Church & Bio-ethics Articles

Bio-ethics – Artificial Insemination

by William Edgar, Ph.D.
, Professor of Apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary

The novel, Angels and Demons, ends with the startling revelation that the Pope has fathered a child, using artificial insemination. To boot, it turns out that this child is the villain, Camerlengo Carlo Ventresca, not the suspected Illuminati, which have been extinct for centuries. Ventresca was about to be elected as the new Pope, but commits suicide, presumably from the guilt inhabiting him for all that he had done. In other words, the enemy of the Church is not an angry secret society, but the most official and orthodox of all people. Roman Catholics are bound to be offended by all of these suggestions.

Although the young priest who became Pope and the surrogate mother, a nun, claimed they could keep their vows of chastity while still enjoying the great gift of childhood, this suggestion is surely repugnant to devout Catholics, verging on blasphemy.

What, indeed, is artificial insemination? What are the ethics surrounding this procedure? Very simply, artificial insemination, better-known as intrauterine insemination (IUI) is a procedure whereby the male sperm is inserted into the female reproductive system in the hopes of fertilizing her ova (eggs) and thus producing an embryo which will implant, and then develop into a child. It is a subset of assisted reproductive technology (ART). Another subset of ART is in vitro fertilization (IVF) whereby the fertilization of the male and female gametes (sperm and eggs) occurs outside the womb, and then the embryo is introduced into the uterus in the hopes of growing into a child. Some of us remember the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, successfully brought to term in 1978.

Space prohibits going into much detail here. For intrauterine insemination (IUI) the man “donates” his sperm in several possible ways: through masturbation, or an electronic stimulator, or a special “collection condom.” The sperm may be given right away, or frozen, to be administered later. The woman is closely observed in order to match the donation with her ovulation. Ovulation can be hormonally stimulated. The sperm can either be inserted into her cervix or more deeply into the uterus. Pregnancy rates vary greatly, according to the age of the persons, the use of stimulants, the strength of sperm or egg. The procedure is costly, both financially and emotionally.

What ethical issues are involved here? With IVF, one of the major concerns is what to do with unused embryos. Most Christians, at least conservative ones, presume the embryo to be a human being at the early stages of development. The most common IVF practices involve producing a number of embryos and then selecting the most healthy one for insertion into a woman’s womb. Unused embryos are considered “wasted,” and are usually discarded, though they could be frozen for later use. This would amount to voluntary killing of a tiny human person, which is unacceptable. There is a more expensive technique whereby only one is selected, which is far more morally transparent. Freezing the embryo has often resulted in complex legal battles over ownership. At the least, this is close to “playing God” with human life. Most Christians would reject “cryonics,” the freezing of embryos, on a variety of grounds.

For IUI, the issues are several fold. One basic distinction should be considered at the outset. It is the difference between AID (artificial insemination by donor) and AIH (artificial insemination by husband). For most Christians AID is somewhat analogous to adultery, not physically, but by the introduction of a third party into the sacred bond of the marriage. It is thus unacceptable. AIH, on the other hand, does not present any particular problem for our sexual ethics, since the integrity of the “one flesh” of the marriage is respected. Another, related, distinction, is between the wife carrying the embryo or a surrogate. Again, for most of us, surrogacy is morally dubious, since it introduces a third party into the mix. In addition, mothers become attached to their gestating child and so, often, surrogates refuse to return the baby to the biological parents. This, again, can and does lead into numerous legal entanglements.

Another consideration for anyone facing this technology is looking at alternatives. Most often IUI is a last resort for couples suffering from infertility. But why is infertility a problem? In the Bible, childlessness is generally seen as a great burden. We are meant to “multiply and fill the earth,” according to Genesis 1:28. In the Old Testament an additional factor is introduced: the desire to continue the race, in order to produce the Messiah. We remember Hannah’s agony over her childlessness, until the Lord blessed her with a son. She dedicated him to God’s service, and said a prayer which Mary would later adapt into the Magnificat, praising God for his vindication through the Savior (1 Samuel 1:1-2:10; Luke 1:46-55). In the new Testament, though the Messiah has come, child-bearing is still connected with God’s blessing (Ephesians 6:1-4). Parents unable to conceive should look at a number of alternatives. Of course, they may want to go through fertility treatments, to find out what the medical challenges may be. Sometimes there is a simple answer. Sometimes there is not. A common alternative is of course adoption. This is a marvelous way to care for a little one who might otherwise have been unwanted.

But there is nothing morally questionable about going through IUI, despite its costs and emotional difficulties. Still, it would be important to respect those boundaries of keeping it in the family, and avoiding any kind of embryo wastage. Having children is a blessing of the Lord. But when this is not possible, we need to know how far to go with alternatives. Or whether to remain content as we are, without children. This calls for great wisdom and confidence in God’s plan.

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