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Why We Should All Struggle To Understand The Moral Consequences Of IVF

IVF cryopreservation
Image CreditFDRLST/Canva

One simply can’t reach an adequate conclusion about humanity and existence without at least considering when and how life begins.


Renowned British-American columnist Andrew Sullivan made waves this weekend when he debuted an article grappling with the moral and ethical implications of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In his essay titled “My Problem With IVF — And Ours,” Sullivan declared that he simply can’t stomach the popular practice that is responsible for manufacturing the estimated million embryos frozen in time in cryogenic tanks.

“[T]he conscious choice to create a human life, and to keep it alive in perpetuity, but never allow it to breathe a single breath, disturbs me,” Sullivan writes.

Sullivan is no social conservative with a cohesive pro-life philosophy. In the article, he explicitly expresses support for “maximal sexual freedom for consenting adults,” “widespread use of contraception,” and “any and all methods to help couples facing fertility issues.” And even though he confesses he “personally cannot accept the morality of consciously ending a human life, especially one so vulnerable in the womb,” he remains a proponent of “legal abortion rights for all women.”

He also spends at least one paragraph lamenting “many on the theocon right” and their grievances with the surrogacy industry, ignoring its direct link to IVF and the inevitable consequences renting a womb has on children’s rights and women.

Yet, Sullivan ultimately reaches a conclusion about IVF that few in his shoes have been willing to say aloud: Creating human lives in a lab “only to destroy them as waste” is wrong.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. IVF cycles yield big batches of embryos every year. Yet, only an estimated 7 percent of these test tube babies survive the treacherous journey from petri dish to freezer to womb. These embryos, Sullivan accurately notes, are “quite simply a means to an end, violating a basic norm of inviolable human dignity.”

Sullivan goes far beyond “balking” at the serial creation and destruction of embryos exploited to “beat the odds.” He calls out the eugenics undertones often promoted by the fertility industry via embryo selection and wonders how “sacrificing many sons and daughters to create one” is anything but “evil.”

The writer does not offer the most clear-cut defense of embryonic life. He does, however, showcase how important it is for everyone — not just pro-life Christians concerned about the ethical minefield presented by advancements in assisted reproductive technology — to wrestle with the nitty gritty parts of IVF.

A similar cultural case for grappling about life was made 36 years ago in 1988 by famed left-wing atheist Christopher Hitchens who came out against abortion after dubbing it “an extremely grave social issue.”

Ending unborn life, Hitchens told his brother in an interview, didn’t just make him “queasy” — it does not make moral sense.

“Once you allow that the occupant of the womb is even potentially a life, it cuts athwart any glib invocation of ‘the woman’s right to choose,’” he noted.

There Is Humanity In Examining Humanity

Sullivan’s specific argument against IVF is laced with an inconsistency that, despite plaguing a large portion of the so-called pro-life political right, is not compatible with successfully curbing Big Fertility or protecting unborn babies. There still exists a large disconnect for many between protecting life only when it is desired and protecting it because it is life.

Yet, Sullivan’s stream of consciousness gives a good window into why even people who do not consider themselves pro-life should oppose IVF and why we should keep talking about it.

Widespread endorsement of IVF emboldens an industry that prioritizes profit over people, adults’ selfish desires over children’s natural rights, quick fixes over long-term women’s health solutions, desirable traits above all, motherless and fatherless children, the erasure of women in reproduction, fertility fraud, and making human existence transactional.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision raised whispers about ART like IVF but most of the frustration in the aftermath centered on abortion and birth control. It wasn’t until the Alabama Supreme Court reaffirmed the sanctity of extrauterine life using the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act earlier this year, however, that the magnifying glass was fully centered on IVF.

Since then, the conversation about lab-created life has been tainted with lies and deception. There is also a growing effort to use high poll support of IVF to shut down conversations about its consequences.

A few brave souls such as Sullivan have spoken up about the facade behind which the fertility industry sells IVF. Some institutions including the Southern Baptist Convention have even formally condemned the practice. But it’s not enough.

There comes a time in every person’s life when they grapple with big questions about humanity and existence. One simply can’t reach an adequate conclusion about those reasonings without at least considering when and how life begins.

For a growing number of children, especially those in the widely unregulated fertility market in the U.S., life began in a petri dish. Their lives are precious but they came at the cost of others.

As Sullivan writes, the very practice of freezing embryos manufactured via IVF concedes “that they can one day change from a human being to a human person.”

“Yes, the embryo has no memory, no sentience when frozen, no mind or will yet. There is no suffering,” Sullivan continued. “But the lack of suffering does not mean there is no sadness. Or no humanity.”

That observation alone should spark a struggle in all of us.

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