The aim of Matthew Arbo’s Walking through Infertility is to address biblical, theological and moral questions surrounding infertility in order to encourage the church generally, and especially couples experiencing infertility. An interview at the end of the book hints that the author, a professor of theological studies, may have been prompted to write in response to family members’ experience of infertility. It consciously simplifies the content in order to provide an easily understood message: that God cares about those suffering from infertility, but provides a different way for them to be a “family.” In this way they are fully able to participate in the life of the church and the mission of God.
Chapter 1 begins by considering the “propagation mandate” of Genesis 1:28. There is reassurance given to couples that success in conceiving children is not required for obedience to God. In Arbo’s words, “Couples who are open to having children and who do what they can to conceive but who have not (yet) succeeded in conceiving are not violating God’s command” (p. 24). This is then followed by a brief review of biblical infertility narratives (e.g., Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth) in which God’s covenant faithfulness is emphasized. While children are a gift from God, we are not all promised this particular gift, although we cannot always know why it is withheld.
Chapter 2 expounds the nature of Christian Discipleship, recalling the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Discipleship consists in faith and obedience” (p. 46). This is the way to fulfillment as a follower of Christ, for the childless as well as others. Although it is not sinful to continue to pray for a child, we “must be prepared to repent of desires held too firmly or which cause us either to ignore or reject Jesus’s purposes for us” (p. 57). With this reorientation of our affections, contentment and perseverance can prevail, whatever our circumstances. The place of the church in providing comfort, support and relationships is outlined in chapter 3. We meet together as disciples, working together as the body on Christ, where we each belong and have a role.
Chapter 4 provides an ethical critique of some common artificial reproductive technologies (ART)—Intrauterine insemination (IUI), in vitro fertilization (IVF), and embryo adoption and surrogacy, with a brief mention of genetic engineering. Essentially, all ARTs are rejected as unethical, on the grounds that they replace the intimate act of marital intercourse, the natural means of begetting, with an instrumental process controlled by others. However, guidelines are also given for those who choose to go ahead with ART, in order to limit ethical problems. The book ends with an interview with a real-life interview with a couple who discuss their own challenges in experiencing infertility.
Arbo’s book is easy to read, with a recurring story of a husband and wife experiencing childlessness woven through the text, helping others understand the road that may be travelled in the quest for a child. The passages on discipleship are the strongest, with multiple references to the scriptural foundations of the author’s arguments. However, I was surprised that other parts of the book, which assume a good grasp of the Biblical narrative, lack the scriptural references needed to support the statements made. I suspect that most Christian readers would much prefer to have the scriptural references provided in order to work through a biblical position on ART.
The coverage of ART procedures is brief and, in part, inaccurate. Techniques often recommended for Christian couples, namely gamete intra-fallopian tube transfer (GIFT) and zygote intra-fallopian tube transfer (ZIST) were not mentioned at all. Some procedures were dismissed in anticipation of unethical practices that may occur in the future. I was concerned that genetic engineering was briefly mentioned without a warning of the ethical issues involved in genetic examination of embryos. Costs quoted and adoption procedures refer to an American medical system.
In summary, while I found this book largely encouraging, I am not sure to whom I would recommend it. I can understand why some people would desire a simple explanation of ART, without the confusing acronyms and scientific terms. However, it is inescapably a complex business and I believe we need all the facts to make a valid ethical judgement about whether or not it is ethical for Christians to undergo ART. I say this without arguing for or against the practice. However, I would think that students of theology or a couple seriously considering ART would need more information and, in particular, more scriptural references, to decide what is the correct road to take. This is a challenge for pastors and their congregations. Thankfully, other Christian books are readily available which contain this information. However, the particular strength of Arbo’s book is that he encourages us to consider the role of the disciple as we live out God’s purposes in our lives.