Cross-posted at Civil Religion.
Last week the New York Times published a two–part series on artificial reproductive technologies. The series makes a riveting read, as writer Stephanie Saul narrates the joys and terrors of premature birth, high order multiples, NICU stays, and—finally, sometimes—the precious goal, a baby at home with a family. Although I have no first-hand experience with ARTs, I follow the topic with interest and so I was drawn into the story of the Stansel family, which anchors the second article.
Amanda Stansel underwent a common procedure called intrauterine insemination, in which her ovaries were stimulated with fertility drugs and her husband’s sperm was injected into her uterus. But something went terribly wrong, and Ms Stansel became pregnant with six babies. The chances of delivering healthy sextuplets are punishingly slim, and the Stansels’ doctors recommended selective reduction, the medical euphemism for the destruction of several embryos in hopes of improving the odds of survival for the remaining babies. Faced with this grievous dilemma, the Stansels decided to keep all six babies. Tragically, the babies were born prematurely, and four of the six have died. The two remaining baby girls face an uncertain future. The emotional drama of the Stansels’ path to parenthood passes through our most basic human hopes and fears.
I was drawn into this heartbreaking story for another reason: the Stansels are Latter-day Saints, as I am. Their Mormon faith is not prominently featured in the story, but nevertheless it was a key part of their decision to allow all six babies to be born. The article reports:
Many opponents criticize selective reduction as a form of abortion. And for many parents who elect to carry all of the fetuses, the decision often hinges on religious convictions. There is also a chance, up to 5 percent, that selective reduction will be followed by a miscarriage of all the fetuses, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
For the Stansels, the decision was influenced by their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church generally opposes abortion. After learning that Mrs. Stansel was carrying sextuplets, the Stansels decided to meet with church elders and consult with a reduction specialist.
“It just never felt right,” Mr. Stansel said. “We prayed many nights. A lot of sleepless nights. Originally we thought we might do the reduction. We chose to carry all six and, we believe, let God do what he’s going to do.”
I ache with sympathy for the Stansels’ loss; no compassionate reader could feel otherwise. I applaud their decision to keep all six babies—I hope that I would have the courage to do the same, were I ever in the same situation—and I have no wish to question their choices or their rationale. (I hope commenters will extend the same respect, and focus the discussion on general ideas rather than the Stansels’ particular case.)
But I can’t help wondering how the Stansels’ stated reason for rejecting the selective abortions—that is, their desire to allow God’s will to prevail—strikes non-religious readers. The article implies that the only reasons for opposing selective reduction are rooted in religion. Secular readers could come away with the impression that there is no ethical reason for non-believers to avoid “reducing” a high-order multiple pregnancy.
This raises a question: is it in the best interest of religious institutions and individuals to articulate secular arguments for their moral positions? If religion-minded people wish to persuade the non-religious to support one side of a thorny ethical question, then presumably they must do so with arguments that do not rely on explicitly religious claims. After all, an agnostic couple facing the Stansels’ excruciating choice is unlikely to be moved by an appeal to God’s will, but they might respond to a philosophical or scientific argument.
On the other hand, perhaps religious interests risk ceding the public square to secular voices if they voluntarily remove or recast religious discourse in debate. If it becomes unusual or unpopular to express religious points of view in public forums, then faith is effectively banished to the private sphere and religious citizens have difficulty finding the language to publicly speak their conscience. Perhaps, then, it is in the best interest of religious individuals to strongly insist on the relevance of religious claims to public debate.
Of course, this all assumes that it is possible to articulate secular arguments for religious positions. In some cases there simply may not be a secular route to the destination that religion has in view. In any case, this is a dilemma that has bedeviled religious citizens of modern states since the advent of religious pluralism. In our time, which sees such dizzying social and scientific change in matters close to the heart of religious claims, the dilemma is unlikely to be resolved.
Comments welcome here. I also wouldn’t mind comments over at the other site. By the way, I’m sure that plenty of people smarter than I have given the topic a lot of thought. References to relevant books, articles, blog posts, youtube videos or facebook status updates are welcome.