On being Catholic and infertile

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I’m a practicing Roman Catholic. And so, when first faced with our infertility troubles, I made an effort to better understand the church’s stance. (I knew that the church does not approve of IVF, but why exactly? What about IUI? Hormone injections?) Fortunately, while exiting church one day, I spotted the above pamphlet for $0.50. I bought it, and here’s what I learned:

Catholic church-approved infertility treatments:

  • charting (also the only approved form of birth control; we Catholics call it Natural Family Planning or NFP)
  • ovulation test strips/monitors (POAS = not a sin)
  • most testing/evaluation procedures (see exception below)
  • drugs, hormones, suppositories (whether taken for the purpose of encouraging ovulation or supporting implantation or pregnancy)
  • corrective surgery

Unapproved infertility treatments:

  • Testing sperm obtained by masturbation (Yep, jerking off = still a no-no. As an intriguing side note, there are apparently Catholic church-approved ‘perforated condoms’ that can be used to collect semen samples during sex – the perforations are necessary to avoid violating church teaching about contraception. And, suddenly my mind jumps to a wildly inappropriate prank idea…Then, that thought is replaced by a mental image of showing up at Dr. Y’s office and handing him a dripping condom…)
  • IUI or any other form of artificial insemination
  • IVF (or ZIFT or GIFT…do people still do these?)

So, what are the underlying moral objections to these forms of treatment? What I learned in this little booklet didn’t come as much of a surprise. I’ll paraphrase:

  1. The purpose of sex is procreation, so any act that divorces the two is a sin.
  2. Life begins at conception, and any act that destroys life [even an embryo] is a sin.

Now I have to acknowledge that Catholic Church teaching is consistent. That first statement is the single reason why the church forbids masturbation, anal/oral/etc. sex, contraception, and gay sex – all of which represent sex without the possibility of procreation. Assisted reproductive technologies (including IUI, IVF, etc.) on the other hand represent procreation without sex.

It wasn’t hard for me to reject the first argument. In fact, I rejected that argument a long time ago. (Judging by the size of the average Catholic family these days, I think it’s safe to say most American and European Catholics reject that argument, whether consciously or not.) Specifically, I don’t believe that God would make gay people only to present them the unappealing choice between being celibate or a sinner. I also don’t believe that God would limit heterosexual couples to a contraceptive choice that forces one partner to choose between ignoring her hormonal urges each month or getting pregnant with her 12th child… (Incidentally, I was especially surprised a few years back to learn that my favorite Dominican priest, Fr. D. shares this concern!)

The second argument is more difficult for me, and I’ve managed to avoid it during the IUI process, but not if we move forward with IVF. This is the same argument for why the Catholic Church opposes abortion, an issue which I also struggle with – perhaps more so now that we are experiencing infertility. I’ll set aside abortion for now, but what do I think about the destruction of embryos as a result of IVF? If you had asked me a year ago, I would have given a totally lame answer:

“I think it’s great that many suffering from infertility will get to achieve their dream of pregnancy by IVF, but I wouldn’t go to those lengths.”

If pressed, I might have continued that it would seem like “such an extravagant use of resources just for the luxury of my own biological child.” That “there are so many unwanted children in need of homes,” and that “maybe it was God’s way of saying he had another plan for me.” Yup, I was one of those people. I can’t believe my good friend N. (who went through 3 or 4 fresh IVF cycles – I lost count – ultimately resulting in a gorgeous little boy) didn’t slap me across the face when I told her I’d never do IVF. I’ve since apologized for being such a hypocritical idiot!

So my feelings about IVF have changed. Did they change because now it’s me? Because now IVF is my best chance at a genetic child? Certainly that has something to do with it. But something else has changed too.

