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How Christians Should Think About IVF-Created Embryos

Last month, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos created and stored in IVF clinics can be considered children under state law. This news might have seemed an indisputable victory for the pro-life cause and worthy of being championed by pro-life Christians across America. Yet numerous pro-life legislators in Alabama and other states seem less enthused about the recognition of embryos as children and more concerned about how it might affect the IVF industry.

For example, as the Washington Post reports, Republican state senator Larry Stutts, an ob-gyn, acknowledged the “moral quandary” with IVF but said discarded embryos are “a small, small percentage” compared to the ones used or retained. “We could pass a law limiting the number of eggs you can fertilize in a cycle. But I don’t think we should legislate that,” Stutts said. “I’m not talking about morality, I’m talking about the practice of medicine.”

It might seem peculiar that pro-life legislators are now using the same talking points to defend certain IVF practices that pro-choice activists use to protect certain abortion procedures. But the acceptance of reproductive technologies has advanced faster than the public’s ability to grapple with the profound moral and ethical dilemmas of IVF. This disconnect is especially true of reflections on the status of frozen embryos.

In considering the complex and emotionally charged topic of IVF, it’s important to acknowledge the deep pain and longing experienced by families who turn to this technology in hopes of having a child. The struggle with infertility can be a heartrending and isolating experience, and the decision to pursue IVF often comes after much discussion and prayer. As we consider the theological and ethical dimensions of IVF, it’s essential for Christians to approach this subject with a compassionate heart. This empathy does not diminish the need for careful ethical deliberation but rather enriches our understanding and response to the issue, grounding it in the reality of human suffering and hope.

Understand the Nature of IVF-Created Embryos

The questions we must address aren’t merely scientific or biological but profoundly theological: What’s the nature of a frozen embryo created through IVF? How should pro-life Christians think about such beings? The answers to these questions aren’t just academic; they hold significant implications for how we view life, dignity, and our responsibilities as followers of Christ.

The acceptance of reproductive technologies has advanced faster than the public’s ability to grapple with the profound moral and ethical dilemmas of IVF.

First, let’s clarify the essential terms. By “pro-life,” I mean the commonly used framework of a person who believes life, from conception to natural death, should be protected in our laws. I belong to this group as a Christian, and this is the group I hope to convince.

Now let’s consider the nature of a frozen embryo created through IVF. Here’s how I propose pro-life Christians define the nature of such a being: An IVF-created frozen embryo is a human life created in the image of God at the earliest stage of development. This person is living in suspended animation outside a woman’s womb and is worthy of all moral considerations and legal protections afforded to other human beings.

I’ll attempt to defend each proposition.

An IVF-Created Frozen Embryo Is . . .

1. A Human Life

Unfortunately, the most obvious statement in the definition is the one most frequently contested. For example, WORLD magazine recently interviewed Brett Davenport, a fertility doctor working in Alabama. Davenport says he’s “pro-life” on the issue of abortion but does “not personally believe that life has begun by day seven of an embryo’s growth, and even more so when it is outside of a woman’s uterus.”

Many Americans—including Christians who consider themselves pro-life—would agree with Davenport. But the people most likely to disagree are biologists.

The question of when human life begins contains two interrelated queries about a specific type of being: When does a particular being become a “human,” and when does that being’s existence constitute “life”? The answer is straightforward: Human life begins when the human sperm fertilizes a human ovum and creates a distinct human being capable of growth, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. This is known as the “fertilization view.” Fertilization is also known as conception, so it’s accurate to say human life begins at conception.

Within the biology field, this view is uncontroversial. A 2021 report published in Issues in Law & Medicine found that when biologists from 1,058 academic institutions around the world were asked when a human life begins, 96 percent (5,337 out of 5,577) affirmed the fertilization view. From an empirical perspective, the view of Davenport and those who agree with him about when life begins are in the extreme minority. As the report notes, in the “two studies that explored experts’ views on the matter, the fertilization view was the most popular perspective held by public health and IVF professionals.”

