Within the pantheon of ‘difficult issues to disagree upon,’ nothing ranks higher than in vitro fertilization. Or so I have concluded recently, anyway. Opposing gay marriage means one will probably get tarred as a bigot, and dismissed and derided accordingly—which is certainly no fun. But at the end of the day, opposing the putative freedom of consenting adults to unite themselves seems trivial compared to arguing that people do something morally wrong in conceiving a child.

With all due respect to all of us over the age of 18 months, there is no class of people so treasured, so valuable, in our culture as infants. (And for good reason! They’re great!) When those infants have been brought into the world out of the considerable labor and time required for IVF, well, to oppose the practice makes one positively seem like a moral monster. I’m convinced that in forty years, Christians will be more hated for our anti-IVF position than we ever were for opposing gay unions.

I was reflecting on this as responses to the article I co-authored (with the estimable Andrew Walker) against IVF rolled in. People would have no reason to believe it from my Twitter feed, but I loathe disagreeing with everyone inside evangelicalism about this. Like most of the upper-middle-class world, I have several dear friends who have used IVF successfully against my objections—and I love them, and love their children. In those cases I have always sought to find a way to articulate my objections, while still conveying my willingness to love and live with them if they don’t ultimately agree. (I’ve failed at that in a myriad of ways, no doubt.) And their decisions to do otherwise than I advised have often made me question my own moral position: If people whom I love so deeply conclude otherwise, must not I be wrong?

There are only one of two directions we can go when people we love make moral choices: we can either waffle and change our own opinions about what’s right, or we can buttress the reasons we had for coming to the judgment in the first place. In that way, friends who walk a different moral path for too long, or in too many ways, really do risk dividing: in order to maintain the intelligibility and force of the life they have chosen, each side has to harden their views to offset the influence of the other. Or so it seems to me, anyway. But then, I’m not particularly good at living when I disagree with people whom I expect and want to have everything in common.

I don’t know Wayne Grudem, but I did find myself once again experiencing the odd feeling of being more assured of my arguments against in vitro while reading his attempt to explain why it is permissible. Grudem seems like a biblicist, like he’s only going to say what’s in the Bible and nothing but what’s in the Bible. But his Biblicism is merely on the surface, and therein lies its problem: the glitter and sparkles of Bible references that cover his essay obscure the entirely un-biblical assumptions he makes, which allows him to conclude IVF is permissible.

Consider the first two principles Grudem sets out, which by themselves establish the permissibility of IVF. Grudem’s first principle is that ‘overcoming infertility is pleasing to God.’ Infertility is “yet another result of the fall, one of the disabilities and diseases that entered the human race after Adam and Eve sinned.” God’s original plan is to bless humanity, and we ought to strive for that blessing through procreating. To this principle Grudem adds the notion that ‘modern medicine in general is a divine blessing that’s morally good.’ Medicine overcomes diseases. God isn’t neutral toward disabilities, but heals them—which means we should too. Grudem’s last two principles simply lay down constraints for how children should be conceived in a lab, namely, without committing them to a certain death and only from the ova of the married couple. But his first two make it clear that IVF should be permitted.

Only problems arise when we transpose those two principles into an arena that Scripture closely ties to infertility: death. (Yes, they are near to one another: Paul in Romans 4 writes that Abraham considered his own ‘dead’ body, and the ‘deadness’ of Sarah’s womb.) If we relocate Grudem’s principles into that realm, they would require us to accept, and even endorse, the project of pursuing indefinite life-extension through technological means. Death is a product of the Fall, and not part of God’s original creation—so we should resist it, with every means in our disposal. Jesus raised people from the dead—why shouldn’t we? The medicine that will overcome death is a ‘divine blessing that’s morally good.’ I suspect Grudem wouldn’t want this conclusion. I certainly don’t. But it’s impossible (for me) to see how he can avoid it.

And these problems run throughout Grudem’s essay. For instance, Grudem rejects the language of ‘natural’ on the basis of a facile description of what its use in moral theology means. Appealing to ‘nature,’ Grudem suggests, “must assume a definition of ‘natural’ that arbitrarily excludes modern medical means from what we consider part of nature.” Having drawn his caricature, Grudem follows it with a number of fatuous counterexamples meant to show the constructed process of in vitro in fact counts as ‘natural’: ‘look, the lab equipment in IVF is made from nature!’ If we took this sort of argument seriously, we’d have to endorse on similar grounds the entirely artificial creation of human life without any kind of assistance of the parents’ action whatsoever. “Look, all the organisms and microbes we’re combining to create a parentless human are ‘natural.’ So what’s the problem?” The use of ‘natural’ in moral theology is complicated, to be sure: but Grudem’s strategy functionally eviscerates it, which candidly makes me wonder precisely how he understands St. Paul’s claim that same-sex unions are ‘contrary to nature.’

