Surrogate Mothering and IVF: are they biblical?
A reader, ‘J.’ from the USA asks a reasonable question about whether infertile couples should use modern reproductive technology. Former medical doctor and current Managing Director Dr Carl Wieland responds.
My question is regarding the use of a surrogate mother and whether it would be un-biblical. My wife had to have her uterus removed some years ago. We do not have children but her eggs are healthy as is my sperm.
We have started to explore the option of a surrogate mother whereby my wife’s eggs will be fertilized by my sperm and a surrogate mother will carry the baby. I have consulted with some local pastors as whether this process would be anti-biblical or not. The answers ranged from ‘that would be adultery!’, it is ‘anti-nature and therefore anti-God’, etc.
I have not explored all of the aspects of using a surrogate mother and I am still researching the scientific aspect of it. I am aware that there is an abortion option whereby if more than one fetus would emerge, there would be elimination. Naturally, being anti-abortion, we would not select this option.
My thoughts on ‘this would be adultery’ are that as long as it is my sperm and my wife’s egg, the use of a third person to carry the baby would not constitute adultery. I think the use of another woman’s egg or another man’s sperm might possibly qualify as adultery (which is not the case here).
My thoughts on it is ‘anti-nature and therefore anti-God’ are that there are many advances in medicine since the times of antiquity. As we progress technologically and medicinally, the lines of what is anti-nature/anti-God are becoming fuzzier. There were times when some Christians were avoiding organ transplants and blood transfusions or not using antibiotics to cure disease.
There is much debate about cloning these days and stem cell research. The truth of the matter is I am unsure if using a surrogate mother is ‘anti-nature’. There is certainly some risk in the procedure and it is definitely a tough process (i.e. finding a suitable surrogate who can be trusted, etc.). CMI has always been a source of rational thinking with respect to God and science. Therefore I pose the question to you, is the use of a surrogate mother (under the circumstances described above) Anti-Biblical and Anti-God?
Thank you in advance for consideration of my question and God bless.
Thanks for your email. These sorts of questions are becoming far more common for believers to address, and what we need to do is to try to sort out emotional responses from biblical teaching.
Biblical vs emotional reactions
As you correctly point out, knee-jerk emotional responses were likely given by some in the early days of surgery, too. ‘If God had wanted to have someone cut open our abdomens, he would have put zippers in. It’s unnatural’. Or air travel. ‘If God had wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings’. And so on. See the further explanation of the biblical principles in Vaccines and Genesis, and the response to a critic of that article.
We would suggest that saying something is ‘anti-nature’ is hardly the point for the believer. Is nature the criterion we should follow? Nature is fallen. Animals steal, rape, murder, enslave, eat their children, etc. (See the formal logic of this reductio ad absurdum in Logic and Creation, as well as applications in the articles Homosexual Animals: Using ‘Science’ to Push a Political Agenda and Rape and Evolution.)
The only issue when it comes to morality is the Word of God. Is it adultery? Adultery is the act of intercourse with someone who is not your spouse. Jesus extended that in the Sermon on the Mount to make the point that it really starts with lusting after that person in your heart. It seems to us to be a ‘very long bow to draw’, to put it mildly, for someone to say that the situation you refer to has anything to do with adultery. Frankly, there seems to be no biblical prohibition to what you describe, so to me it would seem to be a ‘wisdom issue’ (see explanation of this on a different topic, Global warming: what is ‘the creationist view’?).
That is not to say that there are no problems with surrogacy. The main one concerns the emotional bond between the mother and the baby she is carrying. With all the understandable risks that entails—many women have been reluctant to give up the surrogate child after it is born, because an emotional bond is ultimately the issue, not DNA.
However, there is Biblical precedent for surrogacy. For example, the Mosaic Law provided for levirate marriage, where a man would impregnate his dead brother’s widow and bear children on his behalf (Deuteronomy 25:5 ff.; prefigured in Genesis 38, and God punished Onan for his refusal to do so; valid in Christ’s day (Mark 12:19)). Ruth was a surrogate mother for Naomi in a sense, because Ruth gave birth to Obed (fathered by Ruth’s husband Boaz) who was called ‘a son born to Naomi’.
In pre-Mosaic times, there was also a custom of using a slave girl as a surrogate mother, e.g. Sarai/Sarah suggesting that Abram/Abraham use Hagar to bear children on her behalf (Genesis 16), and Jacob bearing children with Leah’s maid Zilpah on Leah’s behalf (Genesis 30:9 ff.) and with Rachel’s maid Bilhah on behalf of Rachel (Genesis 30:3 ff.).
The main problem, which has repercussions in the Middle East even today,1 was not the practice per se, which was a custom of that milieu, but that Sarah didn’t trust God to provide them with the promised child of the Abrahamic Covenant, and that Abraham listened to her and had a child with Hagar.
But under the Mosaic Law and Law of Christ, this would not be acceptable today because it does seem to be adulterous (see also Does the Bible clearly teach monogamy? as well as the discussion on whether God’s standards change in the Cain’s Wife chapter of our new Creation Answers Book).
The pastors you spoke with might be mistakenly basing their negative opinions on the history of Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, and Hagar. But as stated, the parallels with modern surrogacy are not there, because today there would be no adultery, and you have not been specifically promised a Covenant Child.
Will life be destroyed?
We agree totally with you that any treatment that involves conceiving embryos must give them all a chance at life—any intent to dispose of ‘surplus’ embryos contradicts the pro-life stance of Scripture. However, there seems nothing wrong with an IVF treatment that conceives only those embryos that will be implanted.
You would need to discuss this in depth with your doctor, so it is important to choose one who will both respect your wishes, and hopefully share your biblical Christian faith. That would go a long way towards making sure that there isn’t any abortion/disposal.
Alternatives to technology
By way of aside, then, have you considered adoption—is it an option for you? Particularly from trouble-torn parts of the world close to your US home, perhaps an orphan baby from Haiti or South America? A child which would otherwise have no hope in the world. In other words, while it is very important to you to have children, how important is it for the DNA to be your own? Just a thought …
In summary, I would see these as personal decisions for you and your wife and the lady concerned, which do not appear to conflict with any biblical principle, whichever way you decide. I respect the right of people to hold alternative views on these issues, and perhaps there are aspects I have not considered. But I suggest that such critics should seriously consider the burden of proof that is on them, in needing to demonstrate clearly from Scripture what exactly is supposed to be wrong with the course of action you describe.
[ADDENDUM added 13 Jan 07: To enable an informed decision, in concert with discussions with your doctor, it should also be mentioned that some evidence has come to light of an increased risk of birth deformities from assisted reproductive technology (such as IVF). It appears that the handling of the egg may cause epigenetic effects that can express themselves in this way (this means that the DNA code is not altered, but the way it is expressed is altered, due to e.g. methylation—contrary to what was long believed, this is a mechanism by which ‘environment’ can affect heredity). See for example this paper at <www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=378620&tools=bot> — C.W.]
- Sarah had even laughed contemptuously at the thought (Genesis 18:12 ff.), thus her son bore the memory of this, combined with the joyful laughter of the son God promised (Isaac, Hebrew יצחק Yitskhaq from צחק tsakhaq laugh). Much of today’s problems in the middle East come from the descendants of Hagar’s son Ishmael whose hand would be against every other’s (Genesis 16:12), and who himself mocked Isaac (the Hebrew is a word play on the above root of Isaac’s name — Ishmael was ‘Isaacking Isaac’). Return to text.