Podcast: On Marriage and Donated Gametes

Mere FidelityThe latest Mere Fidelity podcast was posted earlier today. This week’s episode is on the subject of gamete donation or, more particularly, artificial insemination by donor (I expect that a later episode will focus upon IVF). This is a particularly important issue, raising a number of questions that are seldom studied closely. Unfortunately, given the limited time we had, we could only scratch the surface of the issues raised by this. I dealt with some of the matters in more depth in this comment, which some of you may be interested in.

As I observe in the podcast, one of the most important matters for me is the relationship between the manner in which we bring children into the world and the way in which we perceive them. For instance, I have argued in the past that we need to recognize the practices and institutions that sustain our phenomenology of unborn children. The phenomenology of children involves reflection upon the manner of children’s arrival into our world, the meaning that can be perceived within this, and the ethical character of our proper engagement with it (James Mumford’s recent book, Ethics at the Beginning of Life, provides a helpful treatment of some dimensions of this). With the introduction of new modes of conception we are doing more than merely making a relatively insignificant change to a process, while securing the same results: we are establishing the basis for a new phenomenology.

The conception a child through the loving mutual gift of the bodies a husband and wife pledged to each other before many witnesses at their marriage is a profoundly personalizing fact—the wife is bearing her husband’s child. From the very dawn of its life, the child is situated in a tight web of loving relationships, being itself a concentrated expression of these bonds, not least a concrete expression of the loving one flesh union of its parents. The child is also a physical manifestation of a union to which its parents have pledged their lifelong commitment. The child thus enters the world as one afforded a natural welcome and accorded a natural claim upon both of its parents.

When a child is conceived with the donated gametes of a third party, anonymous or not, the child is not begotten from a profoundly personal loving gift of pledged bodies. Rather, its origins are now situated in a less personal realm of economic transactions, legal decisions, and medical procedures, in the realm of human construction. The donated gametes are not the expression of a loving marital gift of self, but depersonalized genetic ‘material’ from which the baby is to be formed. It shouldn’t require much reflection to appreciate the problematic impact that this can have upon the way that the child’s arrival in our midst, its identity, the manner of its being, and the being of children more generally will be perceived. Conversely, to the extent that we are morally formed by close attention to the natural phenomenon of conception through the loving procreative union of man and woman, will we readily countenance the use of such procedures as artificial insemination by donor?

Anyway, over to you. Leave any comments that you may have beneath this post, or over on Mere Orthodoxy.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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4 Responses to Podcast: On Marriage and Donated Gametes

  1. Matt Petersen says:

    This is a relatively large change of topic, but:

    In your opinion do your comments regarding the relationship between parents (plural) and their image shed any light on the Son of God, made of a woman (Gal 4:4)? Particularly, on Mary, whose Son was the “Son of the God” (Lk 1:35); and on Joseph, who was a husband for the mother of Son of the Most High, and adopted father of the Son of the Most High?

    • At the outset, it is clear that Christ, on account of his virgin conception, is definitely sui generis. However, it is also clear that the manner of his conception is described for us and invites our reflection upon its significance, especially in the gospel of Luke (I made a few comments upon details of that narrative recently here).

      Beyond this, there is much more to say. In the Holy Family, a deeper meaning of all other human families is disclosed (Douglas Farrow has a thought-provoking reflection upon this in his book Nation of Bastards). Within the Holy Family we find a marriage that is archetypal in many respects. If Mary is the new Eve, then Joseph is a new Adam. Joseph exemplifies the duty of the husband as a priestly servant, rather than as a virile ‘patriarch’ (in the pejorative sense of the word, not the biblical one). Christ is the seed of the woman. Together, Joseph and Mary unwork the sin of Adam and Eve and parent the promised deliverer, achieving the telos of the natural family. There is a fertile seam for theological exploration here.

  2. Hans says:

    Alistair,
    Thank-you for all the time, thought, care, and effort that you put into this blog. Your exploration of the meaning and significance of marital conception is quite thought provoking. After reading this post, I had a few questions that you or your readers might be able to help with:
    How might I (as a pastor / apologist) graciously and confidently communicate the substance this view of conception to those whom (in the circumstances of their own conception) were unable to experience their own conception as an embodied act of committed and publicly attested love?
    I have in mind here seeking to minster well to those who have been conceived through rape, incest, IVF, fornication, or a marital relationship characterized by contempt and abusive hostility, etc…
    While understanding that it might be somewhat difficult to speak to this issue, can you think of any fruitful or helpful threads or approaches?
    One of the initial themes that I’ve been reflecting on is “divine / sovereign reversal” with respect to the circumstances of one’s birth and how this reversal travels throughout Scripture (Perez and Zerah in Gen. 38, Matt. 1 or Jephthah in Judges 11-12:7).

    • Thanks for the comment and for the important question that you raise, Hans.

      I think that it is important to frame this position appropriately. It is certainly not about casting judgment upon people according to the manner and circumstances of their conception. Rather, the emphasis should be placed upon doing our duty towards the next generation, ensuring that every child is afforded an unconditional welcome into a secure and loving environment.

      The sort of points that I am making about the ‘phenomenology of children’ shouldn’t be focused too narrowly upon the relationship between, for instance, the couple who choose to use IVF and the child resulting from this. Despite the problematic circumstances of that child’s conception and the injustice of establishing a separation between them and one of their progenitors, they will likely be greatly loved by their parents. It is important to take into account the larger picture within which IVF occurs, to look at how IVF contributes to the notion of ‘reproductive rights’ (especially in the case of unmarried individuals and same-sex couples, who want to bypass sexual relations with the other sex entirely), how it bolsters the category of the ‘wanted child’ (and, crucially, by extension, that of the unwanted child), to look at how, by depersonalizing the child’s origins, it undermines the ‘begottenness’ of the child, how it leads to discarding and experimentation upon human embryos, renders abortion more justifiable, etc. While this may immediately affect the place that the child conceived in such a manner is viewed, the greater damage occurs as this vision percolates throughout a society as a whole.

      We have a number of examples in Scripture of persons conceived and born in less than ideal circumstances. Israel’s own origins are described in such a manner in Ezekiel 16, for instance. In such cases it is crucial to remember that, no matter how one or both of our parents may have wronged us, our value in God’s sight does not rest on this. He knit us together in the womb. He lovingly formed us and, as the God of the orphan, he sees the abandoned or wronged child and upholds their cause.

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