The Future and the Church, Part I: Reproductive Technologies

Series that dives into future technologies and trends, and what they might mean for the Church.

Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, where Jewish women pray for fertility.

“Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”-Matthew 2:18

My wife and I would love to have a large family, we would have ten kids if we could, but unfortunately nature doesn’t always cooperate, so we *only* have six. Eye rolls aside, serious infertility can be particularly painful in a highly pronatalist church (there’s a reason infertility issues take up half of Genesis). I, along with many people I am sure, know plenty of Latter-day Saints who wanted nothing more than a traditional big LDS family (and who would have made absolutely incredible mothers and fathers), only to face the stress of the cursed single line on pregnancy test after pregnancy test. Adoption helps obviously, but it is expensive and difficult enough that many still cannot have the number of children they want.

While some forms of privilege have been reified in our discourse (e.g. white privilege), others are less visible and talked about, but their relative invisibility doesn’t make them any less painful. In the case of the Church, “fertile privilege” is a very real thing.(As a sidebar, while a common rejoinder to this is that the Church should resolve this by de-emphasizing the reproductive imperative, many of the people making this argument wouldn’t have a problem with the Church emphasizing, say, education, even though not everybody is in a position to get an education. The reason infertility is painful is because reproduction is important, and reproduction and family are considered theologically important for good reasons, but I digress). 

However, future advancements in reproductive technologies have the potential to completely obviate infertility as a struggle some have to deal with, and it is possible that my grandchildren will be able to have as many children as they want. And when I say nobody will have infertility problems I mean nobody, including older women. 

Specifically, the development of “artificial eggs” (or artificial sperm) has gone from the realm of “maybe in the next century” to having startups actively working on the possibility. Standard tech startup, hockey-graph growth, braggadocio aside, it looks like in the next 15 years or so scientists will be able to take a normal, non-egg or sperm cell like a red blood cell, and engineer it into a sperm or egg. They’ve already done it for animals. Once this happens any infertility dealing with egg or sperm production will be a thing of the past. Artificial eggs, combined with surrogacy, could in theory give a child to an 80 year old woman.  (How the lack of a biological clock could spread out our courtships and careers even more than they are now is interesting to think about). 

The current Church handbook does show some hesitancy towards full-fledged adoption of reproductive technologies. However, the common thread in the hesitancies is if such technologies include cells or bodies of people besides the couple, although even here the language is relatively soft. For example, it uses the “discourage” language when talking about surrogacy, but ultimately leaves it up to “the judgment and prayerful consideration of the husband and wife.” However, surrogate children are not born in the covenant, but can be sealed later. Furthermore, the Church does not have a concern with in-vitro fertilization unless they are “using sperm from anyone but the husband or an egg from anyone but the wife.” Consequently, if/when we have artificial eggs and sperm, I don’t foresee an official discouragement in the Church handbook, since it’s technology that does not necessarily involve the bodies or cells of third parties.

Assuming the price tag makes it widely accessible (a big if for new technologies), infertility will drastically decline (for example, according to one estimate “male factor” infertility constitutes about 40-50% of all infertility problems), and fewer dreams of households filled with children will be tragically lost. Demographically, birth rates will be higher than they would otherwise be. I haven’t seen a breakdown of how much higher birth rates would be without infertility, but about 10% of couples who want children struggle with serious infertility, so if we very speculatively, back-of-the-envelope assume that half of infertility could be solved with artificial eggs/sperm, and fertility rates are 10% lower than they would otherwise be, we could see a 5% uptick in births, not only in the Church in the United States, but more in developed countries more generally. So the change would not be huge, but not irrelevant either. (Of course, we obviously don’t know how much that will interact with other trends). 

However, the egg and sperm are only half the battle, the other is being able to hold and carry the child to term. To completely get around this we would need an artificial womb. In the futurism world that tries to predict these kinds of things, saying “decades in the future” is basically shorthand for making a prediction that’s far away enough that nobody will hold you accountable for it if it doesn’t happen (cough cough, Elon Musk), and I see that category of technology as much more speculative. Artificial wombs, basically a child grown in a lab from conception to birth, appear to fit in this category. However, if this is successfully developed and the cost is brought down, it would essentially mean that anybody who wants to could have a child, no matter the age, and there could potentially be many more Sarahs.   

 

9 comments for “The Future and the Church, Part I: Reproductive Technologies

  1. The technology may become available, but the economics will probably prevent most couples from having many children. In America, it is extremely expensive to give birth and then raise a child. A family of more than, say, three children, will require a fairly good sized house, but housing prices, especially in Utah, are through the roof. Food and clothing are also getting more pricey. Our nonsocialized health-care system is incredibly expensive, as is education, particularly college. So the cost of a large family, by natural or technological means, may be prohibitive. And then there is the question of how many people this warming earth can sustain. The LDS Church’s traditional stance on large families has already been softened significantly, and I suspect this will continue in the future. Smaller families will likely become even more the norm among LDS, as it already is among non-LDS.

