Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In our discussions of the moral aspects of medical technology we have come to the point in which we must judge in Scripture’s light the various ways in which medical science has made it possible for childless couples to have children.
Many different techniques have been developed, techniques which we described in our last article. We shall briefly mention them once again to bring them before the minds of our readers.
Artificial insemination of the wife is one such technique. Sometimes the semen of the father is used and is called artificial insemination by husbands (AIH); sometimes semen of others is used, especially if the husband is infertile, and is called artificial insemination by donors (AID). For wives who are unable to conceive children, but who are able to carry a fetus, surrogate mothers are used. Here too various techniques have been developed. Sometimes the surrogate mother is impregnated with sperm from the husband of a childless couple; sometimes she is impregnated with donor sperm. In this case the surrogate’s own ovum is used so that the conceived child is parented by the surrogate mother and either the husband of the childless couple or by a donor. When conception takes place, the embryo is transferred to the womb of the wife who could not have children of her own. If a wife is unable both to conceive and to carry a fetus, then a surrogate mother is used for the entire pregnancy. When the child is born, it is given to the childless couple who made (and paid for) the arrangements and it becomes their own, no matter with what technique it may have been conceived. In connection with all the methods which are employed in these processes, sometimes in vitro fertilization is used: the conception takes place in a test tube and the resulting embryo is transferred to the womb of a surrogate mother who carries it to term. This in vitro fertilization may take place either with the husband’s sperm or with donor sperm, either with an ovum from the childless wife, an ovum from the surrogate mother, or a donor egg.
In order to facilitate these procedures, sperm banks have been set up around the country from which frozen sperm can be purchased. In some countries experimentation has been carried on with freezing embryos so that their growth is stopped, and at some later time they are unfrozen, implanted in a womb and made to grow to maturity. It is reported in the news media that several children have already been born through the use of this latter technique. The great appeal of it for many is that large banks of frozen embryos can be stored in deep underground vaults so that in the event of nuclear warfare which would destroy the population of the earth, these frozen embryos would be available to assist in repopulation. All this presupposes, of course, that some member of the human race survives, that this surviving member knows where these frozen embryos are stored, and that there are sufficient women around to carry these embryos to term.
We have talked before about the great grief and sorrow which childless couples experience, especially within the Church and covenant of God. And the question arises whether it is legitimate for God’s people to make use of these methods to enrich their homes with children. The danger is very real not only because some childless couples are almost desperate for children, but also because we live in an age when we are so enamored of the mighty “miracles” of medical science that we almost worship medicine; and the result of this is that we take the position that if it is medically possible, it is legitimate—also for the child of God. The argument runs along these lines. God has given medical science for the benefit of the Christian as well as for the benefit of ungodly men. We are called to make use of doctors and medicine to prolong life and to enrich life, to increase our age span and to raise the quality of life. Because medicine is a gift of God, we can use it in God’s service. Hence, (and it is here that the logical jump is faulty) if medicine is capable of doing something, we ought, with gratitude to God, make use of it. If medicine can cure cancer, we ought to make use of it. If medicine can perform open heart surgery to correct heart defects, we ought to make use of it. In fact, this is our calling before God. If medicine can give us children when ordinary methods of conception and birth fail, what could be more right in the sight of God than to make use of these techniques to have a part in the bringing forth of the seed of the covenant? We ought to be thankful that God has given doctors and scientists such knowledge that we can use what they have discovered and perfected in the bringing forth of children for God’s kingdom. So the argument runs.
But is this line of argumentation justified? That is quite another question.
Before we offer our own analysis of these techniques, it is well that we take a look at what others have said. We know that all these things are approved of and condoned in the world among ungodly men—although it is important to remember that even in the world men of cooler brains and wiser heads have held up a restraining hand and suggested that we had better be careful before we plunge ahead into unknown and unexplored areas of medical science. But Christian ethicists have also pointed out some serious evils in these practices, and we ought to hear what they have to say.
We turn first of all to the problem of surrogate motherhood. In an interesting article by Barbara Roessner, which originally appeared in The Hartford Courant, we have an opinion of one who approaches the whole question from less than a Christian perspective. We quote at length from this article, for it brings up points which Christian ethicists have also faced.
Mary Beth Whitehead was trying to maintain her composure under the intense questioning of her television interviewer. She was trying to explain, in a quiet and quaking voice why she had agreed to be a surrogate mother and why, after giving birth to a g-pound, 2-ounce girl, she reneged:
“My head was telling me one thing,” she said, “My body was telling me something else.”
William Stern is the father of the baby. It was his sperm with which Whitehead was artificially inseminated and it is to him and his infertile wife that Whitehead contracted, for a fee of $10,000, to put head over body, mind over heart, intellect over instinct and relinquish the infant at birth.
