Fertility frontier: Washington Post delves into God's work vs. that of modern science

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I saw the most intriguing story about new fertilization techniques and religion recently, only to discover that the Washington Post has a huge collection of articles and videos about every facet of the explosion of baby-making technologies under the heading of “Fertility Frontier.”

There’s a video series about a single 29-year-old woman (and Post staffer) wondering if she should freeze her eggs; a Facebook group devoted to fertility discussions; and a cluster of other articles about ways to beat the reproduction odds.

This newest one, about the intersection of religious dogma with this runaway technology, ran in an attractive package of graphics and text. A few paragraphs into the story, we learn why the world of religion must come to terms with the latest in fertility science, even if it disagrees with it.

Since then, in vitro fertilization, or IVF, and related technologies have produced some 7 million babies who might never have existed -- roughly the combined population of Paris, Nairobi and Kyoto -- and the world’s fertility clinics have blossomed into a $17 billion business.
The procedures have amplified profound questions for the world’s theologians: When does life begin? If it begins at conception, is it a sin to destroy a fertilized egg? What defines a parent? Is the mother the woman who provides the egg or the woman who gives birth? What defines a marriage? If a man’s sperm fertilizes an egg from a woman who is not his wife, does that constitute adultery?
The moral questions are rapidly becoming more complex. Researchers are working to advance gene-editing tools that would allow parents to choose or “correct for” certain preferred characteristics; to create artificial wombs that could incubate fetuses outside the body for nine months; and to perfect techniques to produce “three-parent” babies who share genetic material from more than two people.

What’s clear in the story, is that all the people profiled have decided to ignore religious or moral objections to assisted reproduction when their ability to have their own biological children is at stake. This included Catholics who ignored their church's teaching that because IVF creates fertilized embryos that must be disposed of, the technology as a whole is immoral.

Some religious leaders have objected to using gene editing on embryos or in ways that could affect future generations, arguing the human genome is sacred and editing it violates God’s plan for humanity… the Vatican is convening meetings to discuss its moral implications, including one this week in Rome.
On the guest list is Harvard geneticist George Church, who helped launch the Human Genome Project to map human DNA and is part of a team that announced plans in 2016 to use the gene-editing tool CRISPR to create synthetic human genomes to advance medical research. Church said he believes critics from the faith community will come to accept gene-editing technology, just as religious leaders eventually adapted to the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin…
But the increasingly commonplace procedure is still condemned at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. “Technology is a great thing, but technology does change us,” said the Rev. Michael J.K. Fuller, executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “At some point, we need to ask — how much is it changing us, and is that a good thing?”

One tradition this article didn’t identify were evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants, a niche which occupies just as big a demographic in America as do the Catholics. Evangelicals and their mainline cousins have been open to IVF for a long time, but they aren’t heard from here. Other Christian traditions were likewise left out, leaving the Catholic position as the only Christian stance mentioned.

Following this is a series of vignettes from some of the families who met in Gillette Stadium in Boston last fall for a gathering of babies born through assisted reproduction. Boston IVF, the sponsor, said its work alone has led to the birth of more than 90,000 babies.

What struck me after reading these families’ stories, is how they resisted other people telling them that God hadn’t meant them to have kids. They decided circumstances should not decide destiny.

The piece also ran data from a 2013 Pew Research Center survey showing about 88 percent of the American populace believes that IVF is not morally wrong. Even among Catholics, only 13 percent oppose it, despite their church’s official position against.

Also interesting was a history of Islamic thought on IVF. Sterility is considered a disease in Muslim theology and its prophet, Muhammad, urged his followers to always seek remedies for disease. Thus, the Islamic world has long been favorable toward fertility technologies as long as they don’t involve eggs or sperm from a third party.

The article ended with a story of how some fertility clinics are monitored by rabbis or chaplains who pray over fertilized eggs.

Working with Friedman and Rabbi Avrohom Friedlander, the Genesis Fertility and Reproductive Medicine clinic in Brooklyn was among the first American clinics to adopt the practice to meet the needs of its large population of Orthodox and Hasidic patients.
“Religious couples who go through infertility, no matter what religion, suffer because it feels like divine punishment,” clinic founder Richard Grazi said. “And that makes everything more dramatic and painful.”

The story was admirable, multi-faceted and threw out a very big religious net.

What I liked most was how the article mirrored the flak infertile couples get from people telling them that God didn’t want them to have kids. (Single people get similar messages saying God never intends them to marry). I call that fatalistic theology: If you’re so afflicted, that means God wills it. Of course the folks who say such nonsense think nothing of changing the course of their own destinies through such medical innovations as vaccinations and modern obstetrics. But I digress.

At any rate, read the piece and other findings found through googling “Washington Post” and “fertility frontier.” It takes a large news organization with a large staff to mount such an effort and this one is worth supporting.

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