Vulnerable human beings in the earliest stages of life are especially at risk these days. Increasingly, on both sides of the Atlantic, we chemically induce abortions in the comfort of our own homes, so that the process of terminating an embryo’s life is socially invisible. The fertility-industrial complex has stored millions of “spare” embryos in freezers as people pursue in vitro fertilization to achieve their reproductive aims. Some of those embryos have been used for medical and scientific research; most will be stored indefinitely. These practices suggest a profound crisis in how we understand the significance of human life. Oliver O’Donovan observes that for many of us, embryos are only “ambiguously human”: Though they are members of our own species, they are treated as “doubtfully proper objects of compassion and love.”
Human beings deserve respect and love because they are made in and according to the image of God. But employing that concept to explain how we ought to treat one another is more precarious than it might seem. Scripture offers less moral content than one might think, given the prominence of the imago Dei in Christian rhetoric.
The meaning of imago Dei needs to be specified canonically to ensure that it is not used to subordinate other human beings unjustly—as has happened all too often. For example, reducing the imago Dei to “rationality” risks creating a context in which those with impaired cognitive faculties are viewed as possessing less intrinsic dignity and thus as less worthy of protection. If we do not draw our content for the doctrine of the image of God from the whole counsel of Scripture, we will be susceptible to filling it with our own presuppositions about what gives human beings a special dignity that commands supreme respect.
We need to begin with the form of Christ’s life as the image of God—as Paul calls him in Colossians 1:15. As John Kilner points out, Scripture tends to ascribe the imago Dei to Christ without prepositions, whereas we are created in or according to God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–27, 5:1, 9:6; James 3:9; Col. 3:10). Jesus is simultaneously fully human and fully divine, and thus his human nature stands in relationship to God in a unique and immediate way.
The revelation of Christ as imago Dei has twofold ethical significance. First, since we are created in the image of God, our lives ought to correspond to Christ’s: We are to live according to God’s image. Second, this revelation underwrites the unique sanctity of human beings, whose creation in the imago Dei demands a reverence and regard such as we would give the image himself. The second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is like unto the first, which is to love God with all our heart and soul and strength. James 3:9–10, for instance, chastises us for blessing God while cursing our neighbors who are made in his likeness. What we owe to God we owe to our neighbor, albeit in a derivative way.
How, then, are we to reason theologically from Christ, the imago Dei, to ethical questions concerning our treatment of human beings at the beginning of life? We can begin with the Word made flesh at his own beginnings.
Like the spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1, the angel announces to Mary that the “Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Christ’s birth signals the beginning of the new creation, the inauguration of Christ’s reign over the whole cosmos. Christ is born to save us—and born in a manner that discloses the power that will eventually triumph over death. The Spirit who “raised Christ Jesus from the dead,” as Paul writes in Romans 8:11, is the one who overshadows Mary and conceives the Savior.
While Christ’s unique status as the Son of God is revealed by the announcement to Mary, his virginal conception and birth have implications for how we think about his parents. Joseph is not absent. In Luke’s account, he accompanies the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem in order to be registered, and remains with her in the cave as she gives birth. In Matthew, his role is even more pronounced. Luke shows Mary receiving the annunciation, whereas in Matthew it is Joseph who is visited in a dream and told that Mary’s unborn child was conceived by the Holy Ghost. Joseph accompanies Mary in their journey to Egypt and back, embodying and recapitulating God’s protective care for Israel through Abraham’s descent into Egypt in Genesis and Israel’s liberation in Exodus. Joseph offers Mary remarkable protection and care: He remains betrothed to her despite having no role in the conception of her child.
Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, who responds in faith to the word of the Lord. If Protestants cannot revere Mary quite as Catholics do for her role as the “mother of the Lord,” neither can they hesitate in ascribing to her that title—if for no other reason than that it affirms the full humanity of Christ. Nor should we deny, then, that the sanctity of the embryo of the incarnate Word consecrates the womb that bears him. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that the “children of believers are holy.” The Incarnation of the Lord turns this vicarious holiness in the other direction: The holiness of the incarnate Lord sanctifies Mary’s womb, making it a fitting and appropriate vessel to bear the King of Glory.