Instead, the head, the mind and the intellect succumbed and she absconded with the child.
Stern, who I’m sure has no less visceral a bond with his offspring, won a court order for temporary custody. Now he is in Superior Court in Bergen County, N.J., trying to hold Whitehead to her initial contract and, failing that, to win permanent custody of the baby. For the first time, the courts must decide whether a contract for surrogate motherhood is enforceable, whether such a contract violates laws against baby-selling and whether a woman can sever her parental rights before giving birth.
Now I would call the baby girl by her name, except that she doesn’t have one. She has three. To Whitehead, she is Sara Elizabeth Whitehead; to Stern, she is Melissa Elizabeth Stern; to the court, she is a dehumanized Baby M.
To me she is the ultimate casualty of head vs. body, mind vs. heart, intellect vs. instinct, Stern vs. Whitehead. To me, she is the victim of a conflict that ought never to have occurred.
The term surrogate mother is in itself an embodiment of the conflict. A surrogate, by definition, is a substitute. But is a woman who carries a fetus for nine months, in Whitehead’s case, gaining 51 pounds, enduring high blood pressure and phlebitis, and then gives birth to and nurses her baby (as Whitehead did) a substitute mother? She’s as close to the real thing as a woman can get, it seems to me. She is, simply, a mother.
The experts on so-called surrogate mothering—the ones who run the centers that link the surrogates with the infertile couple, provide the medical, legal and psychiatric counseling and, no doubt, make a decent buck in the process—say they are offering a much needed option to barren couples desperate for children. And they’ve got a point.
Although I am lucky enough to have had a child of my own, I am not unfamiliar with the awful anguish of infertility. I’ve seen friends subject their bodies, and their hearts, to the endless probing of thermometers and needles and the like. But I still can’t fully grasp why they are so bent on reproducing themselves.
Is adoption, even with its years-long wait, really such a terrible alternative to propagation?
Surrogate mothering is only a more extreme form of this war between intellect and instinct that reproductive technology has wrought. Women who want to bear children without male partners, for example, can purchase the sperm of anonymous donors.
And fertile couples who become pregnant are routinely offered tests to determine the sex and health of their fetuses; implicit in this is the option of aborting a fetus that doesn’t meet their, or society’s standards. And as much as I advocate its continued legalization, I believe abortion violates women’s, and men’s souls.
In the case of Stern vs. Whitehead, I sympathize with both sides. But for a woman to think she can lease her uterus without emotional and psychological consequences denies her essential humanness. For a man to think he can artificially impregnate a surrogate and then lay sole claim to the offspring is equally inhuman.
Women are not wombs for rent. Men are no semen in a jar. And, finally, babies are not products.
John Jefferson Davis in his book Evangelical Ethicsalso points out the legal problems that are involved in surrogate motherhood. While he points out that the legal complications are many and involved, he refers to two possible legal problems in detail. The one is the legal problems involved when a surrogate mother refuses to give up the child, as the article quoted above also demonstrates. The other is the problem of legal liability in genetic problems. He writes:
(What are the legal ramifications of) the birth of a deformed child, health complications, or the death of the adopting parents prior to the child’s birth?” That these problems are not merely theoretical was dramatically demonstrated in the case of Christopher Ray Stiver, a baby born to Judy Stiver of Lansing, Michigan after Alexander Malahoff, a 46-year-old accountant from Middle Village, New York had agreed to pay $10,000 for the surrogate child produced with his sperm. Young Christopher, unfortunately, was born with an abnormally small head (microcephaly) and may suffer mental retardation. Malahoff disavowed the child and threatened to sue the Stivers for having intercourse during the insemination period. ‘ Blood and tissue tests later showed the child’s genetic make-up to be different from Malahoff’s. Said Mrs. Stiver after the tests were announced, “I’m probably a little disappointed, but I’ll have to live with it.”
While it is possible that in the future the courts will be able to lay down some guidelines for settling the legal problems which arise out of surrogate motherhood, these problems seem to be too great to be solved with any kind of justice for all involved. And the impossibility of solving these problems legally no doubt arises from the fact that a violation of the law of God in the conception of children results in impossible legal tangles which have no solution whatsoever. And this is characteristic of the world in which we live. With its great sins and its flaunting of God’s holy law, the world gets itself into impossible messes from which there are no doors of escape. No laws, no matter how skilled the jurists, are able to settle problems arising out of a disregard for God’s ordinances.
But John Jefferson Davis also addresses the problem of surrogate motherhood from a moral perspective. This will have to wait for another article.