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In February, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that human embryos stored in an IVF clinic are unborn children for the purposes of the state's wrongful death statute. The left reacted with panic, claiming that the right isn’t just coming for abortions, but coming for IVF, too. For the left, adding IVF to the reproductive rights menu is a strategic way to reach suburban women in an election year. Characterize the ruling as a war on women, and you’re sure to make waves. 

What's more surprising is that many pro-life politicians and evangelical Christian mothers have also opposed the ruling outright or vowed to support IVF. It seems that for many, pro-life means pro-IVF, without qualification.

In a memo obtained by Axios, the National Republican Senatorial Committee urged candidates to “clearly and concisely reject efforts by the government to restrict IVF.” Senators are falling in line, fearing the IVF issue will hurt Republicans this fall. When asked if he supports the Alabama ruling, Senator Lindsey Graham said, “No . . . nobody’s been born in a freezer, that I know of.” Senator Katie Britt pledged support for IVF in the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union. Similarly, House Speaker Mike Johnson said, “Look, I believe in the sanctity of every human life—I always have—and because of that I support IVF and its availability.”

Some Christian mothers have condemned the Alabama ruling as anti-family, even anti-Christian. One claimed the ruling was “punishing families trying to create a family.” Another speculated, could IVF patients in Alabama be criminally charged “for donating a mass of cells, which only exist because we chose to create them?” Some argued that IVF is a gift from God. 

The irony is that unwittingly, these pro-life politicians and evangelical mothers have joined  forces with Planned Parenthood to fight against a ruling that protects human embryos as children. What happened to evangelical America’s espoused commitment to protect life at conception? What’s really going on here?

To understand this cultural moment, we first need to step back and consider what the Alabama ruling actually said. The case is about the scope of a wrongful death statute and an IVF clinic that accidentally destroyed stored embryos. The question before the court was this: Is there an exception to the Alabama wrongful death statute for embryos who are not physically located in their mother’s womb? The court’s answer was no, Alabama’s wrongful death statute broadly applies to children, born or unborn, including those at the embryo stage of development. 

The ruling concerned the destruction of IVF embryos, not the process of IVF itself. It did not criminalize or prohibit IVF. The court ruled that a clinic (or other person) who destroys a human embryo in Alabama could be liable to pay the parents for that destruction. The ruling itself didn’t prohibit or penalize IVF treatments. Clinics there could still create, store, and implant embryos. Given this, one might wonder—why is the evangelical community, especially Christian mothers, up in arms? Why wouldn't pro-lifers agree that destroying embryos is a bad thing? 

Some of the ruckus stems from misunderstanding the court’s decision. But in large part, the outsized reaction is rooted in the fear of losing access to IVF, a cherished path to parenthood. 

The fear of losing access to IVF has been birthed, in large part, by the IVF industry itself. After the Alabama ruling, certain clinics in the state voluntarily stopped providing IVF services, creating an artificial crisis and leaving women mid-treatment in the lurch, holding signs saying “I just want to be a mom.” All it takes is another ruling in another state to create the same chaos, so the thinking goes. 

Of course, stopping IVF services doesn’t benefit the patients. After all, the patients are the ones who could sue clinics for destruction of embryos. It benefits the clinics. It smells like purse strings, protectionism, and publicity in an industry that has been largely unregulated to this point. It looks like a powerful lobby leveraging political pressure to scare the socks off the right. 

The clinics helped manufacture a crisis because they are afraid of incurring greater expense to maintain their practices (for storing and protecting embryos), meaning less profit. And they are afraid of liability to parents for the destruction of embryos. The underlying message is: “Give us immunity from liability or you don’t get your babies.” It’s a genius move, and it seems to be working. 

In response, the Alabama legislature quickly passed a bill giving IVF clinics immunity for damaging or destroying embryos. The Republican governor readily signed it. The tension between this bill and Alabama’s abortion ban is palpable. An embryo outside the womb can be destroyed without consequence, but once that embryo is implanted in her mother, she receives legal protection. 

The evangelical community’s response to the Alabama ruling has been confusing, proclaiming that life begins at conception on the one hand and fighting the ruling on the other. But how can one justify the protection of the unborn at conception inside the womb but the destruction of that same embryo outside the womb? Isn’t an embryo outside the womb more vulnerable than one safe inside her mother? Is an embryo less human outside the womb than when, seconds later, a doctor delivers her into the womb? It makes no sense. 

Peeling back the onion, there is more at play here than a misunderstood court ruling, a political opportunity, or a manufactured crisis. The evangelical problem with the Alabama ruling goes much deeper, exposing cracks in the evangelical worldview. Though evangelicals have adopted the “life begins at conception” framework for abortion, they have often discarded it for IVF. The truth is evangelicals like their IVF, and they don’t want to feel bad about it. We love babies, want more babies, and more babies are good, right? We are called to be fruitful and multiply. Parenting is a good and right calling of a Christian. IVF babies are precious and made in the image of God. 

