By Matthew Lee Anderson and Jake Meador
One of the main objections this website attempted to lodge against the Nashville Statement was that its focus and tenor were so narrow that it swung at the branches of the sexual revolution while leaving the trunk intact. What conservatives have taken to describing as a revolution in our society’s anthropology has roots and sources in the behaviors and practices that are common, and even unquestioned, in our own pews. The Christian sexual ethic is an indissoluble whole, and needs to be preserved as such if we would avoid reducing Christianity’s moral teachings to a vague set of therapeutic principles for better living. It is not enough to condemn issues that are (for now) safely “outside” evangelicalism; one must also address divorce, contraception, and in vitro fertilization. While the widespread evangelical acceptance of IVF was at the forefront of our minds when writing about Nashville, surrogacy was not far behind.
All this came to mind again while reading Kate Shellnut’s Christianity Today cover story on the growing prevalence of surrogacy within evangelical churches. The place to begin Shellnut’s story is at the end, which is given to activist and bioethicist Jennifer Lahl: “We’re not talking about how fragile our reproductive bodies are,” Lahl said. “What happens when babies don’t come?”
While we have long thought that what happens within evangelical churches is not very different from what happens outside, Shellnut’s reporting actually paints a less rosy picture than we had realized. While the research on who are becoming surrogates is thin, Shellnut notes that the practice “has attracted many evangelical women, who often fit the profile of the ‘ideal’ surrogate and are drawn to the idea of using their fertility to bless others.” It’s easy to see why from the testimonies of evangelical surrogates that Shellnut records. Combine the emotive spirituality that animates middle-class evangelical piety, a profound sense of compassion for those who are hurting, and the pre-existing idolatry of ‘family’ and the cocktail of a “spiritually” justified surrogacy relationship is made. While evangelicals have at this point rather uncritically embraced in vitro fertilization, we may be uniquely susceptible to the allures of being surrogates. Or so Shellnut’s story indicates.
Shellnut’s account does not explicitly endorse surrogacy, so much as raise awareness that it is happening. Yet it is just that journalistic approach that is the problem. The divide between ‘experience’ and ‘authority’ that has governed so many of our other contentious moral debates—gay marriage, especially—is on full display here. On one side of Shellnut’s essay are a number of women and couples who very prayerfully, very devoutly have concluded that the Lord is leading them into surrogacy. On the other side are a number of bioethicists who sound a definitive No against the practice.
Yet within the evangelical world, what would appear as a tossup isn’t. Because evangelicals are by habit of character and thought likely to treat the experiences of individuals as normative, an essay like this will almost certainly be read as an endorsement of their views. Indeed, journalistic evenhandedness seems to require treating illicit practices as licit, or at least up for debate. This movement will simply continue apace as the cultural Overton window on matters of gender and sexuality continues to shift. In the name of balance and fair-mindedness, many of our peers and friends feel obliged to act as if such views are plausible for Christians. This is closely related to the problem we raised on this site earlier this week with a movement-defined centrism.
In this particular case, the issue is compounded by the way Shellnut subtly undercuts the authorities she quotes. For instance, after quoting Paige Cunningham’s argument that there could be a loss or harm at birth to the mother when she gives the child up, Shellnut pivots and gives the final word in the section to a mother whose experience says just the opposite: “God protects your heart in such a way that it never ever felt like my baby,” the surrogate (Meg Watwood) says. “It was not emotional to give the baby to its parents.”
Shellnut does the same in the next section, quoting Jennifer Lahl’s critiques of the infertility industry before writing in the next sentence that the “questions of whether to intervene, keep trying, or let go of a dream are not hypotheticals for most people in the pews” who are facing infertility.
Such a description reinforces the perspective that only options for such couples are to pursue in vitro or “let go of their dream”—an approach Matt tried to undermine in his essay on infertility in the same magazine. But it also subtly delegitimizes the opinions of those authorities, by reducing them to disinterested spectators of the real suffering of couples who are trying to have a child. Shellnut notes that such couples “often focus more on outcome than ethics,” and notes the difficulty pastors have counseling against pursuing such remedies because doing so can be a “buzzkill.” But the caution to doctors about how difficult a negative judgment can be is followed immediately by a surrogate relaying how their pastor said “yes” to surrogacy. The juxtaposition of such approaches, as though they are on an equal plane, inherently undermines one side.
The recent controversies within evangelicalism about gay marriage have largely proceeded on the basis of a single methodological axiom: when disagreement exists and Scripture appears silent (or ambiguous), approval is permitted. Such an axiom has gone hand-in-hand with the prioritization of a certain kind of experience for moral reasoning. Experience is sometimes treated as though it has a fixed and inviolable content. “That’s just my experience,” we say, as though the matter is closed. But experience is peculiar: what we ‘experience’ on an issue is not as permanent as it seems, but remains open to us. We capture our experiences at a particular slice in time—but two years later, the same memories and experiences take on a different color and atmosphere. Experience is an inherently unstable phenomenon; this is what partly what makes it so valuable a source of reflection and such an unsteady basis for moral reasoning. Shellnut’s essay necessarily captures the experiences of surrogates at a particular moment in time. Yet it is just such a limitation which makes placing their opinion on an equal plane with those who have aggregated experiences and developed their thoughts in line with a biblical anthropology such a problem.
If nothing else, Shellnut’s essay highlights the extreme urgency of the anthropological crisis that evangelicalism has itself embraced—and the problems that compound if pastors wait to address such matters. The failure to do a hard thing early frequently leads to the need to do a much harder thing later on. And so it is here. Surrogacy should be met by evangelicals with a resounding and definite no, for reasons that Shellnut’s essay indicates and others beside. But the uncritical acceptance of contraception, the untethering of sex and procreation for the sake of apotheosizing pleasure, the absence of any meaningful concern about in vitro fertilization—these have undermined evangelicalism’s integrity on matters of sex and reproduction, and stripped its no’s of both confidence and authority. This was the lesson of the Nashville Statement, and it is still the case today.