Recently, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) distributed a consultation paper on the Status of Children Bill jointly prepared by the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) to various organisations, including the National Council of Churches, for feedback and response. The goal of the proposed Bill is to protect the welfare of children, especially those born as the result of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART). Since the birth of the first ‘test tube baby’, Louise Brown, in 1978, the reproduction revolution has advanced by leaps and bounds with the proliferation of a number of controversial reproductive technologies including gamete intra-fallopian tube transfer (GIFT), zygote intra-fallopian tube transfer (ZIFT), subzonal implantation (SUZI), intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and pronuclear-stage transfer (PROST). The availability of such technologies has no doubt given tremendous hope to many couples who for various reasons are unable to have children naturally.
But ART has also introduced serious ethical and social issues. For example, theologians and philosophers are alarmed by the subtle shift in language, from ‘procreation’ to ‘reproduction’. They worry that the use of a metaphor from the factory, with related concepts like production line and quality control, may lead to the subtle objectification and commodification of children. Thus, Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan has emphatically insisted (using the description of the Nicene Creed of the second Person of the Trinity) that children are ‘begotten, not made’. Alongside the rapid advancement of ART and genetic science, the media has also ignited the imagination of the public with talk about ‘designer babies’. These developments have raised many important and fundamental questions. As the editors of a book on new reproductive technologies have put it: ‘Few social or technological developments in history have captivated people’s imagination or raised more ethical questions than today’s reproduction revolution’.
The objectification and depreciation of children is of course not a modern phenomenon. Research has shown that in ancient Greco-Roman society, children are generally regarded as capricious, foolish and quarrelsome. Children are perceived as deficient in many ways, especially in their ability to think and speak rationally. The great Roman philosopher Cicero therefore opines that childhood itself is something not to be celebrated. Viewed as a state of immaturity that must be outgrown, Cicero writes of childhood thus: ‘the thing itself cannot be praised, only its potential’. The NT scholar Judith M. Gundry-Volf points out that in Greco-Roman culture children are considered as ‘fundamentally deficient and not yet human in the full sense’. In Roman society, children are prized not in themselves, but because they are needed to ensure the continuance of the family name. Likewise the state often regards children as indispensable for economic and military reasons.
In the Bible, however, children are always portrayed as a divine gift and a sign of God’s blessing. According to the creation narrative, after God had created the first human beings, he conferred on them the blessings of procreation: ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it”’ (Genesis 1:28). When God called Abraham, he promised him that he would bless him. That children are clearly a central feature of the divine blessings is made obvious by the divine promise: ‘I will make you into a great nation’ (Genesis 12:2). In the OT, children are seen as a great source of joy. Thus, in Psalm 127, we read: ‘Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them’ (vv. 3-5a).
When we turn to the NT, especially the Gospels, we find something truly remarkable. Not only did Jesus repeatedly bless children in his ministry (Mark 10:13-16; Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17), he also frequently used children as models of the spiritual reality of the kingdom of God. For example, Jesus presented children as models for entering the kingdom of God when he said: ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:15). Children were also used to portray the meaning of greatness. In answering a question that his disciples raised, concerning who is the greatest in God’s kingdom, Jesus said: ‘Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:4). In the Gospels, Jesus also spoke of the spiritual perceptiveness of children. In response to the scepticism of the chief priests and scribes, Jesus said: ‘have you never read, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?”’ (Matthew 21:16).
The presence of children in many ways teaches us what it means to love and to relate to one another. Stanley Hauerwas expresses this poignantly when he writes:
[Children] are basic and perhaps the most essential gifts that we have because they teach us how to be. That is, they create in us the proper need to want to love and regard another. For love born out of need is always manipulative love unless it is based on the regard of the other as an entity that is not in my control but who is all the more valuable because I do not control him. Children are gifts exactly because they draw our love to them while refusing to be as we wish them to be.
As God’s gifts, children must therefore never be seen as the continuation of their parents’ projects. Having children can never be seen as an exercise of one’s right or even a means of self-fulfilment. Rather, it must always be understood in light of God’s grace and providence. The conception and birth of a child is the result of the mutual love and self-giving of a man and a woman united in the covenant of marriage. By the grace of God, their love-giving has become life-giving. Parents must never try to force their children to conform to their own images. Instead, they should recognise in their children God’s image. As the Luther theologian and ethicist Gilbert Meilaender has so eloquently put it, in procreation, ‘[Parents] have not simply reproduced themselves, nor are they merely a cause of which she is the effect. Rather, the power of their mutual love has given rise to another who, though different from them and equal in dignity to them, manifests in her person the love that unites them’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (August 2012).