The Southern Baptists’ IVF Own-Goal Might Be How It Ends

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The Southern Baptists’ IVF Own-GoalAnna Moneymaker - Getty Images

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Representatives from America’s 47,000-ish Southern Baptist churches met last week to discuss church business, as they do every year. On the agenda: voting on whether to bar women from serving as pastors in the church, discussing why they’ve done diddly squat about their clergy child-molestation problem, and voting for the first time on whether embryos conceived via in vitro fertilization should be protected with more gusto than living schoolchildren.

They could have grabbed some much-needed positive press by clearing the very low bar they’ve set for themselves. They could have made a statement by resoundingly upholding the rights of women to speak in religious contexts. They could have finally done something to stop sexual predators from using evangelical churches as hunting grounds. Or gee, I don’t know, they could have stood up for a very popular fertility treatment from which many of their members have benefited, perhaps.

Instead, the convention voted to formally oppose most forms of IVF. The resolution declares that members of the church should “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, especially in the number of embryos generated in the I.V.F. process.” Basically, the Baptists have issues with the fact that a lot of the time, IVF involves the creation of more embryos than will go on to become people.

No humans in the embryonic stage could be reached for comment.

Now the headlines are focused on how the wacky Bible thumpers have formalized belief in medical fiction. The New Republic declared that the vote was “a terrifying sign of what’s to come.” The Today show ran with the angle “Families show support of IVF as Southern Baptists take stand” (never a great look to publicly align opposite “families” as a religious organization).

Let’s get one thing clear here: Since nonviable blastocysts will never become human babies, the SBC proclamation is, functionally, a condemnation of IVF as a whole. It’s impossible to fertilize eggs in a manner that will only result in viable embryos. No matter how much prayer and science is lavished upon every zygote, human fertility and zygotic viability is a numbers game.

It doesn’t help the SBC’s case that IVF is very popular, even among Southern Baptists, many of whom have IVF to thank for the existence of their children or grandchildren. (It’s also quite popular among the growing number of young people and adults who were conceived through IVF, not to mention among their friends and families.) A March CBS/YouGov poll found that 86 percent of Americans believe that IVF should be legal. An Alabama Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that declared embryos to be the exact same thing as human children was met with sea-to-shining-sea condemnation, flop-sweat-soaked statements from elected Republicans, and Democrats, for weeks, looking like the cat that caught the canary on every cable-news hit. It’s not as if public opinion of fetal personhood is a mystery–the public has made its opinions known.

Bearing all this in mind, we have to ask: Why would Southern Baptists take up this question in the first place? It’s a losing issue for them. It’s an own-goal. It’s them kicking themselves squarely in the nuts. Why would a church that believes, more than anything, that its mission is to convert more people to Christianity do so much to elevate the opinions of Christianity’s most hateful fools by highlighting their least popular opinions?

Either the largest sect of Protestants in the U.S. are in denial about their own dwindling influence or they know something we don’t about how a religion that comprises only 4 percent of the U.S. population no longer needs to worry about winning hearts and minds.

There are fewer than 13 million Southern Baptists in the U.S.; fewer than ten thousand of those vote at the sect’s annual meeting. Walt Disney World gets more than four times as many annual visitors as Southern Baptist-affiliated churches; there are probably more Americans who have thrown up on Space Mountain than have ever voted for an SBC resolution. Still, the fringe beliefs of this sect of American Christianity are driving the ship on the moral stances of the GOP as a whole. Just last week, GOP senators blocked the advancement of a bill that would have federally guaranteed access to IVF, all while purring empty platitudes about how of course they personally support IVF. Just not enough to upset any of the eight thousand or so jowly Southern geezers who thumbs-downed fertility science. Just not enough to net an easy public-relations layup in an election year.

The Southern Baptist Convention—and other American religions that promote views stereotypically endorsed by miserable, Thanksgiving-ruining uncles—have the GOP by the balls. These religions have long ago abandoned any illusions that they are not political organizations. Pastors routinely preach about politics, and the politicians among its ranks, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, routinely treat political speeches like sermons. They have, for decades, aggressively opposed public policies supporting abortion access and LGBTQ rights, even though the New Testament has way more stuff in it about feeding the poor than it does about zygotes.

Ever since six Catholic Supreme Court justices voted to overturn Roe v. Wade two years ago, the American right has found itself in a bit of disarray over what to do next about abortion. As it has scrambled, its disorganized overreach has led to loss after loss at the ballot box—from Ohio to Montana to Kansas. Anti-choice right-wingers can’t seem to resist drawing attention to the thing that many members of the non-wingnut public find the most creepy and off-putting about them—their preoccupation with legislating the private reproductive choices of other people, the chair-sniffing obsession with women who do not want to spend their late teens through early forties slowly birthing a T-ball team. The absurd implication that, given the choice between “rescuing” or “adopting” a tray of extra IVF embryos or a three-year-old child from a fire, the moral choice would be the tray.

Even before all this, though, and despite their outsized influence on American conservative thought, the numbers are not trending well for Southern Baptists. Since its peak in 2006, the SBC has lost almost three and a half million members–a quarter million between 2022 and 2023 alone. That dropoff in membership was not helped by a massive clergy sex abuse problem unearthed by the Houston Chronicle, which revealed that despite its decentralized-by-design leadership structure, the SBC had been systematically shielding sexual predators from punishment, silencing abuse survivors, and creating trails of victims by moving offenders from church to church.

All recent polling shows a drop in Americans who consider church important to them across all major denominations. The youngest three generations are rife with atheists and agnostics and people who have a relationship with the divine that they say exists without the aid of a corny youth pastor who wears hemp jewelry and smells like Davidoff Cool Water. Christians are dying off more quickly than they’re being born—or born again. And church leaders are either in denial or believe that they can muscle their way back.

The SBC’s IVF vote overshadowed a moment of crowd-pleasing inclusion–or, more accurately, non-exclusion. The conference’s attendees were expected to change the group’s loose set of bylaws to specify that only men were allowed to be pastors and homilists in the church. The groundwork was set; a requisite two thirds of members voted in favor of the men-only rule at last year’s Southern Baptist Geezer Party, but this year, only 61 percent of attendees agreed with the proposed rule, which meant that the proposal failed. But in the context of the IVF vote, the mildly pro-woman move only proved that the SBC believes that Aunt Lydia can be a girlboss, too.

Back in the 1600s, the Baptist faith started as a radical sect of Christianity that encouraged women to speak during worship services, stood firmly against the intermingling of church and state, and insisted on baptizing only consenting adults into the faith. Today, its legacy, the Southern Baptist Convention, has rejected all these things and instead embraced an agenda of creepy Christofascism and clergy sex-pest apologia. But at least somebody finally stood up for the frozen embryos, right?

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