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Alabama, IVF, and the Ethical Conundrum

IVF Baby on the end of a needle

The recent ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court on the issue of in vitro fertilization (IVF) has sent a shockwave through this country. On the heels of the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v Wade in 2022, the Alabama court’s ruling has thrust the matter of IVF and, indeed, the issue of the sanctity of human life, back to the center of America’s consciousness.

The case was brought by three couples whose frozen embryos were destroyed when an unauthorized individual accessed a “cryogenic nursery” at the Center for Reproductive Medicine in Mobile, Alabama. Under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act, which allows parents of a deceased child to sue for punitive damages, the court ruled 8-1 that the Act “applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location,” and that the Center was liable for the destruction of the embryos.

The ruling went on to say, “All parties to these cases, like all members of this Court, agree that an unborn child is a genetically unique human being whose life begins at fertilization and ends at death. The parties further agree that an unborn child usually qualifies as a ‘human life,’ ‘human being,’ or ‘person,’ as those words are used in ordinary conversation and in the text of Alabama’s wrongful-death statutes. That is true, as everyone acknowledges, throughout all stages of an unborn child’s development, regardless of viability.”

The decision in Alabama has clearly illuminated many of the complexities that surround IVF; the most important of which is the fundamental question of when life begins? Irrespective of one’s position on IVF, as Christians we are called to protect the life of innocent human beings, whether young or old, large or small, or intra- or extrauterine. And, while the beginning of new life is exciting and a beautiful reminder of what God’s creative power can do, the practice of IVF has ethical issues and problematic consequences.

Some of the Ethical Considerations of IVF

The IVF process is multifaceted, time-consuming, and very expensive. Because of this, many people choose to retrieve and fertilize more eggs than they intend to implant—in anticipation of possible future attempts to become pregnant. The result is an excess of human embryos, which are typically frozen and stored via cryopreservation. For a yearly fee, parents can keep their unborn babies frozen while they decide how to proceed. Choices include carrying the embryos themselves, donating the embryos to another woman or couple, giving the embryos to a lab for scientific research, destroying the embryos after a period of time, or keeping the embryos in storage indefinitely.

It is estimated that there are currently more than 1.5 million frozen embryos in the United States, with the addition of newly frozen embryos daily. Many clinics are also dealing with embryo abandonment, finding that many couples disappear after they are content with the size of their families, leaving no provision or contract for the storage, donation, or destruction of their embryos. From a legal standpoint, the clinics are caught in an untenable situation, unable to do anything with the unborn without the consent of the parents. But, as Christians, it is the moral and ethical concerns that need to be addressed, and the Alabama Supreme Court ruling is a significant step in the right direction.

The Legal Status of the Unborn

Currently, there are 31 states with homicide laws that offer full recognition of unborn children as victims during the period of prenatal development. It has always been perplexing that under certain laws, a desired baby is a victim, but an undesired child has no rights and can simply be discarded.

In North Carolina, for example,  the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act/Ethen’s Law” (House Bill 215 of the 2011 Session), recognizes an “unborn child” as a victim for the crimes of murder or assault inflicting serious injury during a woman’s pregnancy. An unborn child is defined in the bill as “a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.” These laws recognize the right to life of these unborn children! However, these laws also draw attention to the shortcoming of other statutes that fail to recognize all unborn children as legally protected.

Again, using North Carolina as the example, under state law, it is legal to abort a child up until the twelfth week of pregnancy, and even later under certain circumstances. Because they are unwanted by the mother, they do not have the same right to life as those who are victims of crime. North Carolina is not alone in this duplicity, as many states afford rights to the unborn in cases of crime, but do not offer the same rights to the unborn victims of abortion.

The Significance of This Case

How we view the unborn, at any gestational stage, is of the utmost importance. Allowing circumstances to determine the value of, or the rights of, a person is dangerous. As anyone with life experience can tell you, circumstances change. The value of a child created by God, however, is fixed.

We all have intrinsic value as the image bearers of God. He knew us before we were conceived. God is the giver of life from the beginning. A society that rids itself of “unwanted” human life is dangerous, evil, and living outside of the will of the Creator.

In addition to the fundamental question of “When does life begin?” there are many serious issues that arise when thinking critically about IVF:

  • As Christians, are we to support the practice?
  • Is IVF a way around God’s plan for a couple, or is this scientific breakthrough a gift from God to those desperately yearning for children of their own?
  • Are we, in fact, “playing God” when we “create” a human being by joining egg and sperm in a laboratory setting?
  • What should happen to the embryos of a deceased mother?
  • What should happen in the case of divorce?
  • What implications does this have on our society’s view of life as a whole?

The questions continue, and we have a difficult task before us. Shifting the view of society takes time, education, and dedicated effort. The Alabama case has opened the door to reignite a serious discussion about IVF and its implications. And, in regards to the primary question of when life begins, we believe Alabama got it right.


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