Mr. Lanning is a member of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church and a science teacher at Covenant Christian High School (GR).
In order to understand the in vitro fertilization procedure, an understanding of a little embryology is necessary. A woman normally develops one mature egg cell per month. This mature egg is released from an ovary and travels to the Fallopian tube on its way to the uterus. It is in the Fallopian tube that fertilization usually occurs. The egg takes about five days after fertilization to travel from the tube to the uterus. If the egg has been fertilized, and if all the other processes have occurred correctly, then at about day 6 or 7 the fertilized egg will implant in the wall of the uterus, and pregnancy has occurred. While all this moving about has been going on, the egg cell has also been dividing. What started out as a one-celled fertilized egg soon divided to become a two-celled embryo, which divided again to become a four-celled embryo, and so on until at day 4 the embryo consists of about fifty cells, all bound together in a ball that resembles a mulberry. In fact, this stage is called a morula, which is Latin for mulberry. The cells of this morula continue to divide, and a fluid filled cavity forms in the center, transforming the embryo into a hollow ball called a blastocyst. This blastocyst enters the uterus at about day 5 and soon implants in the uterus to begin pregnancy.
But the process doesn’t always occur normally. Sometimes problems in the normal procedure occur and infertility results. The fallopian tubes could be blocked, for example, thus preventing fertilization. Or a woman might suffer from endometriosis. Furthermore, immunologic factors might prevent fertilization. Finally, the cause of infertility might simply be unexplained. IVF can in some instances overcome these problems.
The IVF procedure consists of the following steps:
1.The wife takes fertility drugs to develop multiple mature eggs per month.
2.The eggs are collected in the clinic or hospital by laporoscopy (surgery requiring general anesthesia) or by ultrasound-directed needle aspiration.
3.The eggs are mixed with the husband’s sperm in a dish in the laboratory. It is at this stage that fertilization occurs. The fertilized eggs (embryos) are now grown for about three days in the dish in the laboratory. During this time the embryo repeatedly divides to become a small cluster of cells. At the end of two or three days the embryos are examined under a microscope to determine which ones look healthiest.
4.The healthiest looking embryos are transferred to the wife’s uterus, where they will implant into the uterus and pregnancy occurs. (This is by no means a sure thing. Although the data are a bit murky, it seems that live births result only about 20% of the time after an IVF procedure. A few things need to be said about “healthy” looking embryos. Just what does an unhealthy looking embryo look like? In the process of dividing, some of the resulting cells do not seem to form properly. For example, if you were to look at a picture of an embryo that had divided three times, you would want to see eight uniform looking cells all held closely together. This would be a healthy looking embryo. You might, however, see just seven cells surrounded by some cellular debris. This is an unhealthy looking embryo. However, there is no evidence to suggest that if this unhealthy looking embryo were actually to develop into a baby in the womb that this baby would have any deformities or any other abnormalities whatsoever. The only reason clinics do not like to transfer these embryos to the womb is that they do not produce as high a pregnancy rate as a healthy looking embryo does. Thus the chance of getting pregnant is greater if only healthy looking embryos are used.
If all goes well, a healthy baby will be born in nine months time, much to the rejoicing of the parents and extended family. The only problem with all this is that procreation has occurred by wholly unnatural means. Whether or not this is right in God’s eyes is a matter that bears discussion. I have not been able to find very much helpful literature on this aspect of IVF. There are, however, other questions that a Christian couple will face when considering IVF. I believe these are answered much more clearly in Scripture.
The main problem for a couple comes in step 3 of the IVF process as outlined above. In this step the technicians choose the healthiest looking embryo to transfer to the mother. The usual method of IVF is to fertilize a number of eggs and thereby produce more embryos than will be needed. This is done for two reasons. One, this ensures that there will be at least one or two healthy looking embryos to transfer. Second, this allows the parents to preserve, by freezing, several embryos for another pregnancy in the future. In either case, the couple will be spared the invasive procedure and the cost of retrieving more eggs at a later date. At this point the question of what to do with the extra embryos must be faced. Couples have four choices. One, they can destroy these embryos. Two, they can donate them for research, where they are eventually destroyed. This is where most of the embryos come from for the controversial embryonic stem-cell research partially banned recently by President Bush. Three, they can freeze them until they desire to try for another pregnancy. Four, they can give them up for adoption. I don’t believe any of these choices is acceptable to a Christian couple. The problem with the first two options is that they result in the death of the embryo. The third option, while seemingly less offensive, really is not. Statistics show that approximately fifty percent of frozen embryos will die as a result of the freeze/thaw cycle they are subjected to. Is killing one half of your offspring any less offensive than killing all of them? Secondly, even if technology overcomes this problem, do we have the right to conceive covenant seed (albeit in a petri dish) and put it in the freezer until it becomes convenient for us to bear those seed? I think not! The fourth option at least does not involve murder, but is unacceptable in that we have no control over who will raise the seed we have conceived. Surely it would be better to remain barren than to cast our children to the upbringing of the world. These four options present a couple with a very weighty dilemma. Considering the huge monetary expense involved in IVF, not to mention the emotional expense, is a couple willing to tell the IVF clinic that in no circumstances are any embryos to be discarded? All embryos must be transferred to the mother! Even those that look unhealthy must not be destroyed! This stance seriously limits the probability of a successful pregnancy occurring, as it limits to two or three the number of eggs harvested and fertilized. Yet this must be the stance of a Christian couple contemplating IVF.
