex is procreation—there is a fundamental link between sex and conception. Therefore to break this link is wrong. IVF breaks this link. (This is also the ethical basis for deeming any unnatural means of birth control as unethical.)
While I embrace Natural Law as an appropriate ethical system, and have much respect for Catholic ethicists, I do not agree with this reasoning. I believe biblically the purpose of sex is much more than procreation. It is for the expression of love and intimacy, and a means by which the husband and wife fully enjoy one another and their union. I believe this more robust view of sex is communicated in the Creation account and the Song of Solomon. I do hot have space here to say more, but hope to write more on this later.)
Therefore, I do believe IVF is not inherently immoral. There are ways to employ IVF technology in a morally acceptable way—in a way that does not result in destroying embryos. This would entail only inseminating the number of eggs that the mother is willing to have implanted and carry to term (or a surrogate carrying them to term, depending on one’s view of the morality of surrogacy). Of course, this option entails significant financial risk (the average cost of the procedure is over $12,000, which many insurers do not cover. Yet the expense should not factor into the morality of the action. If it does, monetary value is being place on human life. This is contrary to viewing life as intrinsically valuable, meaning we treat people as ends, not as means to another’s ends (including financial ends). Therefore, only if these conditions are met can IVF be a morally acceptable medical procedure.
Three other related reproductive technologies must also be considered in this discussion: embryonic stem cell research, genetic testing, and human cloning. I’ll address these in next week’s article.
Until then, grace and peace!
For further reading I suggest Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics by J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae.