Good Monday morning, everyone. We open this new week on the podcast addressing one of the many questions we have not addressed directly — embryo adoption. There are several versions of the question. I’ll put them all on the table, Pastor John.
A listener named Sveta writes in. “Hello, Pastor John. I have a follow-up question to APJ 1165. What do you think about so-called ‘snowflake adoptions,’ in which a frozen embryo, left over from another family’s IVF process, is implanted into a woman to give this child a chance at life?” Laura, a listener, wants to know if there’s “a moral difference between adopting the orphaned-born versus adopting the orphaned-unborn?” Likewise, Audrey asks if embryo adoption should be considered something that Christians value “as much as after-birth adoptions?”
In fact, several listeners have asked, in essence, Are frozen embryos as much orphans to concern the church as living, breathing orphans? And this is a very real question for one couple: “Hello, Pastor John. My name is Carien, from Australia. I recently read some articles about considering embryo adoption to help those babies live their God-given life with a loving family. My husband and I are considering this option. We lost our only child in 2019 and we feel ready to love a child again. But my husband is subfertile and the normal adoption process in Australia is long and expensive. But my question is, How could I be sure that adopting an embryo is what God intended for us? We want a child. But does embryo adoption allow us to ‘play God’ and choose parenthood? Maybe God made my husband subfertile for a reason. I guess I just want to make sure that this is God’s will and not our will here.
“Also, another concerning fact about embryo adoption is that the clinic transfers all the donor’s embryos to the recipient. What if the donor has three frozen embryos and we can only afford to grow one baby? Then it does not help the other two frozen babies left, as one will have to decide to keep them frozen or destroy them. Maybe we are overthinking this process, but we want to do what is right in God’s eyes.”
There are so many angles from which we could come at this question. I hope the angle that I take will prove helpful in the end, even though it’s somewhat indirect concerning the question of God’s will for this couple’s life. I assume what they are asking is not that I tell them whether to adopt a frozen child, but whether there is anything in God’s word, God’s revealed will, that would make such an adoption sinful.
Upstream and Downstream
Now, the angle I want to take is to make the observation that when we have a tragic situation, we who are Christians should feel a desire to take action to mitigate the tragedy in two ways. One way is that we should be thinking about how to get at the causes of the tragedy upstream, so to speak, from the actual tragedy, and do what we can to hinder the tragedy from becoming worse by dealing with those causes.
The other way we should be thinking is how to mitigate the tragedy, not just by looking upstream to its causes, but by looking at the tragedy as it is right now and downstream to its effects. We should be moved to take action so as to make the present situation and the future situation less destructive and heartbreaking than it is.
Tragedy of Frozen Children
Now, I think the existence of 750,000 frozen children in America, and 120,000 in Australia, is a tragedy. God’s revealed will in his word for the conception and pregnancy and birth and rearing of children is not that it be done in such a way that results in hundreds of thousands of eventually abandoned children. This means that, upstream from the tragedy mingled into whatever sorrowful situations may motivate in vitro fertilization — which results in so many extra conceived children outside the womb — there are sinful desires and practices. They’re mingled in.
“I think the existence of 750,000 frozen children in America, and 120,000 in Australia, is a tragedy.”
Nobody forced this tragedy on anyone. It’s not like the result of a hurricane or a pandemic that leaves orphans. These hundreds of thousands of orphans are not owing to the death of their parents. Choices are being made that result in this heartbreaking reality of hundreds of thousands of unwanted children. Some Christians should devote energy to looking upstream and trying to reverse the causes of this tragedy.
For example, Germany has a law that says only three embryos can be created in one in vitro fertilization cycle, and they must all be transferred into the mother’s womb. This, in effect, prevents the tragic situation of thousands of frozen children accumulating and eventually being unwanted. Some Christians should be looking upstream to work for those kinds of preventions.
I think Jennifer Lahl, the president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, is a person like that. She relentlessly tries to draw our attention to the moral problems that multiply when we take the processes of conception and pregnancy into our own hands outside the womb. For all the joy that may come for some couples, we need to be aware of the legal tangles and the personal tragedies that also result.
Adopting with Eyes Wide Open
So, I think one of the first things that Carien and her husband need to come to terms with is that they are dealing with a tragic situation with some innocent and some sinful causes. It’s not a neutral situation. If they move forward with adoption of one of these frozen children — and frankly, I hope they do — I think it will spare them future pangs of conscience if they do it with eyes wide open.
Someone will accuse them of participating in a system that is shot through with processes and procedures and priorities that are unwise and sometimes sinful. Others will point out that children created in this way will face many difficult and troubling realities as they come to know and understand their conception stories. I think Carien and her husband need to be ready, just for their own conscience, to respond to such concerns with wisdom in patience.
That’s why I introduced the second way of approaching a tragedy like this — not just looking upstream for ways to prevent it, but looking at it for what it is and asking how we might mitigate, at least in a small way, the tragedy right in front of us. And one strategy of taking that approach is the strategy of adoption.
I know two couples who have embraced this way of life, and I admire them for it. They are not naive, and they are moved both by their principled opposition to the destruction of these frozen children and by their loving longing to have some of these children in their own family.
Risk Is Right
I wrote a little book one time called Risk is Right. I didn’t mean that anybody should jump off a cliff thinking an angel would catch them, but I did mean that for the sake of love, and for the glory of God, and for the peace of conscience, it is right to look all of the possible future heartache and pain in the face that may come with such an adoption, and then to act like Esther did.
For the sake of saving her Jewish kinsmen, she approached the king, which was illegal, and the only way she would survive this disobedience was if he graciously lifted his scepter. She asked her family and her friends to fast and pray for her, which is what we should do when we adopt children, and then she said, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). That’s the kind of risk I think glorifies God.
“We embrace the ambiguities of this fallen, tragic world, and we do our best to act in love.”
She wasn’t trying to make a name for herself. She wasn’t trying to be a hero. She was trying to save people who were going to perish if she couldn’t change the king’s mind. And so it is with thousands of these frozen children. They’re going to be disposed of sooner or later if they’re not adopted.
It is a wonderful thing to be a Christian and to know that Christ died for our sins so that even if we are not completely sure about all our motives and all our tactical efforts to be loving, and even if we’re not sure that we have all the wisdom we need, we can be sure of this: the record of our debts is nailed to the cross. With that assurance, we embrace the ambiguities of this fallen, tragic world, and we do our best to act in love.
I do not doubt that God will guide Carien and her husband in the path of love and meet every need that they have for the next fifty years, according to his riches in glory, and according to his promise.