Before coming to a knowledge of the truth, my wife and I submitted to in vitro fertilization because of our desire to have a baby. Not all our fertilized eggs (embryos) were used; some were frozen and stored. Must they be retained, or may they be disposed of?
This is but one of many weighty moral/ethical issues that couples face if they choose to submit to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Each couple is responsible before Jehovah to decide what to do. It might help, though, to get an overview of this assisted reproductive technology.
In 1978 a woman in England became the first to bear what many called a test-tube baby. She had not been able to conceive because her Fallopian tubes were blocked, not allowing sperm to meet with her egg(s). Medical personnel surgically harvested a mature egg from her, placed it in a glass dish, and fertilized it with her husband’s sperm. The resulting embryo was allowed to develop in nutrients and then inserted into her womb, where it implanted. In time, she had a baby girl. The procedure, and variations of it, came to be called in vitro (in glass) fertilization, or IVF.
While details may vary from country to country, generally IVF involves the following: The wife is given potent fertility drugs for weeks to stimulate her ovaries to produce numerous eggs. The husband may be asked to provide fresh sperm by masturbation. The eggs and washed sperm are combined in the laboratory. Multiple eggs may get fertilized and begin to divide, becoming human embryos. After a day or so, these nascent embryos are carefully examined in an effort to distinguish between any that are defective and those that seem to be healthy and most likely to implant and develop. About the third day, it is common to transfer into the wife’s womb not one but two or three of the best embryos so as to increase the chance of a pregnancy. If one or more implant, she is pregnant, and it is expected that she will in time give birth.
But what of embryos that were not transferred, including ones that appeared less healthy or even defective? If left alone, those excess embryos would soon cease to be viable. Before that occurs, the extra embryos may be frozen in liquid nitrogen. Why? If the first IVF attempt failed, some of those reserve embryos could be used in a subsequent IVF cycle at a lower cost. However, this raises ethical issues. As with the couple who presented the question above, many struggle to decide what to do with their frozen embryos. They may not want more children. The parents’ ages or finances may not favor another attempt. They may fear the risks associated with a multiple pregnancy.* Or the death or remarriage of one or both mates may complicate things. Yes, concerns abound, and as a result, some couples keep paying storage fees for years.
In 2008, a chief embryologist noted in The New York Times that many patients were genuinely torn about what to do with the extra embryos. The article said: “At least 400,000 embryos are frozen at clinics around the country, with more being added every day . . . Embryos can remain viable for a decade or more if they are frozen properly but not all of them survive when they are thawed.” (Italics ours.) That latter fact gives some Christians reason to pause and consider. Why?
Christian couples who face issues raised by IVF may well reflect on the implications of a different medical situation. A Christian might have to decide what to do about a loved one who is in a terminal situation and who is being sustained by artificial life support, such as a ventilator to keep breathing. True Christians oppose medical neglect; in line with Exodus 20:13 and Psalm 36:9, they hold life in high regard. Awake! of May 8, 1974, stated: “Because they respect God’s view of the sanctity of life, out of regard for their own consciences and in obedience to governmental laws, those desiring to conform their lives to Bible principles would never resort to positive euthanasia,” which is a deliberate act to end a patient’s life. In some situations, though, life-support technology is the only thing sustaining a loved one. Family members must decide whether to continue or to discontinue that artificial life support.
True, that is not the same as the situation faced by a couple who employed IVF and now have stored embryos. But one option that may be offered to them is that of removing the embryos from the nitrogen freezer, allowing them to thaw. Without the artificial environment of the freezer, the embryos would soon deteriorate to the point of no longer being viable. The couple have to decide whether they will permit that.—Gal. 6:7.
Because a couple submitted to IVF to achieve pregnancy and hopefully have a baby, they might choose to bear the cost of keeping their reserve embryos frozen or they might choose to use them in a future IVF attempt to have a child. However, another couple might decide that they can stop the maintenance of the frozen embryos, viewing them as being kept viable only by artificial means. Christians facing this decision are responsible before God to use their Bible-trained conscience. Their desire should be to have an untroubled conscience, while not ignoring the conscience of others.—1 Tim. 1:19.
