Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In our last article in which we discussed in vitrofertilization (IVF) we made passing reference to the fact that it was possible that many children conceived in a test tube were being used for experimental purposes. We did not want to say too much about this because little is known concerning this; those who engage in such practices do so in great secrecy, and instances are hard to document.
Recently, however, I received an article from aStandard Bearer reader in England which speaks of this very practice. Because governments are thinking of passing legislation which would control IVF, some doctors and scientists in England are concerned that such legislation will be passed before they have an opportunity to express their opinions. The result was that a questionnaire was sent to Europe’s practitioners of IVF inquiring concerning their views on various aspects of the problem. The results, as published in the New Scientist of July 3, 1986, were startling.
All were agreed that experiments on animals were not enough, and that research on human embryos was necessary. The disagreements were over such matters as whether to form embryos specifically for purposes of experimentation or to use “spare” embryos; whether embryos ought to be frozen for future use or not; and, if frozen, how long they should be kept; whether parental consent was necessary for freezing embryos and using them for experimentation; and whether it was acceptable to take sperm and ova donated specifically for experimental purposes—something already practiced rather widely. Some envisaged a day in the future when “most people will reproduce using egg or sperm from genetically screened individuals. The gametes themselves will be stored in freezers deep underground to protect them from nuclear disasters.”
These are some of the results of IVF, frightening in prospect and wholly contrary to every principle of Scripture, especially when we remember that these “embryos” are children.
We turn now to other avenues of medical technology which are becoming increasingly common to aid people in having children. The U.S. News & World Report of November 11, 1985 introduces an article on this subject in this way:
“Where do babies come from?”
That age-old question is provoking some startling new answers as doctors begin manipulating life.
Today, some children are created in test tubes. Others are carried in the wombs of surrogate mothers. And with sound-wave scans, prospective parents can know if their baby will be a boy or a girl months before birth. Soon, they will even be able to choose the sex.
In Australia and the Netherlands, five children have been born from frozen embryos. It is not beyond the imagination of doctors that parents some day may freeze their fertilized embryos for 100 years or more, leaving instructions for their children’s births in another era.
Various techniques have been developed to solve the problem of infertility, and we shall discuss them together in this article.
One such technique is artificial insemination. Two types of artificial insemination are practiced: artificial insemination using the semen of husbands (AIH) and artificial insemination using the semen of donors (AID). It is estimated that around 250,000 people are living in this country alone who have been conceived in this way, while 15,000 to 20,000 are added each year. In many cases, both semen and ova are frozen and stored (especially when donors are used) and banks can be found in many parts of the country. Sperm banks are located in 12 cities throughout the land, and ova are stored in various universities.
So common has this become that some scientists predict that the day is not so far off when sperm and ova will be sold commercially “off the shelf” and that home insemination kits will be made available for “do-it-yourself” conception.
The freezing and storage of sperm and ova (and even embryos) have made possible conception under different circumstances. Men sometimes store their sperm, not because they want it to be used promiscuously, but because they want to have a vasectomy performed, but consider the possibility that they (and their wives) might change their minds about children in the future. Others store their semen in the case of death of one of the parents. E.g. a wife who loses her husband can then have a child by him even after he dies.
But other possibilities result. People make use of artificial insemination for various reasons. Some do so because of infertility in one of the marriage partners. But sometimes single women who do not wish to marry, or lesbians wish to have children, and they can obtain sperm from donor banks. The news media have carried stories repeatedly of sperm banks set up to preserve the sperm of very intelligent people so that donor sperm can be used to “guarantee” (if that is possible, something not yet proved) the superior intelligence of offspring. Nobel prize winners, e.g., have in some instances donated sperm for future use. Some parents carry genetically transmitted diseases which they do not wish to pass on to their children; the use of donor sperm or eggs will bypass these dangers and tragedies.
