Southern Baptists Plan to Vote on Whether to Oppose I.V.F.

Southern Baptists will vote on whether to oppose in vitro fertilization when they meet in Indianapolis for their annual meeting in June, as anti-abortion activists seek to gain new ground after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

It will be the first time that the largest Protestant denomination in America will ask representatives of its tens of thousands of member churches to consider such a proposal, according to Southern Baptist Convention officials. The outcome of the vote could lead to a declaration that I.V.F. is morally unacceptable, advancing the “fetal personhood” movement and causing turmoil for evangelical families who rely on fertility treatments.

Until now, when it comes to pregnancy, a primary focus of the denomination has been working to end abortion. When Southern Baptist leaders released on Friday the slate of pending resolutions that delegates will consider next month, one on the list would lay groundwork reminiscent of an Alabama Supreme Court justice’s ruling earlier this year, saying that under the state’s laws, frozen embryos are to be considered children.

The resolution, titled “On the Ethical Realities of Reproductive Technologies and the Dignity of the Human Embryo,” calls on Southern Baptists “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.” That language would essentially ask church members to reject in vitro fertilization, because the standard medical protocol for I.V.F. typically includes the creation of more embryos than may ultimately be implanted in a woman’s uterus, and the embryos are screened for serious genetic defects.

“Not all technological means of assisting human reproduction are equally God-honoring or morally justified,” the proposed resolution states. “In vitro fertilization most often engages in the destruction of embryonic human life, and increasingly engages in dehumanizing methods for determining suitability for life and genetic sorting, based on notions of genetic fitness and parental preferences.”

The resolution encourages couples to promote adoption and to consider adopting frozen embryos that are already in existence, “in order to rescue those who are eventually to be destroyed.” It states that all children, “no matter the circumstances of their conception” — including I.V.F. babies — are “a gift from God.”

The resolution was proposed by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Andrew T. Walker, an associate professor of Christian ethics and public theology at the same school.

“I.V.F. is misunderstood by most Americans, even pro-life Americans,” Mr. Walker said. “With what transpired in Alabama and the national conversation around it, my co-author and I believed now was the right time to speak with clarity about the full implications of human dignity.”

Mr. Walker has described the Alabama ruling as a “very morally honest opinion” about the belief that a human life begins at conception.

Until recently, opposition to I.V.F. in the United States came largely from conservative Catholics, whose church overtly forbids the technique. Protestants have largely been more open to its use.

The belief that life begins at conception has long driven the anti-abortion movement, but advancing that line of thinking to also restrict I.V.F. is an idea that has gotten much more limited traction with the public.

The group of evangelicals who are pushing to end the practice remains relatively small, and many evangelical women spoke out in support of the procedure following the Alabama ruling.

Evangelical Christianity has built a public identity around being pro-family, and many adherents are inclined to see in vitro fertilization positively because it can result in more children. Pastors may preach on abortion, but sermons on I.V.F. are quite rare.

Opposition to the procedure is a minority position backed by conservative groups like the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, whose leader, Ryan T. Anderson, wrote in a letter to The Wall Street Journal this week that I.V.F. “requires killing human beings at their earliest stage of existence” and “also involves eugenics.”

Proposed resolutions can be amended from the floor at the convention, and need the votes of two-thirds of the delegates to pass. Whether this one passes or fails, it reflects a long tradition in anti-abortion activism of incrementalism — working slowly over many decades to chip away at broader societal norms around abortion to eventually achieve long-term goals.

“We are cleareyed enough to know that there is no political will to ban I.V.F. outright in either federal or state legislatures,” Mr. Walker said in an email on Friday, describing himself and Mr. Mohler as political realists.

Still, he sees support for the resolution as having an impact. “What is clear is that the artificial reproductive technology industry is more or less the Wild, Wild West of bioethics at present,” he said. “Legislators should consider opportunities to more tightly regulate the practice, particularly with regard to the creation of excess embryos.”

The proposed resolution begins with language that is largely uncontroversial in evangelical circles: “Every human being is made in God’s image and is thus to be respected and protected from the moment of fertilization until natural death, without regard to developmental stage or location.”

It then builds its argument gradually, moving through a theological progression that is meant to be easy for many delegates to support. But its conclusion and call to action are likely to rest uneasily with many evangelical families.

The Southern Baptists have moved to the right on other social issues recently. Delegates moved last year to purge women from church leadership and enact a stricter ban on female pastors. The denomination has long held that women cannot serve as lead pastors of churches, but a rising tide of ultraconservative views have pushed the denomination toward a hardening of some social stances.

Mr. Walker said he could not predict how the proposed in vitro resolution would be received. But he said Southern Baptists are among the most conservative constituencies in the country on reproductive issues.

“What remains to be seen,” he said, “is how well understood I.V.F. is, which our resolution seeks to remedy. But I trust Southern Baptists to do the right, noble, and consistent thing when all the facts are known.”

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