The ethics of IVF: Where Catholics and Baptists can agree

IVF Credit: Tati9/Shutterstock

Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention, which represents the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., voted to approve a resolution laying out the ethical implications of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and calling on Baptists to “only utilize infertility treatments and reproductive technologies in ways consistent with the dignity of the human embryo.”

The resolution, which is a statement of belief and is nonbinding, follows a landmark ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court in February that found that frozen human embryos are children under state law. The resolution represents the first official statement on IVF from the SBC — which claims nearly 13 million members — despite prominent SBC leaders and ethicists criticizing the use of IVF for years. 

The SBC resolution garnered national attention when it passed last week, in part because it now means that the two largest single Christian denominations in the United States — Catholics and Southern Baptists — have both officially explicated teachings specifically against IVF, despite the procedure remaining popular among members of both faiths. Overall, roughly 2% of all children in the U.S. are conceived through IVF. 

What does the Baptist faith teach about the use of IVF, and how does this compare with the teaching of the Catholic Church? Here’s what you need to know. 

First, the Catholic view

While the Catholic Church encourages certain fertility treatments for couples struggling to have children, the use of IVF is contrary to Catholic teachings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2377) states that IVF is “morally unacceptable.”

In the IVF process, the sperm and egg are joined in a lab environment and the live embryo is later implanted into a uterus to continue developing until birth. Prior to this, a drug is administered to the woman to induce the release of multiple eggs in one cycle, while the man’s sperm is retrieved through masturbation. 

Ultimately, IVF involves the use of artificial means to achieve pregnancy outside of sex between a husband and wife, or “the marital act” — a disassociation that the Church teaches is contrary to the dignity of both parents and children. 

In addition, almost half of the human embryos — millions — created through IVF are “discarded” during the process whereby embryos are selected for implantation, according to the Center for Genetics and SocietyMillions more are being kept frozen in laboratories across the country, where they are often stored indefinitely, discarded after a while, accidentally destroyed, or intentionally destroyed in embryonic scientific research

For these and other reasons, the Church has judged the process of IVF, similar to surrogacy, to be incompatible with the Church’s understanding of the sanctity of every life from the moment of conception. 

What do Baptists believe about IVF?

Like many Protestants, Baptists believe in the Bible as “a perfect treasure of divine instruction.” According to a 2000 statement of faith from the SBC, Christians “should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.” 

The SBC has released over 20 resolutions affirming the pro-life view that life begins at the moment of conception. Still, similar to several other major Protestant denominations, the SBC lacked a clear teaching on the morality of IVF. 

The June 12 resolution calls on Southern Baptists to pray for couples who experience infertility, promote adoption, and ask the government to restrict actions that violate the sanctity of human life. And, specifically for couples experiencing infertility, the resolution asks them to consider reproductive technologies that are ethical.

Despite this action, many Baptist individuals have expressed support for IVF, especially since the resolution passed. Because Baptist congregations are autonomous and the Baptist faith lacks a central, infallible teaching authority — such as the pope — Baptist Christians are free to assess the issue of IVF for themselves and decide accordingly. 

But just because the SBC as a body has not explicitly taught against IVF until now doesn’t mean prominent Baptist leaders and ethicists have not been critical of the practice. In particular, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the SBC has released detailed ethical analyses of IVF, with the commission variously concluding that it is “opposed to the willful destruction or even donating to scientific experimentation of non-implanted human embryos wantonly created in the typical IVF process.”

Other Baptist leaders such as Russell Moore, Karen Swallow Prior, and Albert Mohler, president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky, have written and spoken extensively against the use of IVF for years. Mohler’s criticisms, in part, include the fact that IVF can be used by LGBT couples. 

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In an op-ed published following the SBC resolution, Mohler admitted that “evangelical Christians have been late to get serious on this issue.”

“Far too many Christians say they believe in the sanctity and dignity of human life at every stage, from fertilization to natural death, but when the issue turns to the massive ethical issues related to IVF, many evangelicals, including far too many Southern Baptists, have refused to connect the dots,” Mohler wrote. 

“The SBC gains nothing politically by speaking up for human embryos. We speak up because we truly believe that human life is sacred from the moment of fertilization,” the respected theologian continued. 

Mohler authored the June 12 SBC resolution along with SBTS professor Andrew Walker. In a June 13 statement on social media, Walker noted that “Southern Baptists can no longer remain silent or on the fence about IVF.”

“Protestants, I fear, have unwittingly acquiesced, with the greatest of intentions, to an industry that promises life by also tampering with it. Given what is happening in the culture, now is as good a time as ever to speak with biblical clarity,” he continued. 

“Human embryos are human beings who bear God’s image at all stages of their development. We believe this consistently, or we do not. Everyone who is reading this was once an embryo themselves. Though you and I are no longer in the embryonic stage of our existence, who we are today is not substantively different than who we were then. Our nature is all the same,” Walker said. 

“The bottom line is this: If we believe it is wrong to kill unborn life in the womb, we should extend that logic to understand that creating excess embryos and freezing them outside the womb is also wrong.”

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What should Catholics make of the Baptists’ resolution?

Andrew Kubick, a Catholic bioethicist with the Religious Freedom Institute and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that he welcomes the SBC’s resolution, saying it affirms numerous truths that Catholics and Baptists hold in common as Christians. These include the belief that every human being bears God’s image, has intrinsic dignity, and possesses inherent rights, and also that children are a gift from God.

“These truths are expressly taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but they are also expressed in the Bible and accessible through reason so that our brothers and sisters outside of the Church can understand and live according to the moral order established by God,” Kubick said. 

While the Catholic Church’s moral analysis of IVF “goes much deeper,” he said, it is commendable that the South Baptist’s resolution identifies some immoral elements of IVF.

However, there are a few ambiguities in the resolution that ought to be clarified, Kubick noted. First, he said, the immoral elements of IVF were enumerated, yet IVF was never outright condemned. Rather, he said, it falls to the prudential considerations of the married couple. 

In addition, the SBC resolution encourages couples who are infertile to consider embryo adoption in order to “rescue” these children who are in danger of death. Embryo adoption is a practice that the Catholic Church has not definitively addressed, but the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has expressed serious moral reservations about it.  

“While embryo adoption sought as a treatment for infertility is explicitly condemned by the Catholic Church, (see Dignitas Personae, No. 19), Catholic theologians and ethicists who are faithful to the magisterium are split on whether such a rescue operation is morally permitted,” he noted.

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