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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.   


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