Cwirla, William. “Be Fruitful and Multiply: Fertility Ethics Viewed in the Light of Creation and Redemption.” Lecture, Infertility Ethics Symposium from LCMS Life Ministry and the Concordia Seminary Life team, St. Louis, November 8, 2014.
Cwirla introduced his topic by observing that infertility is a delicate topic. There may be a tendency on the part of the Christian ministry to dismiss it altogether and leave it to clinicians. He does not think this is a wise route to take. Because we are embodied creatures we live out our spiritual lives within the body. Our ethics and behavior are intricately linked to our view of spirituality. “Ethicists remind us that our actions matter.” Therefore it is appropriate that the Christian minister deal with the topic. Cwirla then discussed the fact that he has both a pastoral and personal interest in the topic, observing that he and his wife are childless after many years of marriage. This childlessness, however, is not their identity. He would prefer to see it within the doctrine of vocation, as a station of life which they have and in which they can live to the glory of God.
When considering the issue of infertility we begin with the creation mandate, “Be fruitful and multiply.” In the opening chapters of Genesis God shows himself to be productive and makes productivity a blessing.
Included in the mandates of God are the laws of nature in which offspring is the norm.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession 23 discusses celibacy and observes that reproduction does belong to human nature and is not to be denied.
Human procreation seems unique in the way desires and responses come about. Cwirla prefers the term “procreation” rather than “reproduction” - emotional bonds lead to creation of a family.
Cwirla prefers the biblical concept “know” rather than the term “mate.” All of this is part of the human nature as created in God’s image.
Marriage can well be seen as a barrier protecting the one flesh relationship described of married couples in Scripture.
Cwirla discussed Old Testament history as a record of the promised seed, Christ, who would come to redeem the world. In this narrative marriage and procreation serve to move people through creation toward redemption. The Old Testament is full of the blessings of having children. “The barren womb represents the monergism of God who works alone.” God fills what is empty, showing his irresistible work of blessing. Finally, he uses not a barren womb but a virgin one, fulfilling the promise to bring a Messiah.
What of responses to childlessness? Cwirla discussed surrogacy, which was known and used in the Old Testament, observing that Ishmael, Dan, Naphtali, gad and Asher were all children of surrogacy. Though this was a method used to bring several tribes of God’s chosen people, Israel, into existence, the overall Old Testament picture is not precisely approving of the idea. In all the instances recorded there are accompanying episodes of strife and struggle.
The New Testament tends to have a focus less on the biological family than on the family of God. This is not a family which is naturally born but which is born of water and the Spirit. The body of Christians comes to be seen as the true mother, brothers, and sisters. Rather than being blessed by being born into the people of Israel, people are blessed because they hear the Word of God and keep it. Jesus affirms marriage, family, and children. Yet he has a greater interest in the life of redemption. In the resurrection people neither marry nor are given in marriage. Celibacy is good, as is marriage and family. We know nothing of the apostles’ families except that Peter’s mother-in-law is mentioned, and that only once. Ultimately, Christianity does not deny the body, refuse marriage, or downplay raising children. There are good factors to those states, as there are good factors to the state of singleness and lack of children.
Turning his attention more specifically to infertility, Cwirla observed that it is not life-threatening, that it is not a sign of sin, but that it is a vocation, a status in life. This is something that Cwirla would include in the idea from Psalm 139 that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Counter to this idea, our modern scientific world tends to replace the above with forced biological reproduction on demand. Cwirla sees this as an effort which can tend to separate the ideas of marital intimacy and offspring. The potential path which reproduction on demand can take includes IVF, developments in cloning, and, ultimately, the idea of baby factories as seen in Huxley’s Brave New World. “Fertility is something almost taken for granted today. It’s like a light switch we can turn on and off, or so we think.” However, Cwirla observes that the fact that reproductive technology works does not mean it is approved by God.
Once a couple seeks assistance in childbearing, Cwirla identifies them as entering onto what he would consider “The Infertility Superhighway.”
A couple seeks medical help, thus having conception rather than intimacy as the goal.
Artificial reproductive technology is introduced, bringing procreation separate from intimacy.
The in vitro fertilization process removes procreation from the body entirely.
Cwirla observes that each “failure” tends to propel couples to the next step. Moving down the superhighway only a short distance can bring in donor eggs or sperm, surrogacy, or other solutions which often, due to confidentiality issues, not only bring in the complication of another individual’s participation, but also sometimes a lack of clarity in medical history, which can lead to medical challenges at a later time.
In addition to these challenges, Cwirla considers that there are multiple ethical issues involved in seeking assistance. The issues often run deeper than the couple expects. There are challenges to the one flesh relationship. There may be emotive challenges and a sense of erosion of the family. On occasion reproductive assistance may leave children feeling as though they are property rather than family. Some of the attempts may go beyond trusting God to a situation where the prospective parents are “playing God.” These are concerns which Cwirla would urge couples to consider as they are considering assistance, thus avoiding a challenge arising by surprise.
Cwirla closed his presentation with seven pastoral observations.
- Our identity as a Christian is not shaped by our vocation but by Christ.
- Use of technology is not in itself a sign of unbelief.
- Human life must not be sacrificed or compromised.
- The one flesh mystery must be protected at risk of losing identity as male/female in relationships.
- We should be sensitive to those without children. It is a valid vocation.
- Life is complicated and full of ambiguities. Ask how what we do loves and serves our neighbor.
- marriage and family is a gift of God. It is not the centerpiece, which is Christ alone.