April 23, 2024

The Alabama Supreme Court ruling that embryos should be considered children has forced Americans to grapple with a mess of complicated realities about law, infertility, medicine and politics.

At the heart of the decision, there is also Christian theology. “Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God,” the court’s chief justice, Tom Parker, wrote in his decision.

Among conservative Christians, the belief that life begins at conception has been a driving force behind anti-abortion policies for years. Among the most ardent abortion opponents, that thinking has also led to uncompromising opposition to in vitro fertilization.

“That is the fundamental premise of our entire movement,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, which opposes abortion. I.V.F., she said, “is literally a business model built on disposable children and treating children as commodities.”

But on the morality of I.V.F., there is a more noticeable divide between Catholics and Protestants. Catholic teaching expressly forbids it. Protestants tend to be more open, in part because there is no similar top-down authority structure requiring a shared doctrine.

Evangelical tradition has built a public identity around being pro-family and pro-children, and many adherents are inclined to see I.V.F. positively because it creates more children. Pastors rarely preach on fertility, though they may on abortion.

But the Alabama decision “is a very morally honest opinion,” said Andrew T. Walker, associate professor of Christian ethics and public theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The ruling, he said, shows the direct line of reasoning between belief that life begins at conception, and opposition to abortion and I.V.F.

“It’s going to force conservative Christians to reckon with potentially their own complicity in the in vitro fertilization industry,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the largest institution in the world that opposes I.V.F. Nearly all modern fertility interventions are morally forbidden.

The I.V.F. process typically includes many elements that the Catholic Church opposes. There’s masturbation — an “offense against chastity,” according to the catechism, or teaching — often required to collect sperm. There’s the fertilization of an egg and sperm outside a woman’s body — outside the sacramental “conjugal act” of sex between a husband and wife. And there is the creation of multiple embryos that are often destroyed or not implanted — an “abortive practice.”

The church’s first major statement opposing I.V.F. came in response to the world’s first “test tube baby,” born in England in 1978. Written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, the document addressed a variety of fertility technologies, like artificial insemination, I.V.F. and surrogacy.

Last month, Pope Francis condemned surrogacy as “despicable” and called for a global ban on the practice. An unborn child should not be “turned into an object of trafficking,” he said.

Many Catholics use contraception and I.V.F. treatment in violation of church teaching. But for observant Catholics, opposition to I.V.F. is part of an ecosystem of beliefs about marriage, family and especially sex.

The marital act of sex must be performed in conception and the embryo must not be subject to “different indignities, being poked and prodded” by scientists, said Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

In cases of infertility, some “assistive” technologies might be OK, he said, but not “replacement” ones like I.V.F. That distinction may seem immaterial, but it stresses the importance of sex in Catholicism as holy act exclusively for a husband and wife who want children.

For instance, Mr. Meaney said, he and his wife faced fertility challenges and used methods to conceive that included an operation to address scar tissue and deep tissue massages. “Assisting means there has to be sex,” he said. “Replacing means there is no sexual act taking place.”

But the bioethics of I.V.F. is not a subject most conservative Christians have on their radar. Evangelicals typically rely on literal readings of the Bible, not centuries of Catholic social philosophy and anthropology. And the Bible, an ancient text, of course does not mention I.V.F.

Mr. Walker said that when he had considered introducing a resolution about artificial reproductive technology at the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, friends and colleagues reacted with hesitation.

But evangelical and Catholic communities have increasingly blended together over shared conservative political beliefs. Now the unavoidable politics on fertility in America may shape evangelical belief and practice on I.V.F.

Emma Waters, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation, hopes evangelical pastors will work to train their churches about the theological reasons to oppose I.V.F., as Catholics have. She sees potential openings with Gen Z evangelicals who are opposed to hormonal birth control and the broad ways technology has infiltrated their lives.

“I.V.F. is just the very beginning of reproductive technologies,” she said. “We are just woefully unprepared to address the onslaught of issues that are coming.”

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