A Time to Be Born: Faith Communities and Assisted Reproductive Technologies

We must commit to an ongoing conversation that respects the desire for biological children while honoring reproductive justice. Faith communities can promote values that can guide moral and ethical decision making on the use of ARTs.

This article was originally posted at CAPAction.

The United States has a cultural obsession with families created with assisted reproductive technologies, or ARTs—think of Nadya Suleman who gave birth to octuplets or the feuding Gosselins
of television’s “Jon and Kate Plus 8.” Yet few insurance plans cover
these services and there is little regulation of this field. This
contrast is striking and speaks to the stigma still attached to
infertility—a stigma that is often informed by traditional religious

There is a vital role for faith leaders to play in creating
intentional dialogue about the effectiveness and safety of ARTs, the
relative lack of regulation, and the moral dimensions of their use.
This is why the Religious Institute has just released A Time to be Born: A Guide to Assisted Reproductive Technologies for Faith Communities.

Over 3 million babies have been born using ARTs worldwide, and approximately 12 percent of women
of child-bearing age in the United States have used an infertility
service. Our society still operates under the assumptions that
biological children are the correct way to form a family and that
achieving pregnancy is effortless. The reaction to those who have
high-order multiple births highlights our cultural ambivalence about
biological childbearing, sophisticated technologies, and notions of
restraint or responsibility in childbearing.

An important component of this ambivalence stems from traditional
religious teachings about fertility and childbearing, which often
reinforce the view that a woman’s value lies primarily in her
reproductive capacity, and that a heterosexual marriage is only
fulfilled by bearing children. These teachings about women,
childbearing, and heterosexual parenting can be hurtful and
exclusionary. Some religions have historically presented infertility as
a punishment and suggest that people without children are somehow less
faithful. These teachings may cause great pain to individuals; they may
also deter people who use ARTs from engaging in moral decision making
within the context of their faith community.

The lack of government regulations and the sporadic, often biased
insurance coverage of ARTs compound the harm caused by stigma and
silence. Fertility clinics currently self-regulate through membership
in the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, although the Centers
for Disease Control report that 8 in 10 clinics do not strictly follow ASRM guidelines. Many insurance companies, fertility clinics, and state laws limit access to ARTs based on marital status, sexual orientation, and socio-economic standing.

Unfortunately, technology is outpacing the theological and moral
response to assisted reproduction. The Religious Institute’s new
resource is intended to help clergy and religious professionals join
the much-needed public conversation and provide informed counsel and
ethical reflection on the use of reproductive technologies. A Time to be Born
is the first multifaith resource to address the scientific and ethical
complexities of reproductive technologies from a religious perspective
and to provide practical advice to religious leaders to help the people
they serve who struggle with these issues.

We must commit to an ongoing conversation that respects the desire for biological children while honoring reproductive justice.
Faith communities can take the lead in this conversation by promoting
values that can guide moral and ethical decision making on the use of
ARTs. Many faith communities have come to value nontraditional family
structures, uphold the dignity and diversity of human beings,
articulate a principle of communal responsibility, and witness against
social injustices that perpetuate inequalities based on race, gender,
economic class, sexual orientation, age, and ability. Faith communities
can guide ethical exploration, inform compassionate counseling, and
promote justice-based advocacy through an expanded understanding of
creativity, generativity, and family formation.

As the Religious Institute stated in the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Assisted Reproductive Technologies,
calls for increased regulation can best address disparities in ART
practice if they “promote research to determine the risk of ARTs and
raise questions about the use of resources for ARTs that are high risk
and low success.” In addition, insurance coverage “for effective and
safe ARTs should respect the diversity of family structure and not
exclude on the basis of partner status, economic circumstances, or
sexual orientation.”

Use of ARTs is sure to grow as these technologies continue to
develop. We urgently need a public dialogue—involving physicians,
theologians, ethicists, clergy, health advocates, and the scientific
community—that responds to the social, moral, and medical issues raised
by the use of ARTs. Neither silence in the health care industry nor
media-driven tabloid gossip will provide the desperately needed ethical
response that respects the desire to have children while calling for
accountability and equity in how ARTs are used.

A Time to Be Born is available for download at www.religiousinstitute.org. Dr. Kate M. Ott is associate director of the Religious Institute and the author of A Time to be Born.