Spiritual and moral thoughts on creating life

Creating and sustaining life can look many different ways. Here's a list of books that can help birthing people and their pastors approach topics like surrogacy and infertility.

Christians who struggle with fertility and difficult pregnancies often turn to their churches for care. 2023’s bookshelf included several works, each approaching the topic from a different angle. The Outlook shared a full-length review of Elizabeth Felicetti’s excellent Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Women Without Children in our December issue, and we include additional reviews here.

My Body, Their Baby: A Progressive Christian Vision for Surrogacy

Grace Kao
Stanford University Press, 274 pages
Published August 15, 2023

Grace Kao’s apologetic support for surrogacy would seem to have a limited audience, yet she articulates a Christian feminist framework that is helpful across the board, as well as for those considering surrogacy. The title, My Body, Their Baby, explains that Kao’s interest is not entirely academic; as a surrogate, she carried and delivered a baby for friends who were unable to conceive. Kao describes and rebuts the critiques she encountered: harm to herself, (psychological) harm to her children, the perceived diminishment of her rights as a woman, undermining adoption and/or abortion, and more. Having experienced “collaborative reproduction,” Kao establishes an ethical framework based on lived experience and her work as an ethics professor.

This is a scholarly work that will generate lively discussion in a seminary or even an adult ed class (in a congregation whose members enjoy engaging with the latest scholarship). It’s sufficiently accessible to guide church leaders who work in reproductive justice or who hunger for progressive Christian approaches to ethics and theology. And it’s practical: I served a congregation in which two unrelated families brought children into the world through surrogacy. My Body, Their Baby would have helped me provide more informed pastoral care to the parents, assisting me in thinking through my assumptions before supporting their discernment.

Missed Conceptions: How We Make Sense of Infertility

Karen Stollznow
Broadleaf Books, 243 pages
Published April 25, 2023

Historian Karen Stollznow addresses the words that many women and couples ask: how can “the most natural thing in the world” be so difficult? Those who struggle to conceive are up against (for many) a biological tug, as well as societal and religious expectations to reproduce. Her historian’s take starts with Genesis and the Roman Empire (in which, at times, celibacy was illegal and fertility rewarded) and leads to modern times (e.g. America’s post-war “baby boom” and China’s one-child policy). Stollznow’s take focuses on her Herculean efforts to conceive, including surgeries, medication, tracking ovulation and IVF.

Missed Conceptions sets out to make meaning of Stollznow and her husband’s fertility journey, and it’s a rough ride. She writes, “When you face infertility, you can be sure that everyone you know, and even those you don’t, will give you their unsolicited opinion and advice….” Painful platitudes from family and friends range from “Why don’t you just adopt?” to “Buy a dog and travel the world!” Perfect strangers ask prying questions (a bank teller creates a new low when he asks, “Are you barren?”).

Missed Conceptions is a tough read, and it’s not for everyone. It’s perhaps most helpful to remind those in caring ministries what not to say; we never know what others are experiencing, and so we should all avoid glib comments that unintentionally sting. Stollznow seems to speak to those with similar struggles, yet Missed Conceptions contains a lot of baggage for those still on their fertility journeys. She does, however, conclude with words of hope: “Whatever your story, you can and will survive infertility.”

Sacred Pregnancy: Birth, Motherhood, and the Quest for Spiritual Community

Ann W. Duncan
Fortress Press, 220 pages
Published April 25, 2023

I opened Ann Duncan’s Sacred Pregnancy while thirty-one weeks pregnant with my first child. Shortly after I began the book, I took to bed rest after my thirty-two-week scan, and this changed my perspective on the book.

Sacred Pregnancy seeks to demystify modern conceptions of motherhood, liberating women from centuries of patriarchal narratives. Duncan is laser-focused on identifying the ways society and church drive pregnant individuals to the margins — forcing them to make their own meaning in a biological process that has become so deeply polarized and alienating. We are asked to view motherhood for what it is: “constructs of society … influenced by societal, cultural, and religious forces that surround them.”

I resonated most strongly with the third and fourth chapters, with “Blending and Borrowing” as the real standout. Duncan unpacks the ways modern pregnant women try their hand at meaning-making through already-established religions and traditions. She spends a great deal of time rationalizing the very human drive to find meaning and connection through communities of like-minded individuals, such as through the Sacred Living Movement founded by Anni Daulter. I was pleasantly surprised to see that cultural appropriation was openly addressed. Duncan acknowledged the pitfalls of a movement like Daulter’s, which lacks a stable foundation and is often shared on social media with little to no context. Duncan writes, “Without an original religious teaching native to this group … the challenge becomes to create a sense of sacredness and connection ….”

Duncan writes about the unrealistic pressures placed on reproductive habits, as well as attempts to infuse pregnancy with meaning; I believe a focus on one or the other would have improved her work. This is, unabashedly, a book written from a White feminist perspective, which limits its overall appeal. It is, perhaps, best suited for the classroom, potentially for those who identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

Reviewed by: Quantisha Mason-Doll, PC(USA) member and graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary and the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey. She most recently studied at the University of Bonn in the Masters of Ecumenical Studies program and now lives in Ferndale, Michigan.