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A court ruled embryos are children. These Christian couples agree yet wrestle with IVF choices

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When faced with infertility, Amanda and Jeff Walker had a baby through in vitro fertilization but were left with extra embryos — and questions. Tori and Sam Earle “adopted” an embryo frozen 20 years earlier by another couple. Matthew Eppinette and his wife chose to forgo IVF out of ethical concerns and have no children of their own.

All are guided by a strong Christian faith and believe life begins at or around conception. All have wrestled with the same weighty questions: How do you build a family in a way that conforms with your beliefs? Is IVF an ethical option, especially if it creates more embryos than a couple can use?

“We live in a world that tries to be black and white on the subject,” Tori Earle said. “It’s not a black-and-white issue.”

The dilemma reflects the age-old friction between faith and science at the heart of the recent IVF controversy in Alabama, where the state Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos have the legal status of children.

The ruling — which decided a lawsuit about embryos that were accidentally destroyed — caused large clinics to pause IVF services, sparking a backlash. State leaders devised a temporary solution that shielded clinics from liability. Concerns about IVF’s future prompted U.S. senators from both parties to propose bills aiming to protect IVF nationwide.

Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religion and ethics at the University of Chicago, said arguments about this modern medical procedure touch on two ideas fundamental to American democracy: freedom of religion and who counts as a full person.

“People have different ideas of what counts as a human being,” said Zoloth, who is Jewish. “And it’s not a political question. It’s really a religious question.”

For many evangelicals, IVF can be problematic. The process is “inherently unnatural,” and there are concerns relating to “the dignity of human embryos,” said Jason Thacker, an ethicist who directs a research institute at the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I’m both pro-family and pro-life,” he said. “But just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should.”

Kelly and Alex Pelsor of Indianapolis turned to a fertility specialist after trying to have children naturally for two years. Doctors recommended IVF, which accounts for around 2% of births in the U.S.

“I was honestly very scared,” said Pelsor, who believes life begins right after conception. “I didn’t know which way to go.”

Pelsor and her husband prayed. She began attending a Christian infertility support group, and decided to move forward with IVF. Her daughter was born in March 2022.

“I truly believe she’s a miracle from God,” said Pelsor, 37. “She would not be here without IVF.”

Pelsor later miscarried a remaining embryo after it was transferred. So she never had to personally face the quandary of what to do with extras.

Amanda Walker of Albuquerque, New Mexico, did.

She and her husband turned to IVF after five years of trying and a miscarriage.

She wound up with 10 embryos. She miscarried five. Three became her children: an 8-year-old daughter and twins who will be 3 in July.

That left her with two more, which she agonized and prayed about.

“We didn’t want to destroy them,” said Walker, 42. “We believe that they are children.”

Matthew Eppinette, a bioethicist, says he hears many similar stories.

Couples tell him, “’We got way into the process, and we had these frozen embryos, and we just never realized that we were going to have to make decisions about this,’” said Eppinette, executive director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University, an evangelical school based in Illinois. He said the church and the medical community should do more to educate people about IVF.

Dr. John Storment, a reproductive endocrinologist in Lafayette, Louisiana, said there are ways to minimize the risk of extra embryos. For example, doctors can give less ovary-stimulating medication, or they can fertilize only two or three eggs. These adjustments can add about $5,000 on top of the usual $15,000 to $25,000 for a round of IVF.

Religious scholars say the IVF issue is largely under-explored among evangelical Protestants, who lack the clear position against the procedure taken by the Catholic Church.

Still, Eppinette said most evangelical leaders would advise couples to create only as many embryos as they’re going to use.

In his own life, Eppinette said he and his wife weren’t willing to try IVF when they faced infertility.

Some couples find an answer in embryo adoption. Snowflakes, a division of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, has offered this service to more than 9,000 families since 1997, with more than 1,170 births. Executive Director Elizabeth Button said they got an influx of inquiries after the Alabama ruling.

For the Walkers, Snowflakes offered a perfect solution. They chose an open adoption that allowed them to get to know the family adopting their embryos.

The adoptive mom miscarried one but gave birth to a daughter with the other. The two families touch base weekly and plan to vacation together.

Couples on the other side of the adoption arrangement say it’s been a good solution for them, too.

Before finding Snowflakes, the Earles of Lakeland, Florida, had struggled with infertility for years and were considering traditional adoption. IVF wasn’t an option because of leftover embryo concerns.

“We asked the Lord to just kind of guide us,” said Tori, 30, who belongs to a Baptist church.

They adopted 13 embryos that had been frozen for 20 years. One became their daughter Novalie, born last April. They hope to have another three or four children with the remaining embryos, knowing that not all will grow into a baby.

“God can use everything to His glory,” said Sam Earle, 30. “There’s certainly an aspect that you consider with IVF: the ethics of freezing more embryos than you need … But for families who struggle with infertility, it’s a beautiful opportunity.”

Amanda and Ryan Visser of Sterling, Colorado, feel the same. When they faced infertility after having a child naturally 14 years ago, they were uncomfortable about IVF. “At some point,” Ryan said, “you feel like you’re playing God too much.”

They fostered and adopted two children, and later heard about Snowflakes. They adopted three embryos. Two became their twin boys, born in October. They plan to use or donate the one they have left.

“God creates families in so many ways,” said Amanda, 42.

Several Christians who faced infertility said they support the Alabama court ruling. Amanda Visser said she hopes it “paves the way for more states to consider the dignity of human embryos.”

Still, no couples said IVF should be stopped, although some wondered whether more regulation or education is needed.

Even among Christians who see embryos as treasured lives, there’s a spectrum of complicated views. Kelly Pelsor, for one, doesn’t want to see IVF threatened anywhere.

“When clinics started pausing their services and it looked uncertain for a moment, it broke my heart, because for a lot of people, this is a chance to have a child,” Pelsor said.

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Ungar reported from Louisville, Kentucky; Stanley from Washington, DC. Religion writer Peter Smith contributed from Pittsburgh.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

By LAURA UNGAR and TIFFANY STANLEY
Associated Press

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