After a miscarriage at 9 weeks followed 10 months of infertility (not to mention another six failed pregnancies among close friends in that same time period), I just don’t think of embryos the same way. Before this whole experience, I think I easily could have viewed each sperm cell and each egg as a ‘potential baby’. Under the right conditions, they could fulfill their destiny and grow into a living breathing human being. [insert slight sarcasm here]

What is now apparent is that, even under the best conditions I can muster (cushy uterus, healthy & “relaxed” host, optimum timing, perfect super-sperm), I’ll be lucky to get one of my eggs to reach its so-called ‘potential’. And the best chance of doing so is through IVF.

So how can I view the demise of 3- or 5-day-old embryos (assuming I’m lucky enough to get any) as ‘destroying a life’, when they almost certainly would never have existed without IVF, and when we are actively doing everything in our power to help them develop into a baby?

Frankly, I can’t (or won’t) see IVF that way. At least not now. And as a Roman Catholic, I’m okay with that!

Postscript: To those who would call me a ‘Cafeteria Catholic’

I know you’re out there; people who will accuse me of being a ‘Cafeteria Catholic’ or ‘CINO’ (Catholic-In-Name-Only), or what have you. Aside from trotting out my Catholic credentials (baptized, confirmed, and married in the church; attend mass weekly and on all holy days of obligation – including while traveling; fast and abstain during lent; confirmation sponsor to my sister; selected by the priest to serve on my church’s Pastoral Council; etc.), and getting angry (man that term irritates me!), I like to point out two observations:

  1. Everyone I’ve ever heard accuse someone of being a ‘Cafeteria Catholic’ is, by their own definition, a Cafeteria Catholic. It’s hard not to be. The Catholic Church – more than any other church – has an official opinion on just about everything. To not be a Cafeteria Catholic, someone would first have to take the time to learn everything that the Catholic Church teaches, and then take on the Herculean task of adhering to that teaching. Actually, to spot the hypocrisy involved in this accusation, you typically don’t even have to work that hard. Pick an issue outside of Catholic moral teaching (better yet, just pick something outside of the small subtopic of sexual morality) and ask the accuser how they live that teaching in their own life. Almost invariably, users of the term Cafeteria Catholic totally ignore some or all tenets of Catholic teaching on social justice, stewardship of the environment, capital punishment, just war, and so on. (For some reason, these folks seem to be obsessed with sex. Maybe they are angry that they’re not having enough …and are envious of everyone that is.)
  2. The use of the term ‘Cafeteria Catholic’ betrays an utter misunderstanding of where Church teaching comes from. Catholic Church teaching is not static. In fact, one of the things about it that so many fundamentalist Christians find objectionable is that we don’t believe the bible to be the final and supreme word of God. Instead, we believe that God continues to speak through an ever-growing Church tradition. New issues (moral and otherwise) arise, and the Church responds, typically by enlisting a panel of experts and church leaders, who engage in extensive discussions, and prayer, and ultimately arrive at some kind of consensus that is adopted as the official Church teaching. Thoughtful and prayerful consideration of issues is part of the process. Consistent with that tradition, priests are NOT mindless drones that regurgitate official Church teaching. The majority are highly educated critical thinkers, taught to ask challenging questions and grow in their faith through independent thought and prayer. Why should laypeople behave any differently?

If I disagree with American policy (or even a small subset of American policy), am I a ‘Cafeteria American’? Can I be a ‘Cafeteria Chemist’? The Catholic Church is losing enough believers as it is. Do we really want to be in the business of telling people they don’t belong?

I don’t mean to imply that the Church is ‘wrong’ about infertility treatment, and that my beliefs are ‘right’. I fully recognize that my knowledge and experience is inherently limited, that God’s plan is beyond my comprehension in this life. But I also feel confident that I am thoughtfully and prayerfully considering the consequences of my infertility treatment, and as of today, I am comfortable proceeding with IVF if this IUI cycle fails…

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18 Comments

  1. I’m an athiest, so the pamphlet totally cracks me up! As a women’s health provider, I’ve performed a lot of abortion counseling and I’ve seen a lot of women who tell me “I’ve always said that I would never have an abortion” and I remind her that she wasn’t in the situation of considering an absorption when she said those words. I’m finding my counseling is coming back to haunt me as I also said “I would never do IVF” it’s completely different when a situation presents…

    Reply
    • Yep. It brings me back to your post about learning humility from infertility. All I can think is that I was SO naive!

