Intersections

When Christians Face Infertility

by: 
Janie Valentine, MA

In June, Will Honeycutt encouraged churches to be sensitive to congregants struggling with infertility and suggested several practical steps church leaders can take to display empathy and support for infertile couples. Honeycutt’s piece concludes, “We must...defeat the notion that the inability to procreate makes life meaningless or robs men and women of their identity. Our identity is not wrapped up in our ability to procreate but our ability to be obedient disciples of Jesus.”[1] Honeycutt’s piece describes how a church can respond to the presence of infertility, especially on a day when the blessing of children takes center-stage, such as Mother’s Day. However, churches also have a responsibility to proactively guide Christians to face infertility in a godly way long before the fertility specialist delivers an unfortunate diagnosis.

For example, Honeycutt encourages churches to provide counsel “to guide their members in the ethical use of fertility treatments through biblical principles.” However, once couples are facing the pain of infertility, it can be very difficult to make these decisions from a Christian ethical perspective. As Scott Rae writes, “It is not uncommon for infertile couples, whose pain is especially real and extremely deep, for their desperation to transform them into uncritical utilitarians about [assisted reproductive technology] in general: that getting a baby at whatever cost is all that matters.”[2]

It is crucial that churches help believers make ethical decisions regarding fertility treatments by first instilling a gospel framework for suffering in general, and infertility in particular, into the congregation’s imagination. In order for the church to counteract believers’ culturally conditioned attitudes about infertility, pastors must present a fully Christian vision of what a virtuous struggle with infertility looks like. A common cultural view of infertility is that it is a problem to be solved using any available technology in order to fulfill the couple’s (or individual’s) desire for a child. By way of contrast, a biblical perspective on infertility would regard such a state as something that believers should be willing to accept if ethical treatment options prove ineffective. Moreover, churches should encourage couples to faithfully seek God’s calling for their lives and ministry in the midst of infertility.

Unfortunately, however, the church is often no different from the world in its approach to infertility. As Karen Swallow Prior writes of her own experience,

“The unspoken assumption from everywhere seemed to be simply that Christians are to marry and have children, and when difficulties arise, it’s a problem to be solved, one step at a time wherever the next step leads. Even my Christian OB/GYN assumed we would take the next logical step in treatment. We were the ones who had to put on the brakes and ask ourselves what was God calling us to do—and what he was not calling us to do.”[3]

Just as a fully Christian sexual ethic must have a robust view of celibacy, so must churches be able to affirm the fullness of life without children. Sexual fulfillment is not necessary for a meaningful life, and neither is procreative success. As celibate pastor Sam Allberry writes, “[Singleness is] a way of declaring to a world obsessed with sexual and romantic intimacy that these things are not ultimate, and that in Christ we possess what is.”[4] Likewise, an infertile couple can demonstrate to the world that children are not ultimate, but Christ is. Prior comments, “I believe that the church and the world need more of the particular gifts that infertile (and childless and unmarried) women (and men) can offer. I can’t help but wonder how different the church and the world would look if infertility were viewed not as a problem to be solved, but a calling to serve God and meet the needs of the world in other ways.”[5]

Approaching infertility primarily as a problem in need of a solution is dangerous in two key ways. In the first place, it encourages the unending pursuit of medical options that promise to increase chances of conception, making it more difficult for couples to make ethical decisions about those options.

Secondly, children become something to be obtained at any cost, rather than gifts to be accepted from God. Discussions of assisted reproduction often warn against the commodification of children, but children created in laboratories are not the only ones at risk of being commodified. Many resources on infertility, Christian and otherwise, rightly present adoption as an alternative to various methods of medically assisted reproduction. However, whether reproductive medical technology or adoption is in view, an uncritical approach to “solving” infertility risks treating children as products.

The church has more to offer couples who will one day face infertility than a prayerful version of the cultural attitude. Instead, through preaching, teaching, singing, the sharing of testimonies, and the development of meaningful relationships, the church should prepare believers to face infertility in a distinctly Christian way. In addition to such spiritual formation, churches should provide loving support and ethically-informed pastoral counseling to help couples make wise treatment choices and face infertility well.



[1] Will Honeycutt, “Rachel Crying for Her Children: Remembering the Childless in Our Churches,” Intersections, June 8, 2017, http://everydaybioethics.org/intersections/rachel-crying-her-children-remembering-childless-our-churches (accessed July 10, 2017).

[2] Scott Rae, “Educating the Church at the Edges of Life,” Intersections, October 25, 2016, http://everydaybioethics.org/intersections/educating-church-edges-life (accessed July 10, 2017).

[3] Karen Swallow Prior, “Called to Childlessness: The Surprising Ways of God,” The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, March 6, 2017, http://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/called-to-childlessness-the-surprising-ways-of-god (accessed July 10, 2017).

[4] Sam Allberry, “How Celibacy Can Fulfill Your Sexuality,” The Gospel Coalition, August 26, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-celibacy-can-fulfill-your-sexuality (accessed July 10, 2017).

[5] Prior, “Called to Childlessness.”

 

Janie Valentine, MA

Janie Valentine, MA

Janie graduated with her MA in Bioethics from Trinity International University in 2016. She is also an alumna of Union University, where she studied Social Work and Political Science. She lives in southeastern Wisconsin with her husband, Caleb.