Last week’s essay from Matthew Lee Anderson and Andrew Walker about evangelicals and in vitro fertilization makes an argument worth discussing: God intends that sex and procreation should not be separated from each other. It made me think of the story of Donald Cline, the fertility doctor who (unknown to his patients) used his own sperm when inseminating his patients, eventually “fathering” at least 50 children.
The Atlantic article about Donald Cline by Sarah Zhang on Cline is well-told, but with Cline and his lawyers refusing to comment, the best conclusion that can be drawn about Cline’s motivation is this: he did it because he wanted the best results. He wanted to be the best, and he didn’t want to let his patients down. He mastered the technique of using the freshest sperm—and then he lied to them about how he did it.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the way Cline’s faith informed his thinking and how he deployed it when confronted:
What particularly galled some of the siblings was how Cline used his faith as deflection. By all accounts, he is a very religious man—for his sentencing, several elders from his evangelical church wrote letters attesting to his character. After the restaurant meeting, Cline called Ballard to say her digging up the past was destroying his marriage: His wife considered his actions adultery. In the call, which Ballard recorded, Cline told her he regretted what he’d done—though he admitted to using his own sperm only nine or 10 times—and quoted Jeremiah 1:5, in which God lays out his plan for the prophet: “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.” Again, Ballard felt he was using her faith to try to manipulate her.
With very little in the way of legal restrictions on the matter, the FBI eventually convicted Cline of obstructing justice for his lies. But like the FBI, evangelical sexual ethics has very little ground to stand on besides its condemnation of Cline’s falsehood; since the Sexual Revolution, evangelicals have done very little to articulate a coherent theology of sex. Even the works that attempt this de-emphasize or deflect the natural relationship between sex and procreation. One popular evangelical sex manual even lists “Children fulfill the psychic design of your mind” as a reason to have children, but doesn’t mention that separating sex from procreation could possibly be immoral.
There seems to be a fairly clear line from this incoherency to Cline’s elders writing “letters attesting to his character.” Indeed, what campus minister or pastor has not heard Bible verses and discussions of psychic well-being deployed to defend all sorts of sexual immorality? Christian teaching about sex may have been skewed a bit far in the direction of shamefulness and propriety for some generations, but it seems that in our desire to demonstrate ourselves cool, sexy, and (most importantly) accepting of technological innovations that we have tripped over ourselves to abandon centuries of historic Christian teaching about the purpose and meaning of sex in procreation.
Indeed, if we only have the commands in the Bible to guide us voluntaristically into the joy of sex, we will find (as we have, over and over) that our interpretive flexibility is no match for the inclinations of our hearts. The Bible, as powerful and far-reaching as it is, does not allow us to proof-text our way to a coherent sexual ethic. Even when this is attempted, passages such as Romans 1 point to a much sturdier set of premises in natural law that lead us to conclude that sex cannot and should be separated from procreation. Oliver O’Donovan says it best in his classic examination of in vitro fertilization, Begotten or Made?:
[T]he procreative and relational aspects of marriage strengthen one another, and […] each is threatened by the loss of the other. This is a knot tied by God, which men should not untie. It is clear that any attempt to convert begetting into making constitutes a loosening of that knot, a severing of the relational from the procreative and the procreative from the relational. And for this to happen it is not necessary for anyone to deny the value of either procreation or sexual relationship.
Like O’Donovan, I don’t think that this means abandoning the goods that contraception can bring within a marriage. Rather, like the inseparability of food from land or the sanctity of human life from the techniques of health care, there is a connection between procreation and sex that is severed only at our peril. No one will die from eating a Big Mac with a Coke every now and then; but a food system and a land economy designed primarily to maximize the amount of corn syrup we have available to us at any time will poison the earth and our bodies. We ought not kill, but upholding the sanctity of life will require artificially intervening (or withholding artificial interventions) at different times.
O’Donovan specifically addresses contraception in this way:
As a whole, then, the married love of any couple should (barring serious reasons to the contrary) be both relation-building and procreative; the two ends of marriage are held together in the life of sexual partnership which the couple live together. But it is artificial to insist, as Humanae Vitae did, that ‘each and every marriage act’ must express tie two goods equally.
Contraception as a dominating technique (as Ellul described it) has the power to entirely eradicate the procreative aspect from the sexual life of a marriage, and its easy availability has certainly encouraged the mindset that divides sex from procreation entirely. (Think of how the language we use of “reproduction” makes us think of ourselves as machines rather than “procreation”, which invites us into a co-creative relationship with God.) A Christian sexual ethic that incorporates contraception into the whole of a procreative marriage must recognize this potential for danger and division while demanding the same sort of wisdom and character it takes to manage the techniques of life in the modern world that distance us from nature and give us immense power over it. If we are to use the Pill for good, it must be taken as seriously as we would take guns, automobiles, or smartphones with their power to kill body, soul, or both.
The inseparability of procreation and sex is not absolute down to every last act; the cord between the two can be stretched. But it is a tether that can only hold so much tension before it breaks—and when it is thoroughly severed and the knot between procreative and relational goods undone, we will find ourselves tumbling down into chaos. Donald Cline elevated efficacy and perfected his technique at an unimaginable cost to his own patients and his marriage. Let us not emulate his Biblical exegesis and moral inquiry.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org