The fertilization view isn’t only the commonsense view; it’s the leading scientific and empirical perspective on when a human life begins.

2. Created in the Image of God

In Genesis 1:27, we read that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him.” Because this passage doesn’t define what “the image of God” means, theologians throughout history have considered a wide variety of interpretations. For our purposes, we don’t necessarily need to agree on what this term means but merely on how it’s applied. Specifically, we need to be able to agree on whether it applies to all human beings.

We’ve established that IVF-created frozen embryos are living human beings. If we claim they’re not created in the image of God, then we have to determine the basis for their exclusion. We’d also, for the sake of consistency, have to apply that same standard of exclusion to other groups of humans. Most modern pro-life Christians won’t want to go down this dangerous path.

3. At the Earliest Stage of Development

In a biological sense, human development describes the chronological processes that occur over a human’s lifespan. The processes begin when a human being comes into existence (fertilization) and continue until death. If left unimpeded, the stages of development will typically progress through the broad categories of prenatal (the stages before birth), infancy (newborn and up to 1 year old), toddler (1 to 5 years old), childhood (3 to 11 years old), adolescence (12 to 18 years old), and adulthood (18 and older).

All embryos are in the prenatal stage. This embryonic stage extends from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation, when the state of development shifts to the fetal stage. What was once described as an embryo is then described as a fetus.

This is worth noting because while the broad stages of development have always been recognized, the moral worth of each stage hasn’t. Only since Christianity and its expanded influence has the concept of human dignity been applied to a larger range of human development.

While the broad stages of development have always been recognized, the moral worth of each stage hasn’t.

For example, in most pagan cultures, not all adults were considered equally worthy of life. In ancient Greece and Rome, children’s lives had little value, and a father had the right to kill his children. Newborns weren’t even considered human if they were deformed. They could be killed or abandoned to die.

That view changed as Christian morality began to replace paganism For instance, following his conversion to Christianity in AD 313, the emperor Constantine implemented laws protecting newborns, while infanticide was outlawed in AD 374 by Valentinian.

Regrettably, laws protecting humans in the prenatal stage have lagged behind. But even today, the idea of killing a fetus in the latter stages of pregnancy is losing ground, and a majority of American adults (56 percent) say that how long a woman has been pregnant should matter in determining when abortion should be legal. Pro-life Christians, of course, believe in the sanctity of life at all stages of development.

4. Living in Suspended Animation Outside a Woman’s Womb

Suspended animation is the temporary cessation of most vital functions without death. For human embryos, this status is achieved through the process of cryopreservation, which protects them from decay by keeping them at extremely low temperatures. This process prevents the embryo from continuing through the normal stages of human development and allows human beings at this stage of life to exist outside their normal habitation, the mother’s womb.

Before cryopreservation, it would’ve been impossible for an embryo to exist outside of a woman’s womb; now, this can be achieved if the embryo is created through IVF. Does this change the moral status of the embryo? Not at all. “Location is simply one more of those many factors that make no difference where the most foundational moral principles are concerned,” ethicist Christopher Tollefsen says. “The human embryo is a human being, whether in utero, undergoing cell division in vitro, or temporarily (or permanently) in frozen stasis in a ‘nursery,’ as the Alabama Supreme Court tellingly, but somewhat ironically, calls it.”

Tollefsen’s point should be obvious. Yet it’s surprising how often Christians who oppose abortion at the earliest stages of pregnancy aren’t as concerned with the death of children in the IVF clinic. Perhaps many who identify as “pro-life” do so more out of emotional attachment to pregnancy than out of a commitment to the sanctity of human life. But it’s more likely many pro-life Christians simply haven’t thought about the issue enough to recognize that the location of the embryo doesn’t change its moral status.

5. Worthy of All Moral Considerations and Legal Protections Afforded to Other Human Beings

Based on the parts of the statement we’ve clarified so far, let’s consider how they affect the moral considerations of IVF-created frozen embryos.