The Incarnation reveals that human flesh can be united with God without being destroyed. The dignity of human nature arises not only from our elevation above animals on the horizontal plane of our existence—our rationality, language, tool-making, artistic creation, and so forth—but rather from the way in which Christ took on human flesh to live, die, and live again. In the Incarnation, we learn that human flesh’s orientation to God is not limited by capabilities or consciousness. The Christ-child is venerated, though he has no language and does not yet exercise his reason. After dying upon the cross, the body of Christ is deprived of life itself. Yet his disciples reverently gather his corpse and lay it in the tomb to await his Resurrection. As at his birth, in his death the body that bears the incarnate Lord is honored.
Our flesh is not joined with God through a hypostatic union. But it, too, is capable of bearing within it the empowering presence of God himself. The Holy Spirit, who has been poured into our hearts, conforms us to Christ and gives life to our mortal bodies (Rom. 5:5, 6:14, 8:11, 12:1–2). Thus, as the disciples honored Christ’s body, so we are called to honor the bodies of our neighbors—even when they have no ability to speak or act for themselves. The reverence that is owed Christ is due in an analogous way to our neighbor: The worship we owe the one who is the Image incarnate engenders a respect for those created in the image of God.
The ethical implications of this account of the imago Dei are many, but few are sharper or more explicit than the absolute prohibition against killing innocent human beings. Indeed, one of the few explicitly moral uses of the imago Dei in Scripture comes after God brings Noah and his family through the flood. The Lord reaffirms the unique dignity of the human person, which he guards with an absolute commandment against the intentional killing of an innocent human being. “Whoever sheds the blood of man,” Genesis 9:6 says, “by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Humanity’s creation in the imago Dei both makes murder wrong and authorizes us to use deadly force in rendering judgment against it. Christ’s own death confirms and deepens the prohibition on murder. Every killing of an innocent human being who is made in that image is a vicarious participation in the murder of our Lord.
Because abortion has been enshrined within society as a social and political reality, it is easy to downplay its significance. The murder of an innocent adult shocks us: Because it is visible, we easily feel its horror. But the hidden character and widespread acceptance of abortion blunts our consciences. Christ’s birth was answered by Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, an attempt to end the reign of God before it began. In a similar way, our own societies have accepted abortion in order to be freed from the task of bringing about the personal and social conditions that are necessary for welcoming a new human being into the world.
Christ’s conception, his birth, and the vulnerable conditions of his infancy provide scriptural reasons to see abortion as a uniquely bad act. The innocent human being is voiceless and wholly dependent upon his mother for life and sustenance. Any abortion, even a chemical one, must invade the womb to terminate the life of the one within. This invasion and attack is a demonic parody of the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary and the gift of life brought to her. Whereas the presence of the Holy Spirit consecrates Mary’s womb, the deliberate destruction of life aims to desecrate it. Abortion disfigures the relationship between mothers and children. As an act, it reverses and destroys the relationship of care and nourishment that is at the heart of motherhood. And as a social practice, it sets aside the unchosen obligations of parenthood—obligations that arise within relationships of dependence and interdependence—and allows only bonds that are strictly voluntary and intentional.
Abortion also deforms our understanding of fatherhood. As was the case for Joseph, fathers are meant to accompany, provide for, and protect mother and child on their way to birth. Abortion allows fathers to escape these responsibilities. Many people hold that fathers should have no say in an abortion decision. It is not clear why such a principle should obtain. If the mother can dissolve her parental obligations to sustain and support the embryo by terminating her pregnancy, it seems the father should be similarly able to dissolve his obligations by offering to pay for an abortion—even if the mother declines. Conception is the beginning of parenthood, and as with marriage, no one can undo fatherhood save God alone.
The deformation of parenthood is an inevitable consequence of the social regime that abortion makes possible. Once we permit the desecration of the imago Dei at the beginning of life, that desecration will restructure our moral imaginations and affect social norms. What happens at the conception and birth of the child made in the image of God is a moment of divine action. Every culture recognizes this in rituals that celebrate new life. For Christians, this natural moment of divine action forms a template for Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, which inaugurates the triumph of life everlasting over death. In our own time, the social sanctioning of abortion is a counter-gospel, which opposes the light and life of the Word of God by destroying those who are created in and according to his image. The overshadowing presence of the Holy Spirit on Mary is met by Herod’s counterattack, as death attempts to swallow up life.
