As advances in Assisted Reproductive Technologies continue to take place, more and more couples are taking advantage of these new means to have children. Surrogacy is one such method. While there are various types of surrogacy now available, they all involve another player to carry the baby.
This procedure may seem to be a godsend for some, but it is far from a problem-free process. I have written elsewhere about concerns about surrogacy. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/11/10/surrogacy-concerns/
But in this article I wish to deal with some biblical and theological reflections. What does the Bible say about this, and what principles might be gleaned from Scripture to apply to this form of ART? Is it ethically permissible, or are we to be wary here?
One point that is often raised is the fact that surrogacy has been around for a long time, and the practice is even recorded in the Bible. The argument then goes like this: since biblical characters made use of surrogacy, then it must be OK to use it today as well, even if it involves new biomedical technologies.
How might we respond to this claim? Firstly, it is true that differing forms of surrogacy or surrogacy-like arrangements are indeed found in the Old Testament. Of the two main types, one is the more obvious form of using another woman to carry a child, while another form is that of levirate marriage.
As to the first sort, the most famous instance of surrogacy in the OT records is of course the case of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar as recorded in Genesis 16. As you recall, Abram and Sarai were unbelieving and impatient, so they took matters into their own hands to solve their infertility problem by using her maidservant Hagar.
Not only was this a sign of a lack of faith, but it of course led to enormous negative repercussions, felt even today. God had made a promise of offspring to the aging Abram and Sarai, but they did not trust Yahweh for that outcome, and instead used fleshly means to see these promises fulfilled. It was bad news all around.
As James Montgomery Boice remarks, “Even if there were no more Bible passages than this to go on, we should know that this was not God’s way of solving Abram’s difficulty. But we do have another passage. It is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where the apostle gives a long section to discussing this incident and relates it to those who are children of bondage versus those who are children of the promise (Gal. 4:22-24; cf. vv. 25-31).
“The verses that follow are difficult, but it is clear that Abram operated in the flesh when he went to Hagar and that the fruit of that union was not the son of promise. Instead of listening to his wife or trusting his own reasoning, Abram should have waited patiently for God to send blessing.”
Similar cases to this can be found in Genesis 30 where we find the threesomes of Jacob, Rachel and Bilhah, and Jacob, Leah and Zilpah. Again we find similar reasons for these arrangements, involving the close connection between children, the family line, and inheritance and property rights.
While these later cases are passed over without negative comment, it is clear that they are a far cry from the biblical ideal of “one flesh”. God’s original design was for all sexual relations – and procreation – to occur within monogamous, heterosexual, married families.
As for levirate marriage, it is mentioned only in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, but examples of it (with clear variations) can be found in Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) and Ruth 3-4 (Ruth and Boaz). In this practice, a widow without any sons would go to a brother-in-law to ensure the family line is continued. While such relations were normally prohibited (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21), it was allowed when an Israelite male died with no male offspring.
But both these practices were quite different from modern surrogacy arrangements. In levirate marriage of course there was a marriage involved, highlighting the important biblical connection of marriage and procreation. In modern arrangements a third party is used, with no direct marital connection.
And this legislation did not have to do with infertility as such, but with having no male heir. This was an important means by which to legally maintain the family line and pass on property. The integrity of both marriage and family are affirmed here. Modern practices always involve a third party, one often unrelated to the infertile couple.
As Scott Rae and Joy Riley note, modern surrogacy “is at variance with the prima facie norm of God’s design that procreation occur within the context of marriage. Surrogacy is at least, if not more, as intrusive to the marital bond as use of gamete donors.”
The fundamental importance which Scripture gives to the unity of marriage and procreation means that we must always be cautious with involving third parties into the act of conception. Of course it is at this juncture that the issue of adoption then arises, with people arguing that it is the same as surrogacy.
But that is not the case, and I have elsewhere spoken of the major differences between surrogacy and adoption: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/06/03/surrogacy-and-the-interests-of-children/
But here we are looking at the biblical concerns. While adoption does indeed separate the social and biological roles of the parents, it is of course not primarily about procreation, but the care of a needy child already conceived. Rae and Riley are again worth citing here:
Adoption is “fundamentally an act of charity, based on the biblical admonitions to care for the fatherless and to love one’s neighbour. It is a solution to an unwanted pregnancy or other situation of a parent being unable or unwilling to care for their child.
“Adoption can be appropriately viewed as a virtuous ‘rescue operation’ that is centered on the welfare of the child being adopted. Of course, adoption is an intrinsically good act since it is one of the primary figures of speech to describe a person’s relationship to God.”
So the cases of surrogacy in the Old Testament do not offer us much by way of either endorsement or example. The Genesis cases of leaning on the flesh instead of trusting in God and waiting on his timing of course offer clear warnings to us. And levirate marriage served a specific purpose for a specific people in a specific culture.
So Christian couples today thinking about going down the path of surrogacy need to proceed with caution here. There are biblical concerns, as well as other problems which I have addressed in other articles. At best, we should be most hesitant about applying the Old Testament examples to cases of ART today.