Should Christians sterilize when facing genetic disorders?
Every time I do an Institutes study with college students at Christ the Word one of our favorite passages is the section titled "The Faith of Abraham" in which Calvin recounts the trials and sufferings by which God taught Abraham faith and weaned him from the world.
The section ends with God's command that Abraham sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah:
But for a son to be slaughtered by his own father’s hand surpasses every sort of calamity. In short, throughout life he was so tossed and troubled that if anyone wished to paint a picture of a calamitous life, he could find no model more appropriate than Abraham’s! (Vol. 2, Ch. 10, Sec.11)
To be the source of your own child's death is a terrible form of suffering indeed. I was reminded of this section from the Institutes when I read recently of a Christian couple who took surgical steps to prevent further pregnancies after their number two child died of a rare genetic condition.
Despite our sympathy for parents who lose a baby, and despite a genetically-linked death appearing to arrive by the parents' own hands, we must ask whether such a response is consistent with faith in God.
My thinking on this matter is influenced both by Scripture and by personal experience. Tim's and my mother and father continued having children despite the death of our older siblings from genetic diseases. I suffer today from the same genetic disease (hemophilia) my oldest brother died of, and Tim and I had two additional brothers die as the result of another genetic disease (cystic fibrosis).
Our family scorecard is this: three children dead of genetic disease, two dying before adulthood, one with genetic disease (me) still living, a fourth brother dead at age five from juvenile leukemia and two normal (at least genetically) siblings also still alive. In short, the odds of our reaching adulthood weren't good.
I remember my mother once mentioning Christian friends criticizing her for continuing to bear children. Yet I'm sure that my gratitude to my mother for giving birth a sixth time despite the prior deaths of two of my older brothers and despite the likelihood that I too would inherit a threatening genetic condition comes as no surprise to my readers. Nor am I alone in this: each of us born with genetic issues was just as happy to have received the gift of life as our siblings born without genetic disease.
Need it be said? In the eyes of those doing the dying, it is better to live and die young than never to have lived at all.
But what of faith? And what of God? To my personal observations I would add seven Scriptural arguments against the practice of eugenics by parents--and believe me, it is eugenics to sterilize or practice birth control for the sole purpose of the prevention of congenital disease.
1.The Bible says that those who suffer in the flesh are free from sin. Suffering is one of the Spirit's great ways of spurring growth in faith and holiness, even of children at tiny ages.
2. Scripture says that God ordains the days of our lives. The life of a child who dies at three months may be incomplete in the eyes of the world, but it is a full and perfect life in the providence of God.
3. Suffering is good for parents and siblings as well as for the child who suffers in the flesh. Shall we accept good but deny suffering from the hand of God? What other forms of suffering from the hand of God would we say it is permissible in faith to preemptively exclude from our lives? Financial? Emotional?
4. If God creates the genetically impaired child and calls him good but we seek to prevent further such children because of our differing attitude toward them, what really separates our aproach from that of the mother who aborts a child with a fetal anomaly? I know, I know: the one denies life, the other kills. But to eyes of faith aren't the actions inevitably linked?
5. Where is faith in believing that God will not give us normal children? Or children who can one day be healed? Or children who will bless us and others in death?
6. If it is good and consistent with the will of God to stop bearing children in order to prevent suffering and limit the spread of congenital death, why didn't Adam sterilize himself after sinning in the Garden? Think of the human suffering and death such a focused act of sterilization would have prevented.
7. God's command to multiply was given despite the congenital death sentence of Eden (Genesis 9:1). God intended parents to pass on death to their children, not for parents to refuse to bear children because they would one day die.
I fear that I can only see such actions by parents as rejection of faith. And though this may seem a harsh assessment, I plead guilty to equally great failures elsewhere in my life. But failures of faith are not dealt with by sympathy. Sympathy excuses. The best response to failure is loving challenge and exhortation in accord with the Word of Truth.