To simplify the argument, we’ll use only two presuppositions rooted in Scripture: (1) all human life belongs to God (Rom. 14:8; Ps. 100:3), and (2) God created human beings in his image (Gen. 1:27). Based on those presuppositions, here are a few statements all Christians (and certainly all pro-life Christians) should be able to agree on.

1. There’s compelling—even overwhelming—empirical evidence that life begins at fertilization. Because all human life belongs to God, we should have equally compelling evidence that life does not begin at conception before we conclude certain distinct biological human beings don’t possess life and thus don’t warrant moral consideration or legal protection.

2. Since IVF-created frozen embryos are living human beings, we should conclude they too are created in the image of God.

3. Scripture says all life belongs to God and that humans are created in his image; it makes no exceptions based on the stage of development. Unless we have sufficient reason to think that God does not care about human life at a stage of development all humans—including the God-man Jesus—passed through, then we shouldn’t consider the embryonic stage unworthy of moral consideration or legal protection.

4. Just as the physical location of an adolescent or adult doesn’t change his or her moral status, the location of a human being at the embryonic stage should have no bearing on whether that human is worthy of moral consideration or legal protection.

Many pro-life Christians simply haven’t thought about the issue enough to recognize that the location of the embryo doesn’t change its moral status.

Based on these four claims, we can conclude IVF-created frozen embryos are worthy of all moral considerations afforded to other human beings. They should also be afforded, based on their status as human beings, two unquestionable natural rights: the right to continue living and the right to continue unimpeded to the next stage of biological development.

Some exceptions to the first natural right exist—for instance, a person has a right to life as long as he hasn’t forfeited it by committing a crime worthy of death, such as intentional murder. But such situations wouldn’t apply to embryos.

The exceptions to the second right are rare and exceedingly controversial. For example, most people believe a child has a natural right to progress from one stage to another, such as from childhood to adolescence. If a physician was able to completely inhibit that change, such as through puberty blockers, most people would consider it an extremely immoral action—even if the parents consented—to intentionally stunt the development of the child. Likewise, inhibiting an embryo from progressing to the next stages of development (fetal, birth, childhood, and so on) should similarly be considered an extremely immoral action.

Unfortunately, the violation of these rights is often made by the people who are, or should be, most concerned about the welfare of these human beings—the biological parents and the fertility doctors. Yet the decision by some to ignore these natural rights shouldn’t prevent us from seeking to protect these vulnerable humans.

The legal protections aren’t as clear-cut and obvious as the moral obligations. Yet I believe we pro-life Christians should be able to agree on a specific set of claims:

1. The protected status of human beings is either absolute or subject to redefinition.

2. If it’s absolute, then every individual human being—regardless of biological age, sex, ethnicity, or abilities—has the right to all the protections afforded to every other human being.

3. If it’s subject to redefinition, then those who control the definition inevitably have life and death control over the rest—the strong can control and enslave the weak.

4. The only way to avoid granting such powers to the strong is to adopt an absolute standard of human protection from conception to natural death.

If we agree with this argument—and we should if we consider ourselves “pro-life”—then we should extend legal protections to all embryos, whether created through natural reproduction or IVF.

New-Old Problem

The discussion surrounding IVF-created frozen embryos challenges us to confront some of the most foundational aspects of our faith and our understanding of human life. It’s a new form of an old problem.

For instance, before the 1970s, many Protestant Christians in America either took no position on abortion or accepted legal abortion under certain conditions. The Southern Baptist Convention even adopted a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion under certain conditions that were later codified in Roe v. Wade. It was only as believers committed to the sanctity of life advocated for the unborn that evangelicals began to recognize the horror of abortion.

Today, we need a similar effort to protect the hundreds of thousands of IVF-created frozen embryos formed only to be abandoned or killed. We need pro-life Christians willing to navigate these complex issues with hearts that seek wisdom, minds that engage with truth, and spirits that reflect Christ’s love for all humanity. And we need those with the courage to affirm a commitment to the biblical mandate of valuing and protecting life, from conception to natural death, so we might better honor the Creator who has fearfully and wonderfully made each one of us.


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