The journey of infertility: Walking with the Church to find solutions, wisdom, and peace
It’s personal. It’s painful. And for the millions of people affected by infertility, it can also be very isolating. For those who have never experienced the sorrow and complexity of this condition, it’s impossible to truly comprehend the degree of suffering it causes. I had considered myself empathetic to those who couldn’t conceive, but I didn’t fully understand what they were going through until it happened to my husband and me.
God said, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Among all the commandments He gave us, Scripture mentions this one first. It’s infused into the very fiber of our being. This desire to parent is written on our hearts, dreamed of in our minds, ached for in our bodies, and truly yearned for in our spirits.
Thus, a couple’s inability to fulfill this commandment causes great pain emotionally, intellectually, physically, and even spiritually. Doctors, decisions, procedures, time, cost, hope, and hurt are the constant companions of many couples on their journey through the lonely landscape of infertility. They walk on a trail of tears left by a long line of people who also yearned for offspring. The distress of being barren is seen in the biblical accounts of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 11:30), Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29:31), Manoah and his wife (Judges 13:2), and Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7).
Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive within one year of trying (or within six months, if a woman is at least 35 years old), or being unable to carry a child to live birth. It affects the male or female reproductive system with almost equal frequency, and people from every racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic group. Infertility may occur in a couple’s first attempt to achieve pregnancy or as secondary infertility—when a woman has successfully given birth before, but is unable to do so again. A woman who is able to get pregnant but has repeated miscarriages is also considered infertile.
So-called reproductive technology is a rapidly changing field, with discoveries and innovations occurring at a mind-boggling pace. It offers a staggering array of options, each of which has its own physical, emotional, moral, and spiritual ramifications. This “technology” was first developed to help infertile married couples, but today, many singles, including those in the homosexual lifestyle, also purchase genetic materials and procedures in order to “have” children. Its increasing use has challenged traditional beliefs and attitudes about pregnancy, birth, children, and the definition of family itself. And the resulting clash of values is now reflected in the social, political, and spiritual arenas.
Some infertility treatments violate human dignity and treat the child as a “product.” Even the term “reproductive technology” suggests that a product is being produced. But children shouldn’t be considered a commodity that can be manufactured. Moreover, humans do not reproduce; they procreate. The connotation of “procreation” is that each child is created by God, unique, unrepeatable, and a blessing. “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord,” proclaims Psalm 127:3, and not a right—unlike our culture proclaims.
It’s important for couples to inform themselves thoroughly and plan their route in detail, in order to avoid the pitfalls, because the road through infertility is never easy. And yet, many couples try to negotiate its twists and turns without such preparation. If they aren’t careful, their quest for a child may lead to procedures that fail to respect the sanctity of life and marriage.
We must evaluate every action in light of God’s plan, which is clearly revealed in nature itself. Infertile couples must be aware that many of the solutions offered for infertility are opposed by the Catholic Church precisely because they violate divine laws. However, there are medical techniques for overcoming infertility that are acceptable, because they don’t violate human dignity, the right to life, or the sanctity of marriage (see sidebar).
Spouses must become biological parents only through an act of sexual intercourse with each other. Thus, it’s morally permissible to assist the spouses’ conjugal act by repairing bodily functions, while it’s immoral to replace the conjugal act as the means of procreation. Moral interventions for infertility allow a new human being to be created as the direct result of marital sexual intercourse. For example, fertility drugs may be used to help a wife who doesn’t ovulate, and surgery can help to correct abnormalities in the husband or wife’s procreative organs.
Interventions such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, or cloning are immoral because they replace spousal intimacy with a technician’s expertise. Many of these procedures also require the collection of sperm through masturbation—a fundamentally immoral act. And any use of the procreative organs of persons other than a spouse violates the privacy, exclusivity, and sanctity of marriage. A baby should never be the direct result of medical technology or the involvement of persons other than one’s spouse, but rather a gift given through the marital embrace, in cooperation with God.
Couples yearning for a biological child may not realize that some infertility procedures, such as IVF, will probably also result in babies’ deaths. Pre-implantation diagnosis, often used by IVF practitioners before embryos are injected into female clients, leads to the destruction of embryonic babies who don’t pass quality control tests—further evidence of reproductive technology’s commodification of human beings. If multiple embryos are injected into the uterus, a woman may be carrying quadruplets or more. When this happens, typically a “selective reduction” is recommended: the abortion of one or more of the babies, because of the babies’ increased health risks.
Many infertility treatment facilities now insert fewer embryos at one time, to eliminate problems associated with the gestation and birth of multiple babies. However, this usually means that these “extra” embryos are either discarded or frozen. Couples often have these embryonic babies frozen, and later lose interest in giving birth to them or are unable to do so. The possibility of killing these embryonic babies is something most people don’t want to think or talk about.
