ERLC writes letter to Senate regarding IVF, urging federal oversight amid opposition

The chief ethicist for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination wants the federal government to clamp down on in-vitro fertilization, saying it causes harm to children and their mothers.

The chief ethicist for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination wants the federal government to clamp down on in-vitro fertilization, saying it causes harm to children and their mothers.

Many infertile couples who undergo IVF treatment are unaware of the moral danger it poses, Brent Leatherwood, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote in a letter to the U.S. Senate last week.

“We urge legislators to develop and implement a system of federal oversight that protects and informs women and ensures embryos are treated with care, even as we oppose the general practice of IVF,” Leatherwood wrote.

Alabama ruling

Earlier this year, the Alabama Supreme Court made national headlines with a ruling that frozen embryos created during IVF were protected by the state’s wrongful death law. The state’s chief justice went even further, saying in a concurring opinion that “embryos cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.”

That ruling, in a case where embryos were destroyed in a freak accident, shut down Alabama’s fertility clinics, leading Kay Ivey, the state’s Southern Baptist governor, to quickly sign a new law protecting clinics by limiting their liability.

“I am pleased to sign this important, short-term measure into law so that couples in Alabama hoping and praying to be parents can grow their families through IVF,” Ivey said at the time.

During the IVF process, doctors often fertilize more eggs than can be implanted at one time. The excess embryos are vitrified — a freezing process that turns them glass-like — and stored in liquid nitrogen for future IVF attempts. By some estimates, more than a million embryos are currently frozen in storage.

While conservative Christian groups like the SBC have long opposed abortion, saying life begins at conception, they’ve been largely quiet about IVF itself. Any criticism of the process has been limited to concerns about the fate of frozen embryos created during IVF, especially if those leftover embryos were used for research or discarded.

That’s in part because of what Dena Davis, an emerita professor of religion at Lehigh University who taught bioethics, calls the “IVF problem.”

Unlike abortion, which is intended to end a pregnancy, the goal of IVF is for more children to be born — something religious people generally approve of, Davis told Religion News Service in an interview earlier this year.

“That is at the heart of conservative religious understanding of how the world works,” she said. “You get married, you have kids.”

Davis also suspects abortion foes are more likely to know someone who needs help conceiving and are likely more empathetic with someone using IVF than they are with someone who chooses abortion.

Over time

Southern Baptists passed a series of resolutions, starting in 1999, opposing the use of embryos for research, genetic editing of embryos, cloning or other technology that would involve destroying embryos — for the same reasons Southern Baptists oppose abortion, believing life has already begun in the frozen embryo stage.

While Southern Baptists have raised ethical concerns about IVF in the past, the denomination’s leaders have not opposed the practice.

That appears to be changing. Along with Leatherwood’s letter to federal regulators, the ERLC published a resource against IVF, arguing the practice separates conception from sex between a man and a woman and turns children into products. It’s a position that echoes Roman Catholic teaching on IVF.

“Though we should be hesitant to call it sin, it is morally ambiguous enough to be problematic and should be discouraged as a matter of wisdom and prudence,” according to the ERLC’s resource.

The ERLC’s position on IVF falls short of Roman Catholic teaching that contraception is immoral — however, it does say “it is theologically problematic to separate procreation from the sexual union of the man and woman in the marriage covenant.”

In 1934, the SBC did pass a resolution opposing a proposed federal law that would have made it legal to publish information about birth control, saying such a law “would be vicious in character and would prove seriously detrimental to the morals of our nation.”

During their annual meeting in Indianapolis next week, Southern Baptists will likely vote on a proposed resolution that raises ethical concerns about IVF but falls short of condemning it. Instead, the resolution encourages Southern Baptists to adopt leftover embryos and to think about the ethics of IVF.

The proposed resolution, written by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Southern professor Andrew Walker, instead encourages infertile couples to consider “the ethical implications of assisted reproductive technologies as they look to God for hope, grace, and wisdom amid suffering.”


EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Bob Smietana and originally published by Religion News Service.

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