      Reply
  2. I never heard the term cafeteria Catholic, but I suspect it’s my friend who didn’t want to be around gays and clearly didn’t understand why I would have a gay friend because “who would want to hear all the talk about gay sex”. I had to let her know that she talked about sex more than my gay friend, who never mentioned it, and that I didn’t really want to hear about heterosexual sex either.

    I was/am Roman Catholic but my family never really practiced it so I’ve never considered whether IVF is right or wrong I just did it because I wanted to be a mother. I’m glad I have the freedom to make that decision based on what’s right and wrong for me. And it doesn’t matter if you said you’d never have IVF, you weren’t infertile when you said it. Right? Situations and opinions change as do catholic doctrine.

    Consider this. When you hear of someone forgoing some simple treatment for their child and allowing their child to die because it is against the teachings of their religion what do you think? I think the person is nuts. Why should you give up a chance to have a child?

    And on the topic of destroying embryos, maybe you won’t have to. An embryo that arrests would likely have arrested if it was created the natural way too and if you end up with extra embryos you could donate them. Of all the cycles I did, I think only 3 embryos didn’t get transferred back to me.

    I also realized for a nice person I’m a hell of a sinner.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your reply. It made me smile. 🙂

      Also, I realize now that I forgot to define Cafeteria Catholic! It’s a derogatory term used to describe people who self-identify as Catholics, but who ‘pick and choose’ which doctrines they want to believe in (presumably like picking items in a cafeteria line). Obviously, I don’t endorse the term, which implies judging millions of people’s faith lives by a simplistic and arbitrary yardstick!

      As you point out, given my low ovarian reserve (and the fact that we’d love to have a big family), I think it is likely that we won’t have to discard any embryos, which would be great! (Of course, if we could get pregnant by IUI, that would be even better!)

      Reply
  3. K

     /  May 1, 2013

    Caveat – I’m not Catholic. I’m also a lesbian in a 9 1/2 year committed relationship raising twins conceived via IVF. Possibly not your target demographic with this post LOL. That said, my whole life I was vehemently pro-choice, until I experienced infertility. And then all of a sudden everything I believed was altered – because now I was that person seeing that ball of cells as my baby, not a potential life, and I couldn’t separate how I felt enough to discard the embryos we had from the cycle that was successful, even the lesser quality ones. So when we did our FET and 3 of our 4 embryos survived the thaw, we transferred all of them. And when I miscarried all three (yes I became pregnant with triplets – miscarried one then had to have a D&C with the remaining two after they stayed with me a few more weeks), I was devastated. During the time I was doing my fresh IVF cycle, a woman I work with had an abortion, and my heart broke – for her, for me, for the baby who never got a chance.

    NOW, the craziest part of this is, I am still pro-choice, but not for the same reasons I once was. I guess my point in all of this is that being a “cafeteria” anything is I think how most of us live. I’m also someone who years ago learned of friends who had the “$30,000 baby” (they’d done IVF) and I remember thinking “I would NEVER do that.” Times, opinions, society changes. I wish the Catholic church could see that. Maybe I’d have one of my best friends back if it did.

    Reply
    • Wow! Thanks so much for sharing. I am so sorry for your (triple) loss, and happy for your ultimate IVF success!
      Like you, I think I will want to commit to transferring each precious embryo if at all possible. (Given my diagnosis, chances are good that I’ll be able to do that.) I struggle with abortion because (a) after being poked and prodded like a lab animal, I’m uncomfortable endorsing telling other women what to do with their bodies…yet (b) now that I fully appreciate how truly precious each little life is, it breaks my heart that some choose to end it. For me, that’s all the more reason for supporting contraceptive choice, for extending compassion and help to those with unwanted pregnancies, and for supporting various routes to parenthood for those who truly want to be parents (whether gay, straight, single,…) Okay, off my soapbox now. 😉

      Reply
  4. I believe that IVF is one of God’s tools. IVF is a mechanism for his work. After all, science can only do so much. Only He can decide if IVF will be a success. That is why I pray to him for success. I pray for him to guide my doctor, my embryologist, my uterus and my em-babies.