These statements are all true, but they fail to address the ethical implications of IVF—like genetic testing, embryo selection, and the fate of unused embryos. Millions of unborn children created for IVF have been destroyed or indefinitely frozen. Some estimate that almost half of the excess embryos created to help a woman conceive through IVF are destroyed during or after the process. And there is the preliminary question of whether the process itself wrongly commoditizes human life. 

Evangelicals fight to protect embryos inside the womb at the moment of conception, but many of them ignore the fate of embryos destroyed or stored in a freezer indefinitely. Churches apply Psalm 139 to abortion but don’t wrestle with its implications for IVF. Talking about IVF is uncomfortable—there are IVF babies in our pews, after all—so it’s largely left untouched. Christian women often navigate the fertility industry alone. 

Evangelicals know, deep down, that there are wrong ways to seek a good outcome, including the outcome of a much wanted child. We know that much harm can be done with good intentions. Why then do we tend to approach parenthood this way? Perhaps the answer is that many evangelicals have embraced the concept of planned parenthood—the belief that I get to be a parent (or not) on my terms.

One side of this coin is the woman with an unplanned pregnancy who chooses to abort her child—it’s parenthood on her terms, and her terms are not now, no matter the cost. Evangelicals have long opposed this as part of a life-at-conception worldview. But the other side of this coin is the woman who wants to be pregnant and creates “unused” embryos through IVF—it’s parenthood on her terms, and her terms are now, no matter the cost. 

The same ethos is at the root of both choices. It’s about the parent and her wish to be (or not be) pregnant, not the life of the children involved. If I want to be pregnant, I have a right to be. If I don’t want to be pregnant, I have a right not to be. This is the planned parenthood ethos. It’s about achieving self-fulfillment through a child (or a lack thereof). One consequence of this ethos is that millions of unborn children have been aborted in America. Another consequence, less discussed in church circles, is that millions of unborn children created for IVF have been destroyed or indefinitely frozen. 

This cracked worldview needs mending. Evangelicals cannot preach a pro-life ethic with integrity in the abortion context while ignoring its implications for embryos created during IVF. The fallout from the Alabama decision called their bluff.

As Solomon once said, faithful are the wounds of a friend. I don’t write this article as a gawker grinning at the chance to tear down the evangelical community (there are plenty of those already). I also don’t write it as a bystander bent on lecturing hurting women. I write this to my community and my fellow sojourners on the lonely path of infertility. 

My husband and I suffered from infertility for almost seven years before we were able to adopt our baby girl. To some women who suffer from infertility, this is small potatoes. But I remember the pain. I remember the longing for motherhood deep inside my bones. The countless negative pregnancy tests. The baby showers I skipped because I couldn’t hold it together. The pithy platitudes (often Christianese) that felt like daggers. The many medical tests, pricking, poking, prodding to figure out what was wrong, with no answer. The dreaded holiday seasons and church baby dedications. The depression I tried to mask with a smile. The time an adoption fell through last minute. Infertility feels like a death, over and over again.

I remember my consultation with a top fertility doctor in my city. I remember the pit in my stomach when I heard her talk about creating and storing embryos, like they were collectables on a shelf. 

There is much darkness in this industry. Blinded by the hope of a longed-for child, it’s hard to see it. But it’s there. Christian women are often left in a terrible situation, give up on a dream or create little lives that may never have a chance. It’s an awful place to be.

It’s time for evangelicals to re-evaluate their relationship with IVF and live out a coherent approach to the sanctity of life. I say this from a place of compassion, because I know the pain. I walked away from the fertility industry, and it broke my heart. But I could not reconcile it with my Christian worldview.

To those experiencing infertility, my plea is this: Don’t turn a blind eye to what’s happening in the fertility industry. Don’t sacrifice one life for another. Consider the cost. Stay rooted in truth and don’t turn from it, even for your heart’s greatest desire. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions: is the desire for biological children clouding your judgment? What is your priority, honoring God and the sanctity of human life, or becoming a biological parent? Have you considered the blessings of traditional adoption, embryo adoption (also called snowflake adoption), or foster care? Have you bought into the ethos of planned parenthood? 

Churches, you’re part of this too. Do you preach a consistent sanctity of life ethic that addresses IVF? Do you equip your congregants for the ethical questions that arise at each step of the IVF process? There will be pressure to gloss over the destruction of life inherent in the IVF industry. Some congregants will be offended because it feels personal. But are you willing to stand in the gap for the unborn anyway?

Make no mistake, IVF will be used by both sides this election to sway the suburban woman vote. Federal legislation is on its way. This train isn’t stopping. It’s time for evangelical America to correct course.

Sarah Stula is an attorney in Kansas City. Views expressed are her own. 

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Image by DrKontogianniIVF via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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