Mr. Lanning is a member of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church and a science teacher at Covenant Christian High School (GR).
We are living in an era of technological change that is occurring at an alarming rate. Before we have time to decide if God’s Word permits us to use a new technique, the technique has already been replaced with a new method that presents even more questions. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the realm of genetics and reproductive technologies. While these two are not exactly the same, there is much overlap in the moral questions that must be answered in order to participate in the new technologies developed in these areas. At the heart of the new genetics (gene splicing to produce genetically modified plants and animals) and reproductive technologies, especially in vitro fertilization (IVF), lies the question of what exactly is life and to what extent ought we manipulate it. These two realms of biotechnology join forces in the truly mind-boggling realm of reproductive and therapeutic cloning, an area in which we or our children will surely have to reach some conclusions as to the moral validity of the techniques these technologies have to offer. For the most part, however, much of this technology lies at least a short way off into the future. Gene splicing, therapeutic cloning, and the like are not readily available at the present time. Reproductive technologies, however, are here now and are being used regularly by the world and the church alike.
I find it a bit troubling that even though these technologies strike at the heart of procreation and even of life itself, I do not recall any discussion in the PRC of the spiritual validity of these procedures. This seems to be the case in the church world at large. Even though there were signs on the horizon already in the 1960s as to what was about to happen, it seems that the church world (at least that part of it with which I am familiar) chose to ignore the signs. Could it be that we in the church assumed these techniques would never enter the church? Surely the events about to unfold were worthy of discussion.
I have before me a June 13, 1969 issue of Life magazine. This issue introduces some of these technologies that were just then peeking above the horizon. Many of the ethical questions surrounding these new methods of reproduction were asked in this issue. Perhaps not surprisingly today, more than 30 years later, these same questions are still being asked. Yet the technology has proceeded full steam ahead. Even in the church world (this includes the PRC) these techniques with their unanswered questions from 30 years ago are commonplace.
Whether these techniques are legitimate for the child of God to use or not is a question with which we ought all to be concerned. I have found through speaking to members of my own and other congregations in the PRC that there is much ignorance concerning these matters. It is therefore my intent to try to enlighten our readers concerning just one of the above mentioned technologies, the area of in vitro fertilization.
Whenever I teach about this topic I do so very carefully, for two reasons. One, my wife and I have never been in the position of experiencing infertility. Thus, we have not experienced the great desire spoken of in Proverbs 30:15, where the barren womb is compared, among other things, to a fire which continues to consume fuel and never stops by itself. Nor, then,have we been able to pray the fervent prayer of Hannah recorded in I Samuel 1. I do not pretend to have experienced the feelings of those couples who find that they are unable to conceive children. Second, the technology involved in assisted reproductive techniques (ARTs), of which IVF is only one method, is rapidly changing. For this reason I have been very careful to make sure my information is up-to-date and accurate. This information has been derived from textbooks, magazine articles, and interviews with the directors of several IVF clinics in the Grand Rapids area, as well as professors of genetics and bioethics at Grand Valley State University and Michigan State University.
First, a brief explanation of in vitro fertilization may be helpful. Fertilization refers to the joining of a female egg with a male sperm. Scripture does not use the term fertilization, but rather the term conception, to describe this event. In vitro literally means “in glass.” Thus, in vitro fertilization refers to conception in a glass vessel. For some reason, from the beginning, children conceived in this manner have been referred to as “test tube babies,” even though, to the best of my knowledge, test tubes have never been the glassware used. Rather petri dishes are the lab ware of choice. If you can find a July 1972 issue of Life magazine, you will find the cover carries a poignant picture of the first U.S. baby to result from IVF. This picture shows one year old Elizabeth Jordan Carr sitting on the lab top on which she was conceived, in front of the microscope under which she was conceived, and holding the petri dish in which she was conceived.
This picture surely makes one pause to consider God’s plan for conception. This picture, more than any other, portrays the tension a couple must feel when contemplating the use of IVF. On the one hand we see a beautiful child given to parents who presumably could otherwise not have children. Yet, we also see that the conception of this child was wholly separated from the normal means described in Scripture. This child was conceived in a dish, by a team of technicians, rather than through the conjugal love of a husband and wife. This, of course, does not make the child any less of a person. Nor does it make the love of a husband for his wife and the wife for her husband any less godly. If the reader is hoping that I am going to make clear what the Scripture says about this dilemma, I am afraid he or she will be disappointed. At this point I am unable to come to any crystal clear conclusion on this issue. My hope is that the raising of this issue will lead to study by and input from others, that will help all of us to come to a clear knowledge of God’s will in this matter. What I do hope to accomplish is to explain some of the techniques used, and in the process show what I believe to be methods that Christians (or anyone else, for that matter) may never use.
… to be continued.