Southern Baptist Convention’s opposition to IVF leaves some hurt and grappling with their options

Southern Baptist Convention’s opposition to IVF leaves some hurt and grappling with their options

Alicia Amos cried after she learned of the resolution issued by the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday opposing the use of in vitro fertilization as it is widely practiced, and thought of her 3-year-old daughter.

Her spirited toddler was conceived through IVF, making her among the roughly 2% of children now born annually as a result of the procedure. 

Amos, 32, grew up Southern Baptist, and she still belongs to the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, attending a church with her husband in Missouri. She doesn’t want to “disparage” the convention or the delegates who voted for the resolution.

But she doesn’t want her daughter wounded.

“I never, ever want her to feel shame for the way that she was conceived and brought into this world, because she is a precious, precious gift,” Amos said.

Southern Baptist women who spoke with NBC News said they were already grappling with infertility or undergoing IVF in ways that align with their faith — even before messengers in Indianapolis endorsed the resolution opposing the common practice of IVF.

In some cases, these women’s beliefs encompass conservative-leaning positions about when life begins. But many noted that the issues raised in the resolution, such as the handling of surplus embryos and genetic testing of embryos, are complex ones where there’s not a sole consensus among Christians.

For some, the resolution’s tone was deeply hurtful.

While the document acknowledged the “searing pain” of infertility, it also characterized certain aspects of IVF as “dehumanizing.” It argued that “not all technological means of assisting human reproduction are equally God honoring or morally justified.”

“‘Dehumanizing’ is a very tough word to swallow,” said Danielle Smith, 39, a Southern Baptist who lives in Alabama. She conceived her 2-year-old daughter through IVF.

The convention’s criticism of IVF has landed a blow at a time when churches are struggling with declining attendance, younger generations are becoming more distanced from religion, and 1 in 6 adults globally experience infertility

The denomination’s membership has declined in recent years, dipping just below 13 million in 2023.

It’s also coming in an election year where Republicans have tried to broadcast their support for reproductive technologies with a recent Senate proposal, while blocking a Democratic-led effort to protect the procedure.

At the national level, Republicans have tried to insulate themselves from the intense backlash to an Alabama Supreme Court decision in February declaring frozen embryos to be children. The SBC’s resolution, which affirms the court’s stance, however, encourages members to push for government action on the issue.

A canister of frozen embryos.
A canister of frozen embryos. Pat Greenhouse / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., who is Southern Baptist, was not involved in Wednesday’s debate, but told NBC News that the long-term storage of embryos is “an ethical dilemma” for members who believe life begins at conception.

“So, if it can be done with just a small number of embryos created, I think that’s the legislative solution that a lot of people are trying to find,” he said. “But in Congress here, we support IVF, we support families, we support the sanctity of life, and I think that’s part of it.”

Candice Kelm, 39, said she is unsure if the government should regulate IVF, but agreed with the resolution’s encouragement of what the statement refers to as “embryo adoption” — a process in which a patient, or couple, might agree to donate their remaining embryos to another.

Kelm, a Southern Baptist who lives in Texas, struggled with conceiving despite trying fertility treatments and receiving surgeries for her endometriosis. Her doctor told her IVF was her last option. But prayer took her down a different path.

“We just felt like we could not choose to create more embryos when there was already an abundance of embryos,” said Kelm, who agrees with the SBC’s opposition to discarding embryos. She received support from a nondenominational ministry for couples experiencing infertility called Waiting in Hope.

In a statement, the group said it encourages couples not to “destroy embryos,” but noted “it’s important to note that Christians hold varying perspectives on IVF” and that “there are areas of disagreement on which steps may be ethically questionable.”

“It is not for us to decide if God leads a couple to IVF,” the statement said. “He is the author of life and our fertility stories.”

Kelm and her husband, Brent, ultimately “adopted” eight embryos and went through four transfers.

“We lost all eight of them, and we deeply grieved that loss,” she said.

Kelm acknowledged her own options wouldn’t have been possible without IVF and doesn’t want families to feel condemned for undergoing the process.

“I think it’s important to remember that any child is a gift from the Lord,” she said. “There’s no caveat about only if they were created in this way.”

Before Amos and her husband had their baby girl, they had heartbreak.

Amos still remembers the November 2019 morning that left her crying on the floor of her shower. After a third round of intrauterine insemination, another test was negative.

She said she found herself telling God, “I can’t keep doing this.”

Like Kelm, her faith also shaped what she did next. In July 2020, she began embryo transfers through IVF.

Amos declined to give details about their plans for her remaining embryos, because she doesn’t want others to feel judged.

She also noted that while adoption, which the resolution encourages, is a decision some families make, it’s also complex. “Sometimes within the infertility community, that ‘just adopt’ phrase can be really harmful,” she said. Amos said it can also place a burden on adoptees, casting them in a role it’s not their responsibility to fill.

This winter, Smith drove down to Montgomery to lobby Alabama legislators to protect IVF. 

She said she has wrestled with certain decisions because of her upbringing. Smith chose, for example, not to do genetic testing. And she understands there are those who believe life begins at conception.

“It’s not that simple to say because IVF includes the possibility of embryos being destroyed, then it should be condemned and it’s immoral,” she said. 

“What I want people to understand who are forming opinions is they’re probably hurting someone who they likely care and love about,” Smith continued. “These congregations are likely filled with IVF parents, with IVF babies, with IVF children. It completely broke my heart for all of us in this situation who likely wouldn’t be parents without it.”

Her own church home, she said, has been supportive. Her women’s group prayed for her as she faced infertility and celebrated when her daughter was born.

She still plans to go to church on Sunday.

“The Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t dictate my personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Smith said.

CORRECTION (June 15, 2024, 12:02 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Candice Kelm’s embryos. Kelm has no embryos remaining; she did not decline to give details about her plans.

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