What a terrible paradox that a treatment designed to create babies often ends up destroying them! Bringing all these embryonic babies into existence and then denying them the chance to be born—either by keeping them frozen or destroying them—is a violation of their human dignity and human rights.
Guidance and support
As reproductive technology blazes trails through uncharted land, couples having trouble conceiving often find themselves at a moral crossroads. They need the empathy, support, and wise, well-informed guidance of others.
If you’re suffering from infertility, seek God’s direction through prayer and consider asking your pastor for a blessing. Pastoral support and care offer comfort and helpful perspectives (see sidebar). Educate yourself on the moral implications of treatment options by studying Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and other relevant Church documents (see “Pro-Life Basics” in this issue). Evaluate your options in light of this information. Seek out faith-based support groups, mentoring, and spiritual direction (see sidebar).
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, about 10 percent of American women, ages 15−44, have difficulty either getting pregnant or carrying a baby to term. Thus, you’re likely to know or meet people who are struggling to conceive, yet you might feel unprepared to provide support. The best thing you can do is show them you care, because these couples need your sensitivity and compassion. You don’t need to say much. Let them cry on your shoulder and just listen. If necessary, gently point them toward the Church’s teaching and wisdom, but otherwise, refrain from offering advice or asking questions that are personal. Let them know you’re praying for them and ask what you can do to help.
During our own years of infertility, a very supportive priest offered my husband and me the presence and prayers that helped us discern God’s will, draw closer to Him, and strengthen our marriage. Though we yearned for a child of our own, he encouraged us to redirect some of our creative energy toward writing a booklet for others. So, as part of our healing process, we “gave birth” to the booklet Infertility Journey (see sidebar). This also led to the founding of Elizabeth Ministry International and training parish teams to reach out to those carrying the cross of infertility and other sufferings related to childbearing (see Celebrate Life, January-February).
Recently, the authors of the empowering new book, The Infertility Companion for Catholics (see sidebar), wrote to me, saying, “Your booklet, Infertility Journey, was very instrumental to us as we researched and wrote our book, and your Elizabeth Ministry materials have been spiritually enriching to us personally as we walked the road of infertility.” I now regard their book as a spiritual “grandchild.” They allowed me to see the wisdom in the priest’s words when he said, “You may not understand God’s plan now, but He has another plan for your creativity!”
As society seduces people into believing they have total control over their fertility, may the Church continue to guide the faithful and help them trust in God’s providence. With the support of their parish (see sidebar), infertile couples can find the strength to handle their pain and identify God’s plan for their creative energies. The faith community can’t take away their tears, but it can show them how to find peace and transform their sufferings into opportunities to grow in holiness.
Jeannie Hannemann, MA, is cofounder and executive director of Elizabeth Ministry International, and cofounder of the RECLAiM Sexual Health recovery program. These resources offer hope and healing for concerns related to childbearing and sexuality. For more information, visit ElizabethMinistry.com or ReclaimSexualHealth.com, or call 920-766-9380.
From the Pope Paul VI Institute:
NaProTECHNOLOGY (the abbreviation for “Natural Procreative Technology”) is a relatively new approach to women’s health care. It diagnoses and treats the underlying causes of problems, rather than merely bypassing or overriding them (see Celebrate Life, January-February 2011). It’s been significantly more successful than in vitro fertilization in helping couples achieve pregnancy and is morally acceptable to people of all faiths. For more information on this science, as well as detailed explanations of the morality of standard infertility treatments, see CatholicInfertility.org. To find the nearest NaProTECHNOLOGY medical consultant, see FertilityCare.org.
From Elizabeth Ministry:
• Infertility Journey: Making Faith Informed Decisions under the Guiding Hands of God—This booklet provides Catholic guidelines and suggestions for infertile couples, to help them navigate through the maze of available options.
• Catholic Pastoral Guide on Infertility: Pastoral Possibilities with Families Experiencing Infertility in the Age of Reproductive Technology—Helps parishes respond to the needs of parishioners facing infertility. Provides a wealth of spiritual offerings, educational resources, and support materials, including helpful handouts.
• Catholic Infertility Support Group Handbook—If you want to reach out to other infertile Catholic couples, this resource will teach you how to organize a support group. Includes detailed guidelines and reproducible handouts for group meetings.
• Visit ElizabethMinistry.com to see several additional infertility resources.
• The Infertility Companion for Catholics: Spiritual and Practical Guidance for Couples by Angelique Ruhi-López and Carmen Santamaría (2012)—Recommended by Elizabeth Ministry, and available from Elizabeth Ministry or Ave Maria Press (AveMariaPress.com; 800-282-1865, ext. 1).
• Facing Infertility: A Catholic Approach by Jean Dimech-Juchniewicz (2012)—See “Pro-Life Book Review” in this issue.