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Kate M. Ott, Ph.D. is the Associate Director of The Religious Institute: Faithful Voices on Sexuality and Religion
On Monday, Carolyn and Sean Savage of Sylvania, Ohio, told the national audience of the Today Show that Carolyn was implanted with the wrong embryo during an in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure. What if she were to come into your church or synagogue or mosque to tell her story, instead of the Today Show?
For millennia, religious traditions have provided direction, discernment and doctrine on issues of fertility and childbirth, family and kinship. These themes resound in the sacred texts and historical traditions of every major faith. Yet most faith leaders and communities are unprepared to deal with issues raised by use of assisted reproductive technologies, or ARTs.
The Savages explained they were hoping for a fourth child from the embryos they had created from previous IVF cycles. Although their two sons were conceived through heterosexual intercourse, their daughter was conceived through IVF after the couple experienced secondary infertility, including 10 years of persistent attempts and miscarriages. The Savages, upon learning of the misplaced embryo, faced two choices: terminate the pregnancy, or carry the fetus to term and give the child back to his/her biological parents. They chose not only to continue this pregnancy, but also to continue to use IVF and a gestational surrogate to have more children.
The Savages’ circumstances are not an everyday occurrence. But there is no doubt that the use of ARTs has begun to shift the way we think about reproduction, family structure and children. More than 3 million babies worldwide have been born using ARTs, and approximately 12% of women of child-bearing age in the U.S. have used an infertility service.
Chances are someone in your faith community has used ARTs. Clergy and religious professionals must be prepared to deal pastorally with couples and individuals who may use ARTs for genetic screening, acquire donated sperm, egg or embryos, hire a surrogate, or preserve their own sperm or eggs in the case of a severe illness, such as cancer.
These technologies raise ethical issues and moral questions for religious leaders and the families they serve. ARTs give new hope to those who have been unable to conceive – but at what price? The technologies often impose unreasonable health risks and an extraordinary financial burden. High costs restrict the use of ARTs to the well-off and well-insured (and so far there has been no mention of assisted reproduction in the debate over healthcare reform).
The Savages cite religious beliefs for their decisions, but religious beliefs related to ARTs range from complete opposition to caution to encouragement. What does your faith tradition say about use of ARTs, and what are those teachings based on? Long-held belief in the “blessing of fertility,” coupled with an inherent bias for biological children, can lead to repeated attempts at assisted reproduction, when there are other ways of creating family. It is time to lift up religious perspectives that value diverse family structures and expand our understanding of creativity and generativity in order to guide ethical discernment and inform compassionate counseling.
Today the Religious Institute released A Time to Be Born: A Faith-Based Guide to Assisted Reproductive Technologies to help clergy and other religious professionals address the complex pastoral, moral and ethical issues raised by assisted reproductive technologies. The manual provides an overview of the technologies and how they are used; examines traditional religious perspectives on reproduction and fertility; and outlines a model of pastoral care and counseling that will enable religious leaders to effectively minister to the individuals and communities seeking their help.
Reproductive technologies are sophisticated and ever changing. By no means can any clergy member or religious professional be expected to know how all of them work or what makes someone a candidate for various technologies. But clergy and religious professionals do need to know how their faith traditions view ARTs. The Today Show gave the Savages a forum to tell their story, but couples and individuals choosing to use ARTs should be able to turn to their faith communities for moral discernment, compassionate counseling and support.