  2. I think the most important consideration in these situations is the impact this technology would have on the children created as a result. I speak as someone who has experienced long-term primary infertility and also adopted three children. What would it do psychologically to a child to know that s/he has an artificial mother or father due to being grown from an artificial egg or sperm? What kind of trauma would be inflicted upon a fetus grown in a lab rather than inside a mother’s body? Is it really in the best interests of a child to be born to an 80-year-old woman? These are just a few crucial questions.

    I have watched some of the trauma and loss my children have experienced due to being adopted and not knowing some aspects of their origins and, in one case, having a less than idea prenatal condition, and I would be hesitant to inflict that purposefully onto any child just so a grown-up can fill their dream of being a parent. I think it is one thing when we’re trying to find the best solution for a child who is already conceived in less than ideal circumstances. But to create a child knowing that child will almost surely deal with some of these issues? That’s a question that deserves our utmost consideration. I think this is the primary reason that the Church urges caution even with some of the current technology.

  3. @ Thomas: Yes, the cost of children will probably continue to increase, ironically as populations age so we have to tax workers more, it’s a vicious cycle. As far as global warming, the global population will decline, it’s a freight train that’s hard to stop, so people having children don’t need to worry that they’re contributing to some soylent green dystopian future.

    @Lisa: You make good points, one reason why some of this is so far into the future is that it takes a while to jump through all the FDA hoops to make sure things are safe. One possible correction: if you have a child with an “artificial egg,” that’s still your egg, it was just created out of your blood cell, so genetically speaking your children would still have half you and half your partner’s.

    You also raise an interesting implication that I didn’t think about: the decrease in fertility will lead to a decrease in demand for adoption. Right now there are many more parents who want to adopt newborns than there are newborns ready to adopt, but decreasing infertility might change that.

  4. I think the biggest change in the near future is that people who want children will stop *caring* if the church disapproves of using an egg or sperm from a donor rather than the parents. What the church doesn’t know, they can’t disapprove of, so a couple who want a child will see artificial insemination using one donor and one parent as a better option than adoption because at least they have one biological tie instead of none, and at least they control and have the child through gestation. With the mother giving birth they “know” the child nine months longer and have better control of nutrition and other health issues such as the mother drinking or smoking. People will also stop caring about surrogacy and see paying someone to have their biological child as a huge improvement over adoption, and much simpler and possibly cheaper, as anyone who has tried to go through the adoption process knows.

  5. @ Anna: I agree that the Church’s soft, kind-of-disapproval probably won’t matter much if the couple is set on it, I suspect the big hurdle with donor gametes is the idea that half of the child biologically is coming from the donor.

    I don’t know much about surrogacy, but my understanding is that it’s kind of the province of the wealthy who can afford one (or couples who know somebody who is willing to carry a child out of the goodness of their heart), I’m sure the cost/benefit calculus vis-a-vis cost, emotional and other effort, and time varies from couple to couple in regards to the surrogacy vs adoption decision. Of course, if a cheap, safe, and reliable artificial womb is developed much of that becomes moot.

  6. @Geoff-Aus: Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like same-sex reproduction lies in between artificial eggs and an artificial womb in terms of when it’s possibly going to happen. They’ve done it with mice already, but for some reason creating a male egg or female sperm is much more complicated than re-engineering a male blood cell into a sperm.

  7. I greatly appreciate Lisa’s perspective. The focus of all reproductive technologies should always be on the well being of the children produced. It is of course necessary in our fallen world to have a way to deal with the death of biological parents, or their inability to care for a child, hence adoption. But it is quite another thing to deliberately create children intending to deny them their biological parents. Biological connection is perhaps not the most important aspect of parenting, but it is nevertheless important for many reasons. It is an extra layer of connection. It embeds a child within a group of people who share traits and connections that stretch endlessly into the past and future. And while it does not guarantee familial understanding, it certainly improves it. I have five children, and like it or not, I can for the most part see where their personalities, talents and failings come from. In our current age, I see little concern for what denial of their biological heritage will mean for children, but websites like Anonymous Us and the films by Jennifer Lahl show graphically how problematic third party reproduction is.Children are not puppies, unaware of their origins. They grow up to think and feel, develop identity and care about where they came from and who their parents are. For this reason, it is cruel to deliberately deny them their biological birthright. I would like to see the church develop a full-blow theology of the body such as Catholics have to help guide people through the difficulties of reproductive issues. Right now, the ethics of producing children through alternate means of reproduction are woefully lacking. They are about what adults want and not about what is good for the children that are produced.

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