Culture At Large

How abortion has skewed the reproductive ethics debate

Ellen Painter Dollar

About 10 years ago, my husband and I went through a difficult few months as we considered whether to use a genetic screening technique to ensure that our second child wouldn’t inherit my painful bone disorder, as our first daughter did.

As we met with doctors and cared for our 2-year-old daughter, who went through a terrible cycle of broken bones, I was consumed by hard questions concerning the reproductive technology we were considering. Questions like:

  • Do I have a duty to spare our next child the suffering that my daughter and I have endured?
  • Does my deep desire to have a healthy child imply that I don’t value my daughter who is not healthy - or myself?
  • Do technologies such as IVF (in vitro fertilization) and PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which we were considering) turn children into commodities rather than gifts?
  • What values guide my doctors and the care they give? How do those values intersect with mine as a Christian?

 

When we reached out for Christian counsel for our questions, we came up nearly empty. Much of the literature exploring ethical implications of reproductive technologies was written in academic or theological language - dry and intellectual and off-putting. When you’re talking about people’s babies, you necessarily have to speak to both mind and heart, and the heart was missing from much of the literature.

Beyond that, I found much of what Christians had to say about reproductive technology to be overly influenced by our preoccupation with abortion. There was a tendency to transfer the arguments we use when discussing abortion directly to discussions around other reproductive issues. 

Forty years after Roe v. Wade, abortion remains a dividing line in the culture wars and a central sociopolitical issue for many Christians. Unfortunately, decades of divisive, oversimplified debate around abortion have left Christians ill-equipped to engage in effective discourse and empathetic counsel around technologies that offer parents the promise of healthy biological children. Christians too often fall back on well-worn abortion arguments, around the appropriate limits on freedom of choice and the moral status of embryos, for example, when they are responding to technologies such as IVF and pre-embryonic genetic screening.

Christians too often fall back on well-worn abortion arguments when they are responding to technologies such as IVF and pre-embryonic genetic screening.

Consider that only a few years ago, in a Christianity Today debate piece I was a part of, bioethicist David Cook suggested use of artificial wombs as one way to make sure that extra embryos produced in fertility clinics have a chance at life, even though artificial wombs raise disturbing ethical concerns of their own. When my husband and I were making our reproductive decisions, we had one pastor say that as long as we weren’t producing embryos that would be used in scientific experiments, we needn’t worry about the moral implications of our decisions. His laser focus on the embryos we might produce and what might happen to them is echoed in some evangelical literature directed to Christians coping with infertility.

Such responses utterly fail to address other key ethical questions around reproductive technology, questions such as those I posed above, which preoccupy many prospective parents making hard decisions about using that technology. Treating human embryos with dignity is certainly one important concern when we evaluate reproductive technologies, but it is not the only one.

Similarly, those who identify as pro-choice are often reluctant to acknowledge that some choices made possible by modern reproductive technologies, such as using genetic testing for gender selection or to screen for conditions that many people would not consider terribly disabling, raise deep ethical concerns with sobering implications for how we welcome children into the world (or don’t).

It is time for Christians to go beyond worn, inadequate arguments from the abortion debate to provide relevant, compassionate and knowledgeable counsel to prospective parents, and contribute to vital cultural debates around reproductive technology.

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