Beliefs Ethics Opinion

COMMENTARY: The coming culture war over fertility technology

(RNS) Abortion is currently the most fevered issue in American life, sometimes even surpassing questions of national security and defense, the economy, international terrorism, health care, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, drug usage, and education.

While we know the shorthand linguistic terms employed in the never-ending public argument over abortion – pro-choice, pro-life, personhood, “war against women,” family values, Roe v. Wade, sanctity of life, “safe, legal and rare” – there is an emerging issue with a three-letter abbreviation that may soon dominate our religious, political and cultural debates: assisted reproductive technology, or ART.

Just as abortion has divided our nation, ART could do the same, especially as it becomes better known and more widely practiced in America.

ART offers women – heterosexual, lesbian, single, or married – a method to become pregnant through a complex procedure involving anonymous donor sperm. A recent Religion News Service story indicated that 30,000-60,000 donor-conceived children are born each year in the United States and as the technology improves, that number will grow.

When conception is not possible or is unsuccessful, adoption still remains the path most often chosen as a way of becoming parents. Everyone knows the possible risks as well as the gratification of adoption. We are also familiar with Americans who travel overseas to adopt a child born outside our country.

But ART is much different than adoption because women use their own eggs, which are fertilized with the donors’ sperm. A woman has the knowledge that the child she gave birth to is biologically hers, even though neither she nor the youngster will ever know the anonymous sperm donor. ART supporters claim that such children can be more secure than adopted youngsters because they at least know the identity of their biological mother.

Not surprisingly, the increasing use of ART has created sharp differences both within and between religious communities. Many theologically conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews oppose ART with the same fervor that they view abortions. Indeed, some religious leaders reject abortions even when the pregnant woman was raped or the victim of incest.

ART opponents, including Vatican officials, argue it is an unnatural process that creates children who know nothing about their biological father. It is a situation, they claim, that leads to unstable families, traumatized youngsters, and other serious problems.

If it is a choice between a child’s “dignity” and the woman’s “right” to bear a child, the religious conservatives come down against the want-to-be mother. They further argue that the procedure can encourage “designer babies” with donor sperm chosen because of such factors as race, ethnicity, and even hair and eye coloring. But ART practitioners point out that recipients of donor sperm generally want a match that is close to their own genetic makeup, including race and ethnicity.

Yet other Christians and Jews approve of ART because it can provide people with the greatest gift of all: a living child in situations where such a gift has been unattainable. ART religious supporters frequently quote the biblical injunction to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22), always noting that the text does not specify precisely how this commandment is to be fulfilled or with whom.

It’s important that clergy of all faiths learn how ART actually affects real people. Simply questioning or assailing the motives of individuals who choose to use ART is a futile exercise. Instead, rabbis, priests, and ministers need to plumb the depths of their souls and the teachings of their spiritual traditions before dismissing the potential good ART can achieve for loving and caring people who want to experience the gift of life by becoming a parent.

I was a member of the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law for more than 20 years and I had a unique vantage point to witness the rapid changes in medical technology. Being on the task force taught me the importance of applying deeply held religious teachings to modern bioethical questions. I came to see that some long-held traditional beliefs must be updated or reinterpreted in the face of 21st-century medical advances.

Amid all the debates and questions, this much is certain: Assisted reproductive technology will only accelerate in the future. Get used to it.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)


About the author

A. James Rudin

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  • “Indeed, some religious leaders reject abortions even when the pregnant woman was raped or the victim of incest.”

    Actually, it’s logical that if you believe a fetus has personhood that they shouldn’t be aborted just because their conception was worse than ideal. I take a more charitable view that gives autonomy to women along with education and access to contraception, as well as a strong social security net so that they can afford to keep the child if they want.

    Also, aren’t lots of embryos discarded with ART? I’m surprised the article didn’t address this.