Protestant perspectives on the uses of the new reproductive technologies.

Author:Cohen, Cynthia B.


Ever since Adam and Eve brought forth the first children, human beings have tried to capture the processes of procreation and bring them under control. We find midwives assisting with childbirth as early as Exodus in scripture, and Caesarian section birth is seen in use in ancient Rome. (1) The pace of human interventions into procreation has increased rapidly over the generations to the point where today we are faced with an explosion of radically new methods that can be used to revise and repair reproductive processes. Technologies such as in vitro fertilization and egg donation are increasingly being employed for those who are infertile. (2) Reproductive cloning and the use of artificial wombs to bring children into the world are on the horizon. (3)

Protestant denominations span a broad range of views about the morality of employing such new reproductive technologies. (4) Although they embrace normative standards of conduct, many denominations do not have a central teaching authority to guide members who are concerned about whether to use these new ways of conceiving and bearing children. (5) Such questions are among matters of substantial morality left to individual conscience, guided by scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Since these various resources are each interpreted in somewhat different ways within Protestant thought, it is not possible to state the Protestant moral position about the use of the new reproductive technologies. Even so, certain relevant values and beliefs at the core of Protestant thought can be canvassed to gain a sense of how those adhering to this form of the Christian tradition tend to view the morality of employing these new technologies.

The Protestant tradition places high value on individual human dignity and choice. (6) It maintains that human capacities for understanding and willing, even though flawed, still reflect the image of God. (7) Consequently, individual decisions about the use of novel reproductive technologies are owed great respect. Couples should be allowed to weigh the ends and goods toward which these technologies can be put, and to choose among them based on their understanding of what Christian ethics requires.

Yet, individual human beings are not isolated atoms, (8) and procreation is not exclusively a private matter. (9) Bringing children into the world is a shared activity involving a relationship between prospective parents, and should children result from their relationship, another between parents and children. Moreover, procreation is inseparable from broader social relations and goods, in that it brings new members into the community who are owed care and. protection. Consequently, the way in which children are conceived and born, for the Protestant tradition, is not only a matter of individual concern, but also of familial, social, and Christian concern.

Evaluating which, if any, are appropriate uses of the new reproductive technologies within the Protestant tradition requires consideration of Christian teachings about the meaning of procreation, the good of the resulting children, and the integrity of family bonds. Such considerations have led many Protestant thinkers to contend that it is morally acceptable for individuals to employ these novel methods of creating children, but within certain limits. (10) Protestant thinkers differ, however, about exactly where these limits should be drawn. Even so, a certain degree of agreement can be found among them.


    To understand the predominant Protestant approach to the use of reproductive technologies, it is necessary first to grasp the significance of procreation within Protestant thought. This can be better understood and explicated by contrasting it with Jewish thought. Within Judaism, procreation is heavily emphasized as the major end of sexuality within marriage. (11) This procreative thrust is supported by the Priestly account of creation in Genesis, (12) in which God commands humankind to be fruitful and multiply. (13) Having children and raising them to become integral members of the community and carry on its traditions promotes social identity and ensures the survival of Israel as a people. (14) Although companionship is also an end of sexuality within marriage for Judaism, its primary focus is on bringing forth progeny. That is why, when a man and a woman are married in a Jewish ceremony, they sign a contract in which they agree to perform their respective parts, so that children will be born to bear the identity of their parents and their people into the future. (15)

    In Protestant thought, in contrast, sexual relations within marriage are often more closely tied to companionship than to having children or forming a people. (16) Protestants tend to rely on the Jahwist account of creation in Genesis, (17) which although later in sequence, was given its edited form some three hundred years before the Priestly account. (18) In it, companionship is emphasized as a significant end of human sexuality. Adam is formed from the dust of the ground, whereupon God declares, "It is not good that the man should be alone." (19) Woman is, therefore, taken from Adam's rib as he sleeps. (20) Man and woman are made for one another; emerging from one flesh, they are called once again to unity.

    That sexual relations within marriage are closely tied to companionship is borne out at several points in the Gospels where Jesus challenges the Jewish understanding of human sexuality. (21) For example, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus responds to a question about whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife (which was allowed within Judaism if she were barren, among other reasons) as follows:

    From the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female." "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." So they are not longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together...

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