These errors in Grudem’s reasoning pervade his essay. He writes, for instance, that “IVF did not separate sex from conception because, for this couple, there was no connection between sex and conception.” Their inability to conceive through intercourse means intercourse has no relation whatsoever to conception. Now: it might be true that conception by them is impossible. But that’s a distinct claim from saying that their act of intercourse has no relation to conception.

Let’s say a couple knows they are infertile: the wife is missing ovaries. Even for such a couple, every act of intercourse has something to do with conception—even if by way of their knowledge of its absence. It lingers in the background of every choice, and if they want children will doubtlessly emerge into the foreground. The entire texture of their sexual lives will be different from one in which conception is possible: they will be free to approach intercourse with a cheerful disregard of their bodily rhythms or lives, should they want, like no fertile couple could. But that difference does not mean that there is no intrinsic connection between their intercourse and conception. Even the young man engaging in ‘solo sexuality’ alone in his room is engaging in acts that have a relation to conception. The act they pursue is intrinsically ordered toward conception; and their failure to respect that intrinsic order partially explains its badness.

None of this even starts to address the fact that IVF is a practice, which commits its participants to certain understandings of themselves and the world regardless of what their intentions are for pursuing it. Nor does it address whether we should even theorize infertility as a “disease,” as Grudem assumes, nor does it get at the inherently systemic problems created by treating IVF as “medicine” in the first place. On the last, I’m coming to suspect that a large percentage of people who pursue IVF do so because they are hurried into it by doctors who are ignorant of the kinds of diagnoses and treatments available for assisting male reproductive systems. As long as IVF is the default option, research into medical efforts to enable natural conception are going to lag (and that is, I hasten to add, the technical medical term for it).

But the problems with Grudem’s approach are not limited to his non-exegetical arguments: they are founded within how he understands Scripture itself. Consider his reading of Genesis 1:28, and the ‘command’ (it isn’t, but set that aside) to be fruitful and multiply: “This verse by itself does not say that no other means of producing children would be pleasing to God, but it is the foundational pattern for marriage in the entire Bible, and it is the first instance of the command to be fruitful.” Grudem doubles down on this principle later, reminding us that there is “no biblical command that says ‘conception must only be the result of sexual intercourse.’” On Grudem’s view, without any “clear moral teachings,” we shouldn’t rule out “modern inventions simply because they didn’t exist in biblical times”.

Well, that’s true. It also would allow for cryogenically preserving ourselves for, say, 800 years if we so decide. There is no negative command against it in Scripture, after all. And it would allow creating human life without any genetic material from existing individuals whatsoever: after all, the only negative commands are against conceiving children outside of marriage. There’s no prohibition on conceiving children within marriage, though without any help from anyone else! There’s no prohibition on adding four more limbs to our bodies, or blending our DNA with a lions, or turning ourselves into cyborgs. Modernity’s awesome, baby, and the only limits are our imaginations, and the explicit prohibitions within Scripture.

Suppose, in fact, that we became vastly more successful at conceiving without embryo death through in vitro fertilization than we are through natural conception. On Grudem’s view, this might actually make attempting to conceive through ordinary intercourse—morally bad! If that seems counterintuitive, consider what resources Grudem can appeal to in order to avoid it. He thinks there is nothing inherently morally binding about the link between sex and conception, after all. And he is very worried about embryo death. If it is permissible to create outside the womb because of infertility, on what grounds is it not morally responsible to do so to avoid embryo wastage?

Moreover, if it really is true that in vitro is permissible and there is a command to be fruitful and multiply—it might be presumptively obligatory upon infertile couples, all things otherwise being equal, to do their bounden duty and undertake IVF in order to generate life. I’ve not read Grudem’s book, so I don’t know whether he says anything about voluntary childlessness. I’m skeptical of the practice, myself. But it’s pretty easy to see how Grudem’s view could in practice eviscerate the freedom of couples to embrace their involuntary childlessness as a way of bearing witness to the reality that children come from God. What begins as optional soon becomes compulsory: that is the logic of modernity, and it is a logic that Grudem has embraced—or at least left himself defenseless against.

