Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael: a question of assisted reproduction?

By Jasmine Phull 11 Mar 2021

In the book of Genesis, we are told the story of an elderly couple, far beyond child-bearing years, to whom God promises a son (Genesis 15). They wait many years, with no sign of a child, and their faith in God’s promise wavers. Eventually, Sarah, the wife, urges her husband Abraham to conceive a child with her younger female slave, Hagar (Genesis 16:1-4). To Abraham and Hagar, Ishmael is born – he is not God’s promised miracle child, but a child born from human intervention.

It is easy to read this story as one of a failure of trust, of Abraham and Sarah’s disobedience to God’s plan due to their lack of faith. Or perhaps we can see it as a narrative that tells us something about the subjugation of slave women and how little agency they possessed over their own bodies since they could be used for their wombs and their fertility. While both of these readings can provide productive insights from the text, I would like to consider the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael in the light of a different question: that of human intervention into the process of reproduction.

With the development of New Reproductive Technologies (NRTs), the options available to those wishing – and struggling – to conceive a child, are greater than ever before. Couples with fertility problems, same-sex couples and individuals who wish to have children and do not have a partner, now have recourse to a wide variety of treatments and procedures to facilitate their desire for a child. These include fertility medication; the cryopreservation of eggs, sperm and embryos; the donation of sperm and eggs; and of course, surrogacy. Surrogacy can be either genetic or gestational: gestational surrogacy involves the use of another woman’s womb to carry an embryo conceived without her genetic material, while genetic surrogacy involves the surrogate providing both the egg and gestation. Hagar’s story can be read as a Biblical example of surrogacy, her fertile womb is used in place of Sarah’s barren one, although her willingness to participate in this process is questionable.

Some of the ethical concerns for Christians surrounding NRTs may not be wholly dissimilar to those faced by Abraham and Sarah. Does human intervention in the reproductive process, so often considered one of the most ‘natural’ aspects of our lives, represent a lack of trust in God and a failure to accept circumstances which – if not mandated by God – are permitted by him to be so? Within the Biblical text, there is a certain ambivalence towards the actions of Abraham and Sarah, since they are neither affirmed nor condemned. What is certain, however, is that Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, is blessed by God. Genesis 17:20 reads “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation"  (Genesis 17:20). Regardless of the manner of his conception, Ishmael’s life is honoured and blessed by God. Children are a gift from God and belong ultimately to Him (Genesis 33:5, Genesis 48:9, Psalm 127:3, Psalm 139:13, Matthew 18:1-6). Once these lives have been brought into being, however they have been brought into being, God will love and cherish them.

Of course, this does not answer the concern that perhaps such interventions should not be undertaken in the first place. Yet the story of Abraham and Hagar, and God’s response to the birth of Ishmael, do suggest that children conceived outside of normal circumstances are fully accepted and integrated into God’s story. Of course, there are many further questions to address concerning the use of NRTs, including the distinction defined by Denis Alexander between technologies used for the purpose of healing and those designed to try and transcend human limitations. It is possible to conclude with certainty, however, that the God of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael can and will bless children born, in our time, from complex, messy and potentially morally ambiguous circumstances.

Jasmine Phull is one of the participants in the Jubilee Centre's 2020/21 SAGE Graduate Programme. She has a degree in Human, Social & Political Sciences from Cambridge University.

To read Jasmine's full research essay - and to see a video of her presentation at the 2021 SAGE Conference - click here.

This is a post by a guest contributor. The views expressed by guest writers are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jubilee Centre.

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