VATICAN CITY — Patricia, 41, and David, 43, are a devout Catholic Canadian couple who cannot conceive because of David’s azoospermia, which is the absence of sperm in the ejaculate. When they had a chance to harvest and freeze David’s sperm, they couldn’t afford it. What they found out later was that their church is adamantly opposed to such procedures anyway.
Catholic dogma may be “pro-life” and certainly pro-creation (and anti-contraception), but only for the fertile. As it stands, Church teaching offers little for those who can’t conceive naturally, meaning even if science allows infertile Catholics to procreate through assisted fertility, their faith does not. But Patricia and David are hoping that even if doctrine doesn’t change, under Pope Francis the practices and preaching will.
“What my husband and I would like is not for the church to allow IVF and other reproductive technologies that are currently not allowed, but to show compassion in how the doctrine is taught and especially to be more kind with the language,” Patricia told The Daily Beast by email. “It is important to realize there are devout, married couples who are infertile.”
As the Vatican’s Synod on the Family rumbles into its second week, the outtakes from the closed-door affair continue to focus on two major issues: how to minister to LGBT Catholics and what to do about giving divorced and remarried Catholics communion. But those issues don’t pertain to the vast majority of rule-abiding Catholic families who are growing justifiably frustrated that issues relating to their own faith struggles appear largely ignored.
One such issue is the Catholic Church’s hard-line approach to infertility treatments and solutions, which affects thousands of devout Catholic couples worldwide. But as frustrating as the church’s morality judgment is on the widely accepted fertility treatment of in vitro fertilization or IVF (which has led to the birth of almost 5 million babies since 1978, when Louise Brown, the first “test-tube baby,” was born), many couples struggling with problems with infertility say it is actually the church’s language that is the most hurtful.
Patricia wishes the synod fathers would focus attention on guiding parish priests on how to support families through the difficulty of untreatable infertility and how to guide Catholic communities to do the same. As it stands now, these families are largely left to suffer in silence because the church’s stance offers them so little hope.
“The language that is used is hurtful to us,” she says, “There are mean, hurtful people in this world who would say that people are infertile because God decided they are not worthy of having children.”
Patricia and David, who have an adopted son, also wish the church would spend time working on inclusionary language that takes into consideration that biological families are not the only kinds of Catholic families and stop inadvertently lumping infertile couples who adopt together with same-sex unions that adopt.
“It is hurtful to hear the argument against same-sex marriage focused so much on the inability to procreate, because what does that mean for infertile couples? We feel frustrated that these issues appear to hijack the synod and much of the dialogue in the church,” says Patricia. “We believe that it is important to promote, encourage, and minister to adoptive families. We struggle with how to teach our son about adoption within the context of the church teaching.”
There is little room for maneuver around the issue. The church, officially, does encourage adoption by married, heterosexual couples, and it does condone certain types of infertility treatment. Its basic teaching is this: Anything that is used to accompany the married, heterosexual couple through natural conjugal conception is acceptable and anything that replaces it is immoral.
That means sperm testing as long as the sperm is collected during intercourse; hormone injections and fertility pills are OK, but harvesting eggs, masturbation for collecting sperm, and planting embryos in a womb—even if only the devout married couple are involved—is morally wrong in the eyes of God as interpreted by the Catholic Church.
Patricia argues that “there are infertile couples that are completely unable to have children through love-making or through the reproductive technologies that involve love-making. That is a reality and it should be addressed with compassion.” But the official doctrine of the church is rigid, constructed around a rigid logic.
“IVF eliminates the marriage act as the means of achieving pregnancy, instead of helping it achieve this natural end,” according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ explanation of the church’s teaching. “The new life is not engendered through an act of love between husband and wife, but by a laboratory procedure performed by doctors or technicians. … Husband and wife are merely sources for the ‘raw materials’ of egg and sperm, which are later manipulated by a technician to cause the sperm to fertilize the egg.”
The church also nixes the use of donated eggs or sperm because “this means that the genetic father or mother of the child could well be someone from outside the marriage,” and “this can create a confusing situation for the child later, when he or she learns that one parent raising him or her is not actually the biological parent.”
The church considers the discarding of embryos created in the petri dish that are not viable and cannot be implanted in the mother-to-be’s uterus akin to abortion.
“Invariably several embryos are brought into existence; only those which show the greatest promise of growing to term are implanted in the womb,” according to the U.S. Conference of Bishops’ explanation. “The others are simply discarded or used for experiments. This is a terrible offense against human life. While a little baby may ultimately be born because of this procedure, other lives are usually snuffed out in the process.”
The Instrumentum Laboris working paper for the synod does allude to IVF in a somewhat bland paragraph near the end of the lengthy document:
“Great importance is given to some centers engaged in research in human fertility and infertility, research which is fostering a dialogue between Catholic bio-ethicists and scientists adept in bio-medical technology,” the document states. “Pastoral activity on behalf of the family should involve more Catholic bio-medical specialists in preparing couples for marriage and in accompanying married peoples.”
Plenty of Catholic bio-ethicists have weighed in on the matter, but generally in support of church doctrine, and not in support of those who desperately want to go forth and multiply.
Dr. Pia Matthews is addressing the synod on the topic, but she only has three minutes to state her case. She told Vatican Radio that she will be sharing her experience training priests in seminaries along with her own personal experience of looking after a child with disability. She says her main focus is “how we are welcoming as parish communities, how everybody is recognized in their full human dignity,” not how to help infertile couples cope.
Not all Catholic bio-ethicists even believe every couple deserves to be parents. “If a couple decides they have the right to a child, the child has become a commodity,” Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, told Religion News Service last year. “And if they haven’t been given the gift of a child, it doesn’t mean they have the right to a child as commodity.”
Whatever the synod fathers discuss, if anything, with regard to IVF, it very likely won’t be toward making it a moral practice. When Robert Edwards won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work in developing IVF, Archbishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life at the time, protested, saying that IVF encourages the marketing of human embryos. “Without Edwards there would not be a market for eggs, without Edwards there would not be freezers full of embryos waiting to be transferred to a uterus, or more likely waiting to be used in research or perhaps waiting to die abandoned and forgotten by all,” the archbishop told Vatican Radio at the time.
Patricia and David ultimately decided not to go through with IVF, even though it might have led them to becoming biological parents. “We went into marriage wanting to go through with IVF or ICSI [intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection] but also open to adoption. We have since decided against IVF and ICSI,” she told The Daily Beast. “Before we knew church teaching on IVF, I did have problems with it. I was uncomfortable with how there are multiple embryos conceived with some being left in a frozen limbo state. I was uncomfortable with the destruction of the not-viable embryos. Life should not be started and left in limbo. We later learned church teaching and we agree with it. Bioethics are so complicated now. Just because something can be done does not mean it is moral or should be done.”
The church concedes that many infertile Catholic couples simply have not informed themselves on how sinful IVF really is in the eyes of their church. “If a couple is unaware that the procedure is immoral, they are not subjectively guilty of sin,” the U.S. Bishops explain. “Children conceived through this procedure are children of God and are loved by their parents, as they should be. Like all children, regardless of the circumstances of their conception and birth, they should be loved, cherished and cared for.” Thank God for that.