May I suggest, then, that Grudem’s biblicism is not merely superficial, but that it is deeply—unbiblical? Scripture shows us what is good and right for humanity. Sometimes it clarifies that with prohibitions: but sometimes, it allows us to infer those prohibitions from the goods it treats as normative for us (and not simply normal). The absence of any prohibition on conceiving children outside of the womb is not permission to do so. Where Grudem looks at Scripture and sees the absence of any explicit command to not separate sex and conception, I look at Scripture and see everywhere the affirmation of the importance of holding marital intercourse and conception together. Grudem wants biblicism: but then, not finding guidance within the Bible, leaves us without a map or rudder.

Why do I protest so much? Because the heart of Grudem’s moral vision undermines the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for those who are infertile. (Yes, I just said that.) Suppose Grudem is right, and sex and conception only come apart because we live in a fallen world: affirming the licitness of in vitro fertilization in response lends our endorsement to that division. Those who are infertile are not suddenly fertile when in vitro is successful: they have not been brought by medicine into a state in which their bodies are more likely to conceive, because of those interventions. They are not nearer to having their reproductive powers restored than they were before. A child exists who bears their imprint and visage, yes: but the ‘disease’ of infertility still structures their bodies, and their sexual lives together.

In this way, IVF makes its peace with a fallen world: it accepts its terms, and does so for the benefits it offers. It has nothing in common with the Gospel, which promises us that in the consummation of the Kingdom it is the barren, those who never bore a child, that shall burst in to joy because “more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saieth the Lord” (Isaiah 54:1). Like the ‘promise’ of indefinite life extension, in vitro attempts to mimic this eschatological reality by working against the grain of our created limits, in order to satisfy our deepest desires here and now, without delay and at our own hands. In vitro fertilization does not, in any meaningful sense, ‘overcome’ infertility, so much as enable us to escape it. Like the gnosticism of old, IVF does not restore creation so much as empty it.

Grudem’s essay is bad work, bad theology, and affirms bad practices. And we shouldn’t hesitate or equivocate in saying so. Evangelicalism’s acceptance of making life outside the womb should scandalize our conscience. That a figure so widely esteemed among evangelicals is so willing to defend IVF is, to me, a sign of how embedded the practice is within evangelicalism’s ethos—and of how decadent our movement has become.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • C.T. Casberg

    While I believe Matt to be largely correct and am grateful for his defense of an extremely unpopular position, I struggle to see how I might translate these arguments in a way the ordinary rank and file of evangelicalism would grasp them, let alone agree with them. While Grudem et al are granting their scholarly imprimatur to the technology, it’s the ordinary folk in the pews who are uncritically embracing it and the norms it brings. In my experience in the trenches of church life, the sort of Christian who mostly strongly supports IVF (and surrogacy, while we’re there) is the sort of Christian who, well, let’s say is the least likely to get past the first paragraph of a Mere O essay. My mind often goes back to that Christianity Today piece on surrogacy where despite the author’s efforts (and I genuinely believe she did her best), the surrogacy advocates and participants come off as complete airheads. Our fundamental assumptions are so different we might as well be speaking different languages.

    But Pentecost is coming up, I suppose. God does seem to enjoy miracles of translation.

    • I think Matt and Andrew’s argument is best understood in the TGC article with the two paragraphs under the heading “Bible and IVF” and specifically the following sentence:

      “[IVF or the argument undergirding it] intrinsically undermines the normativity of Genesis 1 and 2 for both sexual ethics and also bioethics—a normativity that Jesus himself ratifies in Matthew 19:4.”

      Since I’ve been somewhat critical of their article elsewhere, let me try to see if I can argue for it here:

      1. God ordained that procreation be the result of the sexual union of a husband and wife.
      2. It is morally wrong to seek “procreation” outside of God’s ordained means.
      3. IVF seeks “procreation” outside of the sexual union of a husband and wife.

      There are a lot of different ways to formulate this, probably some a lot better/stronger than I’ve done here but I’ll have to give it some more thought.

      Do you think the ordinary rank and file might understand that?

      • Cal P

        What do you think “morally wrong” actually means: is it a sin? will obstinate IVF practitioners be open to judgement? are people who promote and practice IVF unrepentant sinners? should they be barred from communion within a church?

        If none of the above, I don’t see how this is anything but moral posturing and being a hectoring, toe-tapping, nanny.

        • I’m reminded of something I read in Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (I think vol 1) about how the Reformed scholastics approached a similar issue in relation to the Trinity. . . but since my memory of it is somewhat vague and I don’t have the volume to hand right now I’ll point to something more recent, which is Berny Belvedere employing Rawl’s distinction of “public reason” to explain why someone (himself, in particular) might believe abortion is morally wrong but that women who obtain abortions shouldn’t necessarily be punished.

          Either way, I don’t see how it effects the argument I provided.