    Reply
  5. LH

     /  May 16, 2013

    I don’t know why, but that pamphlet immediately reminded me of this jewel: http://i16.photobucket.com/albums/b24/msbillen/HandbookRecentlyDeceased.jpg

    If you’re not a Beetlejuice fan, this might not make any sense. I think it’s the font and the image of the people.

    Also, I think that the “cafeteria” label is completely meaningless (and definitely intended as insulting) since even the most devoutly religious people are interpreting their own religious texts to determine best practices. Heck, isn’t that was religious scholars do? And, even those of us who are not religious (like me) are apt to pick and choose what “rules” to live by.

    I do like the idea of being a cafeteria chemist. Van der waals forces? No thank you. Ligand field theory? Too complex before a jog. I’ll just take a helping of hydrogen bonding, a side of acid-base chemistry and finish with a nice molecular dynamics simulation. Ahh, refreshing!

    Reply
    • Awesome. Just awesome.

      I hadn’t made the pamphlet connection, but that is perfect, in more ways than one. I feel about as helpless in all this as Geena Davis’s and Alec Baldwin’s characters in that movie. It suggests there might be a possible job opening for a crazy-haired crackpot to guide hapless couples through the infertility process…

      And now that you point it out, I definitely AM a cafeteria chemist…I totally don’t buy into electrochemistry – or as I prefer to call it, “magic”!

      Reply
  6. Hey there! So glad you found my blog and so glad to have found yours back! This was a great post. Catholicism is a hot mess with the infertility thing. Can I tell you that we tried one of those special condoms? For another reason, not for the Catholic thing. There is no WAY you can do the deed with that thing. It’s about as thick as two plastic bags and has absolutely no elasticity to it. It’s a joke.

    Reply
    • That is HILARIOUS! Thanks for reading. 🙂

      Reply
    • Come to think of it, I’m a little disappointed to learn that they don’t resemble ‘real’ condoms. There goes my brilliant prank idea…

      Then again, perhaps that’s for the best…

      Reply
  7. connieann

     /  August 5, 2014

    I would just like to bring up one point that wasn’t considered in this post (unless I missed it, sorry!) Perhaps the main reason the RCC is against all forms of ART is that we believe that children are a gift, not a right. I find the idea fascinating and different, and something to think about. As someone who has personally dealt with the IVF question for 10 years, I think it’s an important part of Church’s reasoning.

    Reply
  8. connieann

     /  August 5, 2014

    Oh and PS- I also have that pamphlet, and it’s one of the first things I read roughly 10 years ago when this road started for me. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Keke_Wang

     /  December 2, 2015

    Thank u for sharing!
    My husband and I have been through IUI 2 times, both failed; will consider the 3rd one this month. Our plan is to then try IVF if this one fail too..
    However, this thing keeps bugging me since my sister in law told us that the church is against IVF. I didnt know that goes for IUI too!
    IMHO, yes, children are gifts, religions are created by humans, technologies are created by humans, brains are created by God, He is the one who has the final say on everything, despite everything we do..
    I’ve always been told to keep praying and trying.. I’ve always seen these methods as parts of our efforts, that if God says it’s not time yet, then it’s not. I accept that. By doing IUI/IVF does not give us 100% guarantee, it only helps. So I still dont really understand why the church is againts it.
    We are all powerless, at least we show Him that we would do everything we can, our best efforts, how much we want His gifts, hoping He would look down to us, considering our plea..

    Reply
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