How Baptists and the G.O.P. Took Different Paths on I.V.F.


About a month after the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in February that frozen embryos were to be considered children under the law, Andrew T. Walker, an ethicist at a Southern Baptist seminary in Kentucky, called a friend with an idea: to spread Alabama’s argument beyond Alabama.

The Alabama ruling, which had threatened access to in vitro fertilization and other reproductive services in the state, caught many Americans, including conservatives, off guard. The idea that fertility treatments could be morally and legally questionable rattled many anti-abortion voters who had used such procedures to expand their families. And it further frayed the increasingly tense alliance between the anti-abortion movement and the Republican Party, which saw political peril in going after I.V.F.

Four months later, Dr. Walker succeeded. On Wednesday, the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, voted to condemn the use of reproductive technologies like I.V.F. that end in the destruction of “frozen embryonic human beings.” The resolution passed by what appeared to be the overwhelming majority of Baptists that gathered in Indianapolis for their annual meeting.

The moment was especially striking given that after the Alabama ruling this year, Republican leaders quickly tried to signal to their base that they supported I.V.F., an extraordinarily popular procedure widely used by Christians and non-Christians alike.

But the vote showed the power of wide-reaching theological and moral arguments about human life and reproduction, and that anti-abortion Christians in the denomination’s more than 45,000 churches, many of whose congregants have relied on I.V.F., may be open to more sweeping moves against the procedure.

Dr. Walker, 39, first publicly opposed in vitro fertilization five years ago, co-writing an article titled “Breaking Evangelicalism’s Silence on IVF” for the website of the evangelical organization the Gospel Coalition, which ran a companion essay by a high-profile theologian defending the procedure.

His friend and mentor R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Dr. Walker teaches, has been writing about the ethics of “the reproductive revolution” for decades. Dr. Walker said he received a flurry of “nasty” emails after his article, including some from Christians, but that the hubbub soon subsided.

But Alabama thrust the issue into the national consciousness. Republican legislators in the state moved quickly to preserve access to the procedure. Among many anti-abortion activists and ethicists, however, the court ruling reflected a moral reality: If life begins at conception, then a procedure that regularly produces excess fertilized eggs that will eventually be destroyed or left frozen indefinitely is a moral calamity comparable to an abortion.

At the same time, the Southern Baptist Convention was in the process of soliciting suggestions of cultural, political and theological issues to discuss at its closely watched annual meeting in June.

“In Christian verbiage, I might compare it to a kairos moment for Christian ethics,” Dr. Walker said, defining the Greek term as “a decisive moment for the Christian faith to fully assert its convictions in the public square.” The result was a 615-word statement that calls on Southern Baptists, a key Republican voting bloc, “to reaffirm the unconditional value and right to life of every human being, including those in an embryonic stage, and to only utilize reproductive technologies consistent with that affirmation, especially in the number of embryos generated in the I.V.F. process.”

In effect, it asks Baptists to refrain from I.V.F. technology as it is commonly used, and to call on their government representatives to restrain its use. It also expresses empathy for couples experiencing infertility and affirms that “all children are a gift from the Lord regardless of the circumstances of their conception.”

Almost 11,000 delegates, called “messengers,” attended the meeting, although not all of them were seated in the sprawling convention hall at the time of the vote.

Before the vote, several messengers offered emotional testimonies, including a man who said his wife was pregnant with their second child via I.V.F. Stating that he affirmed “the sanctity of embryos,” Zach Sahadak urged messengers to soften the language of the resolution. “I’m against the idea that this technology is so wicked that it cannot be employed,” he said.

The resolution was first drafted by Dr. Walker and submitted with Dr. Mohler to a Southern Baptist committee, which considered it along with more than two dozen other resolutions proposed this year by Southern Baptists across the country.

The committee then gave messengers at the meeting 10 resolutions to consider, with those approved serving as nonbinding statements of Southern Baptist “opinion or concern,” as the denomination puts it. Other topics this year included support for Israel and opposition to the establishment of Christianity as a state religion.

Dr. Walker acknowledged that Christian ethicists and anti-abortion activists might be ahead of the people in the pews — and the voting booth — on the complex scientific, spiritual and moral questions surrounding fertility treatments. But he said he viewed it as part of his job to start and advance those conversations, even when they were uncomfortable or politically inopportune.

“One my objectives is to understand where Southern Baptists are on any given issue, but then also to work to help inform Southern Baptists on what is ethically fraught that they may not necessary see as ethically fraught,” he said.

More than 60 percent of white evangelicals say access to I.V.F. is “a good thing,” according to a survey conducted in April by the Pew Research Center. Nine percent said access was a bad thing. In another Pew survey last year, 44 percent of white evangelicals said they had used fertility treatments to try to have a baby or knew someone who had, about the same as the general population.

Abortion has become a political nightmare for Republicans, who have suffered a string of defeats on the issue in the two years since the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Former President Donald J. Trump had distanced himself from the anti-abortion movement, and said in the wake of the Alabama court ruling that he would “strongly support the availability of I.V.F. for couples who are trying to have a precious baby.”

Voters at the state level have opted over and over to preserve abortion access, and Democrats are now on the offensive, moving to put abortion measures on the ballot in November to attract their voters to the polls.

Now, the Southern Baptist resolution is poised to amplify those tensions, adding widely popular fertility treatments into the already divisive slate of anti-abortion priorities.

The same day that Baptists voted overwhelmingly to oppose the use of I.V.F. as it is typically practiced, Senator Katie Britt of Alabama took to the Senate floor to defend a bill she introduced in May with a fellow Republican, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, that was intended to protect access to the procedure nationwide.

Wearing a necklace with a prominent cross pendant, Senator Britt described I.V.F. as a boon to couples who long to be parents. “As a mom, I know firsthand that there is no greater joy in this life than that of being a mother,” she said. “I.V.F. access is fundamentally pro-family.”

A statement issued by Senators Britt and Cruz in support of the procedure was signed by all their Republican colleagues. Eight of them are Baptists, according to profiles maintained by Congressional Quarterly. (On Thursday, Senate Republicans blocked a different measure that would have codified access to fertility treatments.)

In Indianapolis, Southern Baptist leaders acknowledged that many Christians have not instinctively associated fertility treatments, intended to create life, with abortion, intended to end it.

“We’ve just not thought about it very much,” the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Clint Pressley, said at a news conference, referring to Southern Baptists as a whole.

Jason Thacker, an adviser to the committee that decided to present the I.V.F. resolution to messengers, said the resolution was selected in part because of obvious timeliness and interest from Southern Baptists. It was one of two resolutions on I.V.F. submitted this year.

Now that it has passed, he said, the thousands of Baptists at the meeting will take the resolution back to their churches, where he expects it will spark conversations in Bible studies, small group meetings and even on Sunday mornings.

“For some people it may be the first time they’ve started to draw some of these connections,” said Mr. Thacker, a senior fellow at the denomination’s policy arm who focuses on bioethics. “Southern Baptists and pro-life Christians in general, when they slow down to consider the ethical ramifications of the production and commodification of children, will land exactly where this resolution lands.”



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