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An Iminent Culture War Over Assisted Reproductive Technologies?

Rabbi James Rudin takes a look at what he believes will be the subject of the next emerging culture war:

Abortion is currently the most fevered issue in American life, sometimes even surpassing questions of national security and defense, the economy, international terrorism, health care, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, drug usage, and education. While we know the shorthand linguistic terms employed in the never-ending public argument over abortion — pro-choice, pro-life, personhood, “war against women,” family values, Roe v. Wade, sanctity of life, “safe, legal and rare” — there is an emerging issue with a three-letter abbreviation that may soon dominate our religious, political and cultural debates: assisted reproductive technology, or ART.

When conception is not possible or is unsuccessful, adoption still remains the path most often chosen as a way of becoming parents. Everyone knows the possible risks as well as the gratification of adoption. We are also familiar with Americans who travel overseas to adopt a child born outside our country.

But ART is much different than adoption because women use their own eggs, which are fertilized with the donors’ sperm. A woman has the knowledge that the child she gave birth to is biologically hers, even though neither she nor the youngster will ever know the anonymous sperm donor. ART supporters claim that such children can be more secure than adopted youngsters because they at least know the identity of their biological mother.

Not surprisingly, the increasing use of ART has created sharp differences both within and between religious communities. Many theologically conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews oppose ART with the same fervor that they view abortions. Indeed, some religious leaders reject abortions even when the pregnant woman was raped or the victim of incest.

ART opponents, including Vatican officials, argue it is an unnatural process that creates children who know nothing about their biological father. It is a situation, they claim, that leads to unstable families, traumatized youngsters, and other serious problems.

If it is a choice between a child’s “dignity” and the woman’s “right” to bear a child, the religious conservatives come down against the want-to-be mother. They further argue that the procedure can encourage “designer babies” with donor sperm chosen because of such factors as race, ethnicity, and even hair and eye coloring. But ART practitioners point out that recipients of donor sperm generally want a match that is close to their own genetic makeup, including race and ethnicity.

Yet other Christians and Jews approve of ART because it can provide people with the greatest gift of all: a living child in situations where such a gift has been unattainable. ART religious supporters frequently quote the biblical injunction to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22), always noting that the text does not specify precisely how this commandment is to be fulfilled or with whom.

It’s important that clergy of all faiths learn how ART actually affects real people. Simply questioning or assailing the motives of individuals who choose to use ART is a futile exercise. Instead, rabbis, priests, and ministers need to plumb the depths of their souls and the teachings of their spiritual traditions before dismissing the potential good ART can achieve for loving and caring people who want to experience the gift of life by becoming a parent.

I was a member of the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law for more than 20 years and I had a unique vantage point to witness the rapid changes in medical technology. Being on the task force taught me the importance of applying deeply held religious teachings to modern bioethical questions. I came to see that some long-held traditional beliefs must be updated or reinterpreted in the face of 21st-century medical advances.

Amid all the debates and questions, this much is certain: Assisted reproductive technology will only accelerate in the future. Get used to it.

I am not so sure I agree with Rabbi Rudin that the field of assisted reproduction is going to be the next cultural battleground. In Vitro Fertilization has been around since 1978. The first egg donor cycle took place in 1983. Surrogacy dates back to biblical days when Abraham used his wife Sarah’s chambermaid, Hagar, to help them have a child.

There is no debate that these issues will remain controversial. However, given that infertility affects approximately 1 out of every 6 American couples, almost all of us know someone who has struggled with this disease. With IVF having been around for more than 3 decades, I suspect most of us have family, friends or work colleagues who have become parents through the use of ART. For some of us, our children have friends who now proudly point out that they were “test tube babies”. So while I agree with Rabbi Rudin that theologically conservative religious groups have not embraced these technologies, I am not so certain that translates into a new culture war akin to the ongoing abortion debate.

Also, from a purely political perspective, I am not sure there will be any national leadership on this issue for the foreseeable future. Clearly President Obama has signaled no intention to rollback reproductive freedoms. While Governor Romney has been very outspoken recently about his opposition to abortion, he has several grandchildren through IVF and surrogacy. So while we will likely continue to see state-based attacks on reproductive rights, my expectation is that any culture war that is ignited on this issue will largely be confined to houses of worship.


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