Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Infertility and Adoption)
February 11, 2020
by Peter Amsterdam
Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Infertility and Adoption)
(Points for this article are taken from Christian Ethics,1 by Wayne Grudem)
In recent articles we’ve looked at biblical perspectives on marriage, divorce, and birth control. The topics of infertility and adoption, which will be covered in this article, also fall under the category of marriage and sex.
When couples of childbearing age marry, they generally assume that at some point within their marriage they will have children. Scripture teaches that it is a blessing to have children:
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.2
Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.3
There are times, however, when couples aren’t able to have children due to the reproductive system of either the husband or wife (or both) not functioning properly. Throughout Scripture we find a number of instances in which couples had difficulties bearing children, such as Sarah, the wife of Abraham;4 Rachel, the wife of Isaac;5 Samson’s mother;6 Hannah, the mother of Samuel;7 and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.8 In each of these cases, God intervened and the women bore children. From these examples we can conclude that overcoming infertility can be a manifestation of God’s blessings upon a couple.
In some of the passages mentioned above, we also see the grief that childlessness brought to these women:
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”9
Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly.10
For some people, not having children and missing out on all that goes in to bearing, caring for, and raising their own children can bring a great sense of loss.
In some instances, childless couples wonder if God is displeased with them or is disciplining them because they are unable to conceive a child. This is very unlikely. We have the biblical example of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, who were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord,11 and yet hadn’t borne children prior to conceiving John. God miraculously intervened in this case, as in the aforementioned cases in the Old Testament. Infertility should not be looked at as a judgment from God. Neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul had physical children, but they both fulfilled God’s will in their lives, which resulted in “spiritual children.” As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.12 He called Timothy my true child in the faith.13 The apostle Peter referred to Mark, who often traveled with him, as Mark, my son.14
Nowadays there are reproductive technologies which are available to help those who are unable to conceive children. Some of them, according to the teachings of Scripture, are morally acceptable, while others aren’t. Generally speaking, modern medicine should be looked at as morally good when it is used to overcome disease and disability. God put resources on earth which humans have discovered and developed into medicines which help heal infirmities. He also inspired humans to learn the science and technology behind procedures that heal and help. Therefore, we can generally avail ourselves of medicine and medical treatments or procedures when needed, according to our personal faith.
As this series of articles is teaching Christian ethics, we are approaching the issue of infertility based on the understanding that an unborn child is a human person from the moment of conception, and that God intends that a child should be conceived by and born to a man and woman who are married to one another.
There are four alternatives, including methods of modern reproductive technology, considered morally acceptable according to Scripture.
Adoption of a Child
Adoption is one option for childless couples. It reflects God’s actions in that Christians are spoken of as being adopted by God.
When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”15
Adoption is a beautiful way to fulfill what is stated in the book of James:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.16
There are many childless Christian couples, as well as many Christian couples with natural-born children, who feel called by God to adopt one or more additional children.
Artificial Insemination by Husband (AIH)
The process of artificial insemination by a husband enables a wife to conceive using her husband’s sperm, used when for biological reasons it is unlikely or impossible for this to happen via normal sexual intercourse. In such a case, the husband’s sperm is collected and injected into the wife’s cervix or uterus.
In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Without Destruction of Embryos
In vitro fertilization is the process of joining a woman’s egg and a man’s sperm in a laboratory instead of a woman’s body. Some Christians do not agree that this procedure is acceptable. However, others feel that in principle it is morally acceptable, as long as no human embryos are destroyed in the process, as it is enabling a couple to overcome infertility through the means of modern medicine.
Some object to IVF because they feel the process is not the “natural” process of conception which God intended. However, a woman who is using the rhythm method uses a thermometer every day in order to find out the best time to have intercourse so she will be able to conceive a child, and this could also be seen as using an unnatural process because the thermometer isn’t “natural.” Is it “unnatural” for a husband who uses Viagra or some other medicine to overcome erectile dysfunction so that he and his wife can have intercourse and conceive a child? No. Likewise, there seems to be no valid reason to reject in vitro fertilization because it is not part of the natural process for the conception of children.
On the other hand, in vitro fertilization is often done in a way that several eggs are fertilized, and then most of the embryos are intentionally destroyed (unless they are adopted, as we’ll see in the next point). Because such a process results in the destruction of multiple human embryos, it is considered immoral, as it destroys human life. However, fertilization of multiple eggs is not necessary. The process of in vitro fertilization has advanced to the point that a couple can choose to fertilize only one or two eggs and have them both implanted in the mother’s womb. When no embryos are destroyed, in vitro fertilization does not contradict Scripture and can be considered morally acceptable.
Of course, in vitro fertilization is not an accessible option for many couples, as it is very expensive and not always successful.
During the process of in vitro fertilization, often more of the woman’s eggs are fertilized in the laboratory than are implanted in the womb. From the Christian ethical point of view, as pointed out above, only one or two eggs should be fertilized and placed in the womb. However, there are numerous couples who have embryos frozen in case they wish to have more children in the future, but who don’t end up using them due to divorce or other reasons. As a result, there are over a million frozen embryos in storage in the United States alone. Often these embryos aren’t used, but because they are fertilized eggs, neither should they be destroyed. They are, in a sense, like orphans. It is possible, and considered morally acceptable, for infertile couples to have one of these orphaned embryos implanted in the wife’s womb, so that they can be born as normal children. In such a situation, the child will not be born to the parents who conceived it, but to parents who desire to have a child enough to go through this process.
