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In the wake of the recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling on in vitro fertilization (IVF), much discussion has focused on the status of embryos on ice, many of whom are the so-called “surplus” embryos created in the IVF process. Are they persons? Don’t they deserve legal protection? We pro-lifers answer both questions in the affirmative. The more robust the defense of the least of these, our tiny brothers and sisters, the better.

But a harder question for many pro-lifers—especially non-Catholics who can’t appeal to the Church’s clear teaching against IVF in all circumstances—is whether IVF is alright when every embryo is implanted. In the best possible hypothetical scenario, a sincere, married Christian couple, unable to have children due to infertility, seeks to have children through IVF. They will discard no embryos at all, and will raise any resulting children lovingly in the Christian faith and community. Is not life a good thing? Are not children a blessing? Surely IVF is permissible if not a single embryo is destroyed, right?

It seems to me that the answer is no. We are created as embodied beings made in the imago Dei, but something in the inner logic of IVF is injurious to our embodied nature. When we take conception out of the marriage bed and into the lab, the child’s embodiment is manipulated, objectified—dishonored, even.

It wouldn’t dishonor the child if we were not made in the very image and likeness of God. But we are, and so each of us has great worth and dignity. We must consider seriously, as Oliver O’Donovan wrote, that that which we make is inferior to us, whereas human beings are, properly understood, of equal status and dignity with each other. We and our children are properly begotten, not made. The conjugal embrace of man and woman is the only proper place for procreation because it is the only place that a child could be begotten—for him to be of radically equal worth and status to his parents. 

If the premise of IVF is that embryos are manufactured (quite literally: “hand-made”) in a lab, we are then manipulating the embryonic human as if he’s a product: our product. IVF is the fruit of a technological culture that views the body, and thus the person, as raw material, an artifice.

Our embodied nature as image bearers would have been enough to render IVF improper to our conception. But the Incarnation further ennobled us in our embodiment. The only begotten Son of God was made man in the person of Jesus Christ. He took on our flesh, was crucified, and on the third day rose again—bodily. And he didn’t just slough off that body at the Ascension: He ascended on high in the human form.

Recently, Southern Baptists took a vote to oppose the use of IVF. They are to be commended. A report of the proceedings recounted the painful testimonies of those who have had children through IVF, and the testimonies of pastors who fear returning to their churches to face congregants whose children and grandchildren were conceived through IVF.

IVF is so personal, especially when it’s part of our family story, that many blanch at calling it improper. But this does not mean that those who are conceived through IVF are “less than,” or somehow lack the full worth of a human being. It is true that the method of their conception is unworthy of who they are as human beings, and that is cause for grief. But then let us give thanks for their life, and at the same time weep with those who weep. The good Lord is strong enough to meet us there in the tension. 

But what of future children, as it were? What of the earlier hypothetical sincere couple who is struggling with infertility and desperate for children, their hearts deep in the mire of pain and longing? This is sadly the story of many. The culture at large has insisted on having the right to have children. But the other side of that coin is entitlement: the belief that children are owed to us. 

In contrast, Christians understand children to be a gift from God. And so it may be very difficult to countenance this, but if we truly believe the Psalmist that “lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward,” the nature of a gift is such that the recipient doesn't get to insist he receive the gift on his terms, or even whether he receives that gift at all. Should God make us recipients of the gift of children, we receive them with the proper posture of gratitude and wonder. And if we do not receive this gift, we must cling to the truth in this vale of tears that our God is a good God, and that as we join our longing, suffering, and bitter pain to his cross, he will redeem and is redeeming all of it: all our suffering, all our pain.

There are worthy and unworthy ways for us to be conceived. Certainly, life is a good thing, and children a great blessing. But both ends and means matter. The worthy end of a child does not justify less-than-worthy means of bringing him into being, however well-intentioned. It is precisely because we love our children that we seek the truth on this matter.

Adeline A. Allen is professor of law at Trinity Law School and an associate fellow at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

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Image by Vyacheslav Argenberg, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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