But many of these objections are based on the belief that life begins at conception and that the soul enters a person at this time. This is not universally believed, even in the church world. What had for generations been a question debated mainly by scientists and theologians has suddenly become a question of major importance for young couples faced with the prospect of infertility. If life doesn’t begin at conception, and if a soul doesn’t enter at the joining of the egg and sperm, then maybe there is no offense in discarding or freezing extra embryos. Many theories have been developed as to when an embryo becomes human. Some have argued that life does not begin until the embryo is implanted in the uterus at about day 3 after fertilization. Others have said that life doesn’t begin until viability, at approximately twenty-three weeks after conception.
The problem with these various opinions is that they all set an arbitrary time at which life begins. This arbitrary point can be moved at any time to accommodate the whims of the person setting the point. While it is true that an embryo does not function in the same way that an adult functions, neither does a person with a mental or physical handicap function in the same way that an average adult does. While this makes the handicapped person different, it does not make that person less of a person. Nor does anyone have the right to terminate the existence of the handicapped individual just because he or she functions in a manner different from the norm. Man has not been given the right to terminate life based on anatomy (“normal” vs. “abnormal”) or placement (in the womb or out of the womb). God alone decides who lives or dies.
It must be admitted that there seem to be no ironclad references in Scripture that teach that life begins at conception. If there were any such texts, I suppose this wouldn’t be such an issue today. Nevertheless, Scripture does have something to say about this matter. Scripture surely implies that even in our earliest moments of being we are more than “viable human tissue.” Judges 13:6ff. tells us that Samson’s mother couldn’t eat any unclean thing or drink any wine or strong drink from the moment of conception. InPsalm 51:5 David says that he was conceived in sin. Original sin was part and parcel of his being from the very beginning of his being (conception). Furthermore, in Psalm 139:15, 16David states, “My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.” A sign in the nation’s first IVF clinic in Norfolk, Virginia (now Jones Institute of Reproductive Medicine) sums up the view of many: “They say babies are made in heaven, but we know better.” Clever, but not scriptural. Psalm 100:3 states, “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves….”
While these texts do not offer absolute proof of life beginning at conception, they, along with other texts, at least imply that we became human beings at conception. At the very least we need to admit that Scripture surely leaves the impression that life might begin at conception. To the best of my knowledge there are no texts in Scripture that imply otherwise. Because of the possibility, if not the probability, of life beginning at conception, we may not take part in the four options for extra embryos.
There are some further issues surrounding IVF that bear discussion.
1.No one disputes the fact that God allows us to use technology to cure disease. This has been used as an argument for IVF. However, nothing is actually cured by this process. The married couple is still just as infertile after IVF as they were before. In this case, then, technology is not being used to heal but rather to achieve pregnancy.
2.Sexual love is the method God has been pleased to use to bring forth His church. This love between a husband and wife which results in the bringing forth of new covenant seed is a picture of the intense love between Christ and His church. (See Prof. Engelsma’s book Marriage, the Mystery of Christ and His Church, Chapter 5, as well as Song of Solomon 8:6, 7.) This union of Christ and His church is the method God uses to bring forth His sons and daughters.
IVF has nothing to do with sexual love. IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies redesign and redefine procreation as a result not of sexual love but rather of clinical manipulation. IVF relegates conception wholly to the world of technology; there is no act of union between husband and wife. A team of technicians harvests the wife’s eggs and fertilizes them with the husband’s sperm in a glass dish in a sterile laboratory without the husband or wife present. It has been said that the 1960s gave the world sex without children, while the 1980s gave the world children without sex. May we separate conception from sexual love?
3.What about the sordid history of IVF? Should immoral and unethical practices of the past prevent us from using the fruit of those past events? Time or space does not permit me to detail the wicked experimentation that has led to the relatively successful techniques used today. For a well-documented history of IVF, consult Without Moral Limits, by Debra Evans.
I realize I have asked far more questions than I have answered. My hope is that you, the readers, will be able through the searching of Scripture to answer some of these difficult questions. Please share your insights with others, so that we may honor God’s name by keeping His commandments.