  • hoosier_bob

    I believe that your article is correct if one is speaking about marriage on the terms set forth in Genesis 1-3. Genesis sets forth marriage and procreation as having a certain eschatological significance under the old covenant. Marriage, as it is described in Genesis, is consistent with what some have called “conjugal marriage.”

    But the eschatological significance of conjugal marriage under the old covenant was fulfilled in Christ. Under the new covenant, wholly new possibilities are opened up. A shadow of the old institution may persist. And it may even have pragmatic benefits, such as those recited in I Corinthians 7. Even so, its covenantal significance is extinguished. That’s why the Reformers objected to identifying marriage as a sacrament. It’s also why the Puritans denied any ecclesial significance to marriage, and relegated it to a civil institution to be guided by pragmatic considerations and regulated by civil authorities. Luther famously described marriage as an art similar to that of hair-cutting.

    In the centuries since, we Protestants have jettisoned the Puritans’ clear thinking on marriage. When we see innovations that affront our sense of social order, we resuscitate Popish notions of conjugal marriage to quell them. But when we see innovations that cause no affront, we relinquish our Popery and embrace the Puritans again. It would be better if we were more consistent, and adhered to a stable rubric for evaluating marital innovation.

    There may be cogent arguments against IVF. Arbitrarily resuscitating conjugal marriage as a marital standard falls flat. It was fulfilled in Christ, declared dead by the Reformers, and, even today, is revived only selectively when our true reasons for opposing marital innovation would make us unpopular.

    • StephenM

      How is the old form of conjugal marriage fulfilled in Christ, if you don’t mind my asking? Clearly he is the fulfillment of the proto-evangelium of Genesis 3, that the future child of Adam and Eve will crush the serpent’s head and eventually lead to a renewed relationship with God. But just because Christ fulfills this prophecy (or the many later ones) does not seem to negate all that the Old Testament says about marriage, its fruitfulness, or its sacred covenantal nature. In fact, the New Testament would seem to uphold all these things and even deepen them: Christ himself cites the Genesis account when describing the importance of marriage and the wrongness of divorce in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. And in Ephesians 5, Paul connects the covenant of marriage to the covenantal relationship between Christ and the Church. When combined with the images/prophecies of the marriage supper of the Lamb in Revelation, that sure seems like an eschatological significance to marriage is being out forward!

      Anyway, maybe I’m just not familiar with the Reformers on these points (I’m not a scholar or seminary grad), but I’m genuinely curious what you mean here.

      • hoosier_bob

        I don’t have a comprehensive list to give you, as I’m not a theologian. The book “Covenant and Calling” by Robert Song addresses these points.

        Your reading of the NT is highly selective, and seems designed to bolster a conclusion that you already possessed before approaching the text. You seem to gloss over Paul’s discussion of marriage in I Corinthians 7, as well as Jesus’ declaration that marriage is a fixture of this present eschatological age, and Jesus’ declaration that the our “mothers and brothers” are the church and not procreative units. Never mind the obvious fact that Jesus remained single and celibate, which absolutely undercuts the eschatological significance of marriage under the old covenant.

        The weight of the evidence suggests that, in this eschatological age, marriage ought to be governed by pragmatic reasoning in view of general principles of Christian ethics. A friend of mine, a PCA pastor, uses Gary Becker’s famous article “A Theory of Marriage” as the first discussion point in pre-marital counseling. It provides a helpful way of thinking about marriage that counter-balances all of the repackaged Freud and Rousseau that tends to form the basis of evangelical thinking on marriage.

        Scripture has very little to say that’s directly on point concerning what marriage should look like in this eschatological age. It provides general principles and some analogical application (from two centuries ago). When we shoehorn Scripture into providing direct advice on subjects where it is silent—as Walker and Anderson have done here—we do little more than cloak our own subjective biases with a false aegis of divine authority. Jesus does speak directly on one point: Seeking to weigh down the conscience of another without biblical authority constitutes a very serious sin.

        Another great piece on this general topic is David Gordon’s excellent article from a decade ago entitled, “The Insufficiency of Scripture.” Like it or not, Scripture is insufficient to provide much unambiguous guidance on many of the more pressing social issues of our day. That’s why we’re to seek wisdom. The question is whether IVF is wise, not whether Scripture sets forth some logical puzzle that gives us a direct and unambiguous answer to the question.

  • MJS

    Is it possible this is a meat offered to idols issue or is at least close to it? I am struggling a bit with the level of certainty in all of these essays. As a pastor, I would (and have) talked through many of the implications of IVF with people … but I am just not completely sure that I am clear enough to instruct someone that it is morally permissible or that it is morally forbidden. What am I missing?