Christians facing this decision will be responsible before God to use their Bible-trained conscience
One expert in reproductive endocrinology found that most couples “were confused yet deeply affected by the responsibility of deciding what to do with their [frozen] embryos.” He concluded: “For many couples, it seems there is no good decision.”
Clearly, true Christians even considering IVF should evaluate all the serious implications of this technology. The Bible counsels: “A shrewd person sees danger and hides himself, but the naive keep right on going and suffer for it.”—Prov. 22:3, NET Bible.
An unmarried couple who are studying the Bible want to get baptized, but they cannot legalize their union because the man is not in the country legally. The government does not allow an illegal alien to get married. May they sign a Declaration Pledging Faithfulness and then get baptized?
That might seem to be a solution, but it is not the Scriptural way to resolve their problem. To appreciate why, let us first consider the purpose of a Declaration Pledging Faithfulness, why it exists, and how and where it may be applicable.
The document is a written statement signed before witnesses by a couple who are prevented from marrying for the reason mentioned below. In the document they pledge to be faithful to each other and to legalize their union if that becomes possible. The congregation would view them as having gone on record before God and man to be faithful to each other so that their union could be treated as if validated by civil authorities.
Why and when is the Declaration Pledging Faithfulness used? Jehovah instituted human marriage and regards it highly. His Son said: “What God has yoked together let no man put apart.” (Matt. 19:5, 6; Gen. 2:22-24) Jesus added: “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication [sexual immorality], and marries another commits adultery.” (Matt. 19:9) So “fornication,” in other words, sexual immorality, is the only ground for divorce that can Scripturally end a marriage. If, for example, a man engages in sex relations outside of marriage, his innocent wife can decide whether to divorce him or not. If she does divorce him, then she is free to marry another.
However, in some lands, especially in the past, the dominant church did not accept this clear Biblical position. Rather, it taught that divorce cannot be granted for any reason. Thus, in some places where the church had great influence, the civil law code makes no provision for divorce, even on the valid ground that Jesus stated. In other countries, divorce is available, but the procedure is very long, complicated, and demanding. It might take many, many years to obtain a divorce. It is as if the church or the government ‘hinders’ what God accepts.—Acts 11:17.
For instance, a couple may live in a country where divorce is impossible or extremely difficult to obtain, perhaps taking years to become valid. If they have put forth all reasonable efforts to end a legally existing marriage and they qualify in God’s sight to marry, they may sign a Declaration Pledging Faithfulness. That allowance is a compassionate arrangement of the Christian congregation in such lands. However, it is not a provision to be used in most countries where divorce is possible, even if the process is somewhat expensive or complex.
Not understanding the Declaration Pledging Faithfulness, some who live where divorce is possible have asked about signing such a document rather than face any complications or inconveniences.
In the case in question, the man and woman who are living together immorally want to marry. Each is Scripturally free; neither is bound to a previous mate. Yet, the man is not in the country legally, and the government will not authorize the marriage of an illegal alien. (In many lands the authorities will permit a marriage even if one party or both parties lack legal status in the country.) In the case under discussion, the country does have a provision for divorce. Consequently, signing a Declaration Pledging Faithfulness is not an option there. Note that with this couple it is not as if either needed to obtain a divorce but is being prevented from getting one. They are both free to marry. In view of the man’s illegal status, though, how can they do so? They might have to go to another land where his status will not be an obstacle. Or it may even be possible for them to marry in the land where they now reside if the man takes steps to legalize his status there.
Yes, the couple can bring their lives into harmony with God’s standards and Caesar’s law. (Mark 12:17; Rom. 13:1) It is hoped that they will do so. Thereafter, they may qualify for baptism.—Heb. 13:4.
What if the developing fetus seems to be abnormal, or what if several embryos implant? Deliberately terminating a pregnancy would be an abortion. With IVF, multifetal pregnancies (twins, triplets, or more) are somewhat common, bringing increased risks, such as premature births and maternal hemorrhage. A woman carrying many fetuses may be urged to consider “selective reduction,” allowing one or more of them to be killed. That would be deliberate abortion, which is tantamount to murder.—Ex. 21:22, 23; Ps. 139:16.