Talk of In Vitro Advancements Reignites Religion Debate

Talk of in vitro fertilization has abounded since Robert G. Edwards, pioneer of the technique, was awarded the Nobel Prize Monday.

The procedure, which led the to the first "test tube baby," Louise E. Brown, in 1978, was deemed shocking in its day. From the beginning, the Roman Catholic Church denounced the procedure as one that tampers with the natural process of conception. However, now, with the number of test tube babies at 4 million, many consider IVF as the norm for couples having trouble conceiving.

In fact, it has evolved into a thriving industry. As with any industry, IVF specialists and scientists are finding ways to improve their product. Developmental biologists at Standford University are researching a method of embryonic video monitoring. Video will allow biologists to observe the embryo prior to implanting them in the womb. This procedure will allow biologists to predict with 93 percent accuracy which fertilized eggs will produce a baby, reducing the need for the abortion of extra eggs inside the womb.

"We're hopeful that our research will help improve pregnancy rates arising from in vitro fertilization, while also reducing the frequency of miscarriage and the need for the selective reduction of multiple embryos," said the Stanford study's senior author, Renee Reijo Pera, Ph.D.

So is the controversy and religious stigma over IVF gone?

Answers are mixed. The Catholic Church remains staunchly opposed to the procedure and a Vatican official – Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life – denounced the Nobel Prize winner. However, Protestants are more accepting of the procedure.

The Christian Medical and Dental Associations declares in its ethical statement that it approves of IVF in the context of marriage. But according to CMDA Vice President Gene Rudd, MD, this is not a blanket acceptance of the procedure.

Rudd stressed that in vitro fertilization is only biblical when done in a morally responsible manner. First, the fertilization must result from the union of a wife's egg and her husband's sperm, he explained.

"When you start deviating from that, red flags should go up," Rudd said. Second and third, every embryo produced (successful or not) should be implanted into the mother's womb; no eggs are to be destroyed or discarded.

"Couples can go into an in vitro clinic and form an agreement that they will not create excess embryos and that every embryo will be implanted in one or more subsequent cycles," he said.

According to Rudd, the CMDA believes that morally responsible methods of IVF can be beneficial to couples struggling to conceive. There are, however, some downsides too, he cautioned.

He said that the selective abortion of embryos inside and outside of the womb is wrong. "That is when we cross over and become God," he commented.

For this reason, Rudd said he believes the new methods unearthed by Stanford's research are unethical. Embryos found to be unsuccessful during the observation period will not be implanted into the womb, he pointed out. Instead, they will end up being discarded and destroyed.

"We are responsible for our reproductive choices and our offspring," he commented.

Another ill of IVF is the part that it has played in embryonic stem cell research. "Stem cell technology is built on the technology learned through in vitro fertilization," Rudd pointed out.

Embryonic stem cell research has long been established as morally and biblically wrong. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission states on its website that "from the moment that an egg is fertilized by the sperm, the embryo contains all the genetic material necessary to develop into a full-grown human being. Given the right environment, the embryo will naturally develop into a baby human. The loss of this embryonic life is the main ethical concern surrounding embryonic stem cell research."

While no embryonic stem cells are currently being used in treatments for patients of any kind, President Barack Obama signed an executive order last year authorizing federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

"In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," Obama said of the order.

Rudd has filed a lawsuit against the order and is currently awaiting an appeals hearing that will challenge its moral grounds.

IVF is still a contentious issue, to say the least. However, it is an issue that, according to Rudd, can be navigated prayerfully through biblical counseling and moral responsibility.