Evangelicals and other Protestants have achieved moral clarity about the evil of abortion. But we remain confused about the ethics of in vitro fertilization, a technology that removes a woman’s egg and fertilizes it with a man’s sperm in a laboratory environment, then reintroduces the now-living embryo into the woman’s uterus for gestation.
For most Evangelicals, it seems sufficient to apply the moral logic of the pro-life position. The fact that embryos are formed according to the imago Dei means that they are deserving of respect. This precludes callous, instrumentalizing treatment of them, as is the case when they are destroyed for the purposes of scientific research. The embryo’s unique moral status prohibits intentionally causing his death. Wayne Grudem applies this principle to the practice of in vitro fertilization. Any use of this technique that “destroys multiple human embryos,” he writes, “is morally wrong because it results in the wrongful destruction of human life.” Evangelicals also insist that the central importance of marriage as the context for reproduction means that technological means should only be used to aid in the conception of children from and within the relationship of a mother and father, which rules out fertility treatments that use a sperm or egg donor.
In short, for most evangelicals, the ethics of in vitro fertilization must satisfy two criteria: Embryos and sperm must come from a married couple, and no embryos may be killed. If these limits are accepted, the practice is permissible. The ethical implications of the imago Dei at the beginning of life are thus limited almost exclusively to the question of death and killing. A teaching so foundational to human dignity has no application to the question of whether there are impermissible means of creating an embryo.
This, I think, is a mistake. The doctrine of the imago Dei illuminates the problem of wrongful creation, not only of wrongful killing. Christ’s conception by the Holy Ghost within Mary’s womb is a radical irruption into the natural order. But it is one that confirms and strengthens that order, rather than sidestepping it. Christ lives as the one who comes immediately from God. But he lives in ways that perfect the natural bonds that surround him. The incarnate Son is not alone in his conception and birth. His humanity is surrounded by neighbors, near and far. His parents provide for and protect him, and without them he would not be the man who discloses God’s love to us. He owes them the honor required by the Fifth Commandment, and he gives it gladly.
In ordinary cases of conception, something similar can be said—even if the picture is more complicated. The conception of an embryo by father and mother happens beneath God’s providential care. As couples who struggle with fertility know, successful conception is a gift. God blesses the couple’s joy and love for each other with the newness of life. The embryo in that sense comes from God. If we are to honor that gift, then the means we employ to create new life matter.
The first thing we might say about in vitro techniques is that they multiply the parties and individuals involved. Children naturally conceived can point to their parents as the presuppositions for their lives. Wondering whether we would have existed had our parents married different people or conceived us in a different month, or even in a different hour, is not merely a game children play. In the natural course of things, we are conceived in a single, unrepeatable act of love between male and female.
The process of forming an embryo in a lab lacks this singular focus. It requires other persons, whose actions are more proximate to the formation of the embryo’s life than are the parents’. The father’s act in donating gametes is morally suspect. Sanctioning masturbation for the sake of collecting sperm is dubious, and as typically done it is presumptively wrong. The mother does not act in giving her eggs: She is acted upon. In the usual approach, she will undergo a regime of hormones that stimulate her reproductive system and then submit herself to an invasive procedure to collect her eggs.
After the biological elements are collected, fertility doctors and technicians take over until they transfer the embryo or embryos to the woman’s uterus. Behind the child’s life is thus at least one third party, without whose direct and immediate action he would not exist. This fact may seem insignificant, but it means that any true account of the child’s origins is diffuse, unlike that of a child conceived through sexual intercourse. When life goes badly, he might raise complaints not only against his parents—as we all sometimes are tempted to do—but against the fertility doctors without whom he would not exist.
There are other differences, all of which make in vitro fertilization morally suspect. The Holy Spirit “overshadows” Mary as the cloud of God’s glory “overshadows” the tabernacle. The Word of God shines, yes, but does so through the “clouds and thick darkness” that shield mortal eyes from glimpsing the inner life of God himself. The Incarnation is shrouded in mystery. We can press too far in our inquiries into the nature of the mystery of the Word made flesh. He calls us to say “yes” to eternal life in him, not to investigate, test, and weigh his offer. Natural conception has a similarly mysterious quality, one that beckons us to accept new life as gift rather than a technical project. In the ordinary course of things, every birth is a miracle and every act of conception a secret. The child does not want to hear details of the act that brought him into the world; knowledge of these intimacies would be unseemly. To give such details would be to disgrace the act of conception, to transform it into a spectacle for the titillation of others, or to reduce it to a technical description of a performance that applies to everyone and no one.
