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Why some health experts are worried after Southern Baptists vote to oppose IVF

Southern Baptist Convention members, called "messengers", casting their votes on Wednesday June 12, 2024 to affirm the group's opposition to IVF.
Ben Thorp
/
WFYI
Southern Baptist Convention members, called "messengers", casting their votes on Wednesday June 12, 2024 to affirm the group's opposition to IVF.

Southern Baptists voted to oppose In Vitro Fertilization for the first time during their convention on Wednesday in Indianapolis. It’s a move that could indicate a growing push among conservative groups to advance arguments for fetal personhood and further restrict reproductive choice.

The resolution specifically calls on Southern Baptists “to advocate for the government to restrain actions inconsistent with the dignity and value of every human being, which necessarily includes frozen embryonic human beings.”

The evangelicals’ stance on IVF comes as the fight over abortion and reproductive rights is expected to be a major issue in the presidential election between Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Donald Trump.

Southern Baptists are the largest protestant group in the country boasting 45,000 member churches and roughly 13 million individual members. They are also a large conservative constituency and a powerful voting block, with both Former President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence making appearances at this week's convention.

Some within the Southern Baptist Convention say they have long been waiting for a moment to address their concerns over IVF. With the Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos can be considered children earlier this year, people like Andrew Walker, one of two authors of the resolution, said they saw an opening.

“All I'm doing is bringing the full force and logical conclusion of my principles on unborn, preborn human beings, and applying that to frozen human beings,” Walker, who is an association professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, said.

“So, it's actually the pro-life American who is pro-IVF that has the burden on their backs to prove why they can violate their pro-life ethic when it comes to IVF, but still uphold their pro-life ethic when it comes to abortion,” he said

IVF entails merging eggs and sperm in a laboratory dish to form an embryo, which is then implanted in the uterus. The treatment often creates more embryos than can be used for pregnancy. Those “extra” embryos can be frozen, used for research, or destroyed.

That’s a problem for Southern Baptists, who view those embryos as people.

Walker’s resolution states that “not all technological means of assisting human reproduction are equally God-honoring or morally justified” but does not outright say that any use of IVF should be forbidden.

When pressed, Walker said that is a stance he holds, however.

“I would never encourage or affirm or even deem ethical IVF for anybody, because of my beliefs about human dignity,” he said. “So I don't want to be construed as saying that I think that there could be moments where individuals could therefore go and use IVF.”

Zachary Sahadak of Ohio speaks in favor of IVF before the SBC voted to oppose the practice.
Ben Thorp
/
WFYI
Zachary Sahadak of Ohio spoke in favor of IVF before the SBC voted to oppose the practice.

The move to oppose IVF was met with internal pushback at the Southern Baptist Convention. Some members said it put them in a difficult position.

During the vote on the resolution, Zachary Sahadak of Ohio emotionally told members he could not see IVF as “inherently wicked.”

“I have a son because of IVF. I have another son, 20 weeks old, in my wife’s womb because of IVF,” he said. “I have ten embryos that I love and with every bit of my being we will have or see born into a Christian family.”

After the vote, Sahadak said many members see their acceptance of IVF as pro-life.

Balancing faith and reproductive technology

More than 60% of evangelicals say access to IVF is a “good thing”, according to an April survey by Pew. Now with the Southern Baptist Convention’s opposition to IVF, many members are left with a moral dilemma and a question – is there a way to pursue IVF while being in line with their faith?

Dr. Paula Amato, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and a reproductive endocrinologist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, said if a patient asked her to perform the procedure in a way that adheres to their beliefs, she would accommodate that.

“If that patient says, you know, I just want to fertilize a limited number of the eggs that we retrieved, I will certainly accommodate that patient,” she said. “If we get 12 eggs, they only want to fertilize six of them, because they only want, ideally, one or two embryos to result from that cycle, we will certainly try and accommodate that.”

But Amato said, even naturally, the body's process for creating embryos is inefficient. An estimated 40-60% of embryos never result in a live birth for people conceiving naturally.

Additionally, not all of the fertilized eggs in a lab setting will make it to a stage where they can be implanted back into the uterus to become a fetus. Because of that, doctors often try to fertilize as many eggs as possible, to increase the odds of success and reduce the chance they have to retrieve more eggs. That’s especially important because the procedure itself can be uncomfortable and costly, and is only rarely covered by insurance –– costing between $15,000 and $30,000 per cycle.

But Amato said if a couple was still adamant about performing the procedure in line with their beliefs, most doctors will accommodate that.

What worries her is that religious groups may attempt to make everyone else live by their belief that embryos are people.

“I want to empower patients to act with their conscience,” she said. “And of course, I grew up Catholic, I understand religion shapes each of our moral beliefs. But people shouldn't let other people impose.”

With roughly 9% of men and 11% of women of reproductive age in the U.S. struggling with infertility, Amato said access to the technology should be the first priority.

Heightened fears of a political push against IVF

Some worry that the Southern Baptist IVF resolution is just the latest front for the movement opposing abortion rights, and a step further to roll back reproductive choice across the country.

It’s a fear heightened by the Alabama Supreme Court ruling earlier this year giving embryos and fetuses rights generally ascribed to a person, and earlier, the overturning of decades-old federal abortion protections two years ago.

Like Amato, Dr. Louise King, director of reproductive bioethics at the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics is less worried about what Southern Baptists believe in their own homes and more concerned about how that could trickle into broader politics.

“For a small group of people who feel differently to say that their viewpoints should somehow govern the behaviors and decisions that other people make around family building is not consistent with how we live in this country,” King said.

Then-SBC President Bart Barber during Wednesday's proceedings.
Ben Thorp
/
WFYI
Then-SBC President Bart Barber during Wednesday's proceedings.

There are signs this may be happening.

Southern Baptists have already begun a campaign to influence lawmakers on the issue. The Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission recently sent a letter to lawmakers urging them not to move forward with a Republican bill, called the IVF Protection Act, which would require that states not prohibit IVF in order to receive federal funding for Medicaid.

“In the post-Roe moment we find ourselves in, we must make the most of this opportunity to stand for life in all its forms,” the letter read. “We must redouble our efforts to create a culture where the preborn — even at the earliest stage — are seen as essential neighbors in our society worthy of being saved, where parents are served, and where families can flourish.”

President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC Frederick Brent Leatherwood, who signed the letter, wrote to lawmakers that while he understands the “political dynamics" that led many lawmakers –– including Republicans –– to advocate for IVF protections, he sees “no political justification should prevail over preventing the destruction of innocent life and the development of robust ethical frameworks in this area.”

With an energized conservative push opposing the procedure, questions about protecting access to IVF have already made their way into the Presidential race and could be a factor in the November elections.

Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio and WFPL in Kentucky.

Benjamin Thorp is an enterprise health reporter at WFYI and Side Effects Public Media. Before coming to Indiana, Ben was previously a reporter for WCMU public radio in Michigan. His work has been heard on multiple national broadcasts, including All Things Considered and Morning Edition.
Farah Yousry is the managing editor of Side Effects Public Media at WFYI in Indianapolis. She can be reached at fyousry@wfyi.org.
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