Some question whether a single or divorced woman should be allowed to adopt a frozen embryo and bring the child to birth. Some argue that this shouldn’t be allowed, as growing up in a single-parent household is more difficult for children. Author Wayne Grudem comments:
It seems to me that, from the child’s perspective, it is still much better to grow up in a single-parent household than to die as a discarded embryo or to exist perpetually as a frozen embryo for decades to come. If the society decides through the political process that it is acceptable for single parents to adopt children once the children are born (and many societies have concluded that it is right), then there seems to be no reason to prohibit a single mother from adopting an unborn child and bringing him or her to birth.17
There are other reproductive technologies which are not considered to be morally acceptable from a Christian perspective.
In Vitro Fertilization with Selective Reduction
As explained earlier, when using in vitro fertilization, numerous eggs are fertilized and then the ones which are not used are often destroyed; this is considered to be the destruction of human life, and therefore it is not considered morally acceptable. When using selective reduction, each embryo undergoes genetic screening to check for any disease in its genetic makeup before being implanted in the mother’s womb. Once the genetic screening has been done, the decision of whether to implant the embryo or not is made. The concern here is that this procedure can be used as a form of eugenics, which is a scientific approach based on the belief that only those who are “desirable” should be allowed to live.
Similarly, in the case of IVF with multifetal pregnancy reduction, several fertilized eggs are implanted in a woman’s womb. After some time, the one or two embryos that appear healthiest are allowed to survive, while the others are destroyed. This is considered a form of abortion, which, as explained in an earlier article, is considered immoral.18
The following two types of reproductive technologies are those which Christian ethicists have different views on, with some considering them as morally acceptable and others seeing them as immoral.
Artificial Insemination by Donor (AID)
Artificial insemination with the sperm of a man who is not the husband is called artificial insemination by donor. Some Christian ethicists consider AID to be immoral because it oversteps the boundaries of the pattern of laws that God established in Scripture, which always sought to guarantee that a child would be conceived and born to a man and a woman who are married to each other. Others feel that it is morally acceptable in some cases, such as when the husband may be sterile or carry a genetic disease that the couple doesn’t want to risk passing on to the child. By using AID, the parents can have a child who is genetically related to at least one of the parents.
Some, but not all, Christian ethicists who consider AID to be morally legitimate for married couples object to it being used in the case of single women, as Scripture teaches that children should be born to a man and woman who are married to one another. Some who object to the use of AID for married couples point to the possible emotional complexities and danger that it may bring into the marriage, as the wife will be carrying a child that is not the husband’s, which could put serious strain on the relationship.
When a married woman is physically unable to carry and bear children herself, sometimes a couple will come to an agreement with another woman who will be impregnated with the couple’s embryo and will carry the baby to term. This is accomplished via in vitro fertilization, using the original couple’s sperm and egg, or sometimes using the husband’s sperm and the surrogate mother’s egg.
Most Christian ethicists consider this to be immoral because it violates the biblical view that children should be conceived by a married couple. They also point to emotional attachments which arise as a third person, the surrogate mother, is in a sense being included in their marriage during the pregnancy period. Their concern is that the husband may find himself with some emotional attachment to the woman who is bearing his child. The surrogate mother may feel similar feelings for the man whose child she is bearing. Also, the surrogate mother will inevitably develop a bond with the child in her womb, which will be broken with much heartbreak when the child is given to the married couple.
Because Christian ethicists have differing views on whether Artificial Insemination by Donor and Surrogate Motherhood are moral options, Christian couples might want to consider one of the four options mentioned earlier, which are widely considered morally acceptable according to Scripture. If they feel that AID and Surrogate Motherhood are options for them, they should proceed with prayer and make the decision according to their own faith and conscience.
In conclusion: There is great joy in bearing and raising children, and in cases where a couple is infertile (statistically about one in six couples are), there can be deep sorrow and grief. It is acceptable according to biblical beliefs to adopt a child, or to use one of the various moral means available to attempt to conceive. While it is morally right to use such methods, it is not morally imperative. Couples who can’t conceive children are not morally bound to attempt to have them. There is nothing immoral about not having children. Those who wish to have children but can't, and who want to attempt to have them in a manner which is compatible with Christian ethics, can use the moral methods of trying to conceive. Whether a couple chooses to have children, or if unable, chooses to adopt them, or decides not to have children at all is their choice.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).
2 Psalm 127:3–4.
3 Malachi 2:15.
4 Genesis 11:30; 16:1.
5 Genesis 29:31.
6 Judges 13:2.
7 1 Samuel 1:2–18.
8 Luke 1:7.
9 Genesis 30:1.
10 1 Samuel 1:10.
11 Luke 1:6.
12 1 Corinthians 4:15.
13 1 Timothy 1:2.
14 1 Peter 5:13.
15 Galatians 4:4–6.
16 James 1:27 NIV.
17 Grudem, Christian Ethics, 772.