In vitro fertilization lacks this element of mystery. It is a scientific process conducted by third parties who have no personal interest in the results, to say nothing of parental obligations. The lab technicians’ work is not colored by love, nor even by lust. It is ordered to the efficient generation of embryos and children. It is standard practice in in vitro clinics, for instance, to grade embryos on their “quality”—in order to ensure the hopeful couple the best odds of implantation. To the degree possible, every element of a child’s conception is scientifically controlled.
The scientific rationality that guides the practice of in vitro fertilization stands in sharp contrast to the intimate and sometimes emotionally taxing labor involved in conceiving through ordinary procreation. Indeed, it is shocking just how inefficient ordinary conception can be, as many couples who have struggled to conceive will attest. But this is as it must be. If we wish to walk according to the image of God, we must preserve the mystery of our origins as distinct human persons. Honoring that mystery requires limiting conception to the secrecy and isolation of the marriage bed. Only this secures for future generations an origin in the union of their parents rather than in the dispersed agency of lab technicians, a practice that opens out onto a dystopian world in which new life is produced by bureaucracies, companies, and social service agencies. Walking according to the imago Dei means honoring the limits that have been imposed upon us: There is a power that is not ours to have.
Of all the systems in the body, only our reproductive system requires a second person to complete its proper function. The sources of infertility might be legion, and sometimes it happens for no apparent reason at all. In this respect, infertility is not a disease or a pathology, but an expression of the dependency and vulnerability of our embodied lives. The practice of Christian medicine should affirm that dependency—which is inherent in God’s gift of life and necessary for our filiation to him in Christ—rather than help us escape or circumvent it in the pursuit of our desires.
Where the reasons for infertility are known, we are free to develop treatments to cure them. But even if we intervene in an individual’s body to restore its reproductive function, conception still might not occur. Therapeutic interventions of this sort, which are certainly admissible for a Christian who seeks to be a parent, do not seek the conception of a child. They aim to remove known obstacles so that the couple may try to conceive a child. This may seem like a small difference, but it is not. A medical treatment of this sort seeks to enable a man and a woman to conceive. It does not seek to replace their roles in conception.
Medical treatment sometimes requires replacing the functioning of organs with machines, as when dialysis replaces the functioning of a kidney. But such compensatory measures remain ordered toward sustaining the body’s proper functioning. The practice of in vitro fertilization is entirely different. The formation of an embryo outside the womb does not bring our reproductive powers to their fulfillment; it brings about conception without their use at all, treating parents as genetic donors to a process conducted by others. And it imposes significant burdens on the couple, which they would not face otherwise. The man faces the burden of conscience that arises from the act necessary to contribute semen, and the woman faces the physical trials of a hormonal regimen to induce ovulation and an invasive procedure to harvest eggs.
If we are to live according to the imago Dei, we ought to refrain from seizing the power to make human life outside the means God has given us, and instead learn to embrace the givenness of our flesh and the gifts of our procreative powers—even if those gifts never come to fruition beneath the sovereign kindness of God.
An unwanted pregnancy is not a problem to be “solved.” And childlessness is not a disease to be overcome. Both are disclosures of the fundamental fact that we live, move, and have our being in God. The trials of women who are surprised by new life in their wombs and the laments of childless couples are very real. They require our solidarity and every measure of our support. But in the mystery of God’s kindness, these difficulties turn the Christian community’s hearts and minds toward the hope that does not disappoint, the hope of life that is always a blessing and cannot be lost, the hope found in the resurrection from the dead.
Our society’s failure to honor the image of God at the beginning of life arises from its denial of the Lordship and love of Jesus Christ. But that denial is made easier when Christians participate in the systems and structures that empty the origins of our lives of the awe and wonder of procreation, which comes sometimes when we do not want it, just as it can fail to come when we greatly desire it. Let us seek the face of God in Christ—and in so seeing him, see truly the ways those who are created according to his image are owed our care, compassion, and love.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the founder and lead writer of Mere Orthodoxy.