by Evan Lenow
This semester I have been watching a series of lectures from Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard, on the issue of justice. In one of those lectures, he referenced advertisements that ran in the Harvard Crimson seeking egg and sperm donors for infertile couples. In the course of the lecture Dr. Sandel raised the moral question of whether it is right to pay anonymous donors for their eggs and sperm for the purpose of creating life. Sandel’s concern is that egg and sperm donors are merely being used as a means to an end rather than being treated as ends in themselves. While Sandel’s concern is certainly valid, I believe an underlying theological issue rests beneath the surface.
In the world of reproductive donation, most donors remain anonymous by working through fertility clinics. The donors receive payment for their reproductive materials and go on with their lives with no knowledge of any subsequent offspring. The theological question this raises is that of parenthood. Does the anonymous donation of eggs and sperm undermine the biblical concept of parenthood?
First, parents have the responsibility to communicate the truth of God to their children. Scripture is replete with parents instructing their children. After a brief purpose statement, the book of Proverbs opens with the following words:
Hear, my son, your father’s instructions and do not forsake your mother’s teaching; indeed, they are a graceful wreath to your head and ornaments about your neck. (Prov 1:8–9)
Solomon then proceeds to give instruction to his son on the beauty of wisdom and the bitterness of folly. It is assumed in this passage that the son will listen to his father simply because he is his father.
We also read in Deuteronomy 6:6–7, “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
The clear theological implication of these passages is that parents, and specifically fathers, have the biblical responsibility to communicate the truths of God to their children. But what happens when fathers or mothers do not even know they have children? This is the scenario of anonymous egg and sperm donation.
Biologically speaking, the egg and sperm donors are the biological parents of any offspring. Despite the fact that they have never met their children and may not even know if their biological offspring even exist, there seems to be a biblical responsibility of these parents to those children. At the very least, they have been charged to teach their children the truth of God’s Word.
Second, the description of God as Father gives us the perfect example of a father’s love for his children, and it is the standard to which we aspire as parents. What do we know about God as Father? Here are a few examples:
Of course, we all fall short of the perfect love, care, and protection that the Father gives his children. However, the issue of egg and sperm donation makes any such attempt to aspire to this standard of godly love impossible. How can a parent love and care for his child if he does not even know such a child exists? This is not simply a social problem—it is a theological problem.
With reports of some sperm donors fathering dozens and even hundreds of children, we have a duty to raise the question of whether this fits the biblical standard of parenthood. Just from the examples above, it seems that the answer to that question is an unqualified “no.” In addition, how is anonymous parenthood different from the practice of knowingly fathering multiple children with no intention of caring for them?
Some may wonder why I even concern myself with the theological angle of reproductive donation since surely it is the world that participates in such behavior, not the church. Unfortunately, unquestioned acceptance of reproductive technology has crept into the church as well. For the last two semesters, I have even talked with seminary students in my classes who have participated in egg or sperm donation personally. If the future pastors and leaders of our congregations have accepted these technologies, then it is certainly prevalent in our churches.
Evan Lenow serves as Assistant Professor of Ethics and Associate Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. He is married with four children. You can read more of his articles at evanlenow.com and follow him on Twitter @evanlenow.
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