Another method which has been recently developed to aid parents who cannot have children of their own is “surrogate motherhood.” In introducing his discussion of this technique, John Jefferson Davis in his book,Evangelical Ethics quotes the following ad which appeared in the Boston Globe in December of 1980:
Childless couple—wife unable to conceive looking for white female who would volunteer to be artificially inseminated with semen of husband and then give child to couple. All responses confidential. All expenses paid. Kindly direct responses to Noel P. Keane, attorney, 1129 Parkland Towers East, Dearborn, Michigan 48126. (313) 336-9290.
It is estimated that there are about 60 children living in this country as of 1983 who were born in this way.
There are, of course, variations of this method. Sometimes a child is conceived in a test tube from sperm and eggs of a married couple, and implanted in a surrogate mother who carries the child to term and then gives it to the natural parents. Sometimes the egg of the mother is implanted in a surrogate mother and fertilized by artificial fertilization by sperm either from the father or from a donor bank. Sometimes the surrogate mother is simply impregnated with sperm either from the husband of a couple wanting a child or from a donor bank, but the offspring is promised to the couple making use of the surrogate when the child is born. All these variations are at present being used, although the method is not yet as common as IVF because of various legal problems.
Yet another method is called embryo transfer. The issue of U.S. News & World Report referred to above says of this:
This technique is employed for women who cannot produce eggs but can carry a fetus.
Doctors first match up the infertile wife with an egg donor who ovulates at about the same time—a key step since hormone levels must be the same in both women for successful transfer.
The donor then is artificially inseminated with the husband’s sperm. Five days after fertilization, the egg is inserted into the wife’s uterus.
A Chicago firm called Fertility & Genetics Research, Inc., has devised a procedure using a special catheter for embryo transfers. It forecasts a market of up to 50,000 candidates.
All these techniques are becoming increasingly common and will undoubtedly become more so in. the future. In fact, there is little doubt but that these techniques will not only be refined and be made more successful, but that new techniques will yet be discovered and new ideas will be put into practice. Many of these things were unheard of fifty years ago; what will another fifty years (if the Lord tarries) bring?
It is understandable in a way that the world of unbelief should, having developed the necessary scientific and medical technology, make use of these procedures. After all, from an evolutionary viewpoint, there is nothing sacred or holy about the conception and birth of a child; and in fact an embryo is nothing but a blob of tissue until it is born. Manipulating the birth process and experimenting on embryos is no different than cutting up guinea pigs and subjecting rats to laboratory experiments. Evolutionism is reaping a harvest unforeseen when Darwin first suggested this theory of the origin of the species.
Yet some theologians, some even found in the evangelical camp, also support these techniques—although often with various limitations; and they do so on the basis of Scripture. They appeal most often to levirate marriages (Deut. 25:5) and the example of Abraham and Hagar when Abraham and Sarah’s desire for a child led them to make use of Hagar as a means to obtain offspring.
It seems to me that almost spontaneously the child of God, aware of what Scripture teaches concerning morality in general and marriage and procreation in particular, reacts against all this. Perhaps he, if pressed, is not able to give specific reasons why these practices are wrong, and he may even find himself the loser in a debate with someone glib of speech and more knowledgeable than he in these rather strange areas of Christian life. But he senses immediately that these things are wrong, contrary to the will of God, and involve those who practice them in disobedience. There is, I think, a natural repugnance, a sharp distaste, a moral horror even, at the thought of doing these things. His moral senses are attacked and his moral sensibilities are abused.
We might be inclined to shrug these feelings off rather carelessly with the remark that people who react so vehemently against these practices are only reflecting their own narrow and legalistic background; that the very fact that they cannot give coherent and intelligent reasons why these things are wrong is proof that such reactions are only gut feelings which have not basis in the Word of God.
Nevertheless, we must not so easily shrug aside these feelings. It is true that we ought to give intelligent and understandable reasons from the Word of God why these things are wrong; but the fact is nevertheless, that when the moral sensibilities of God’s people are shocked, we ought to sit up and take notice. The moral sense which has developed in them over the years is a moral sense which has been sharpened and honed by a study of Scripture and many years of seeking in Scripture the answers to life’s problems. The people of God often have a moral sensibility which theologians lack.
But we must look more closely at this and at the pertinent Biblical data in a later article.