My Struggle with the Catholic Church’s Teaching on IVF

January 24, 2023

No girl dreams of doing IVF. No woman enjoys the painful shots, endless medications, invasive vaginal ultrasounds, or emotional anxiety that accompanies all of that. No couple wants to create babies in a petri dish rather than through the loving act of marital sex.

But with infertility affecting approximately 1 in 8 couples, many women end up reluctantly pursuing IVF. These women are not morally corrupt or cavalier towards the creation of life. Rather, these women are pro-life in the most literal meaning of the term, in that they desire to bring forth life.

I am one of these women.

The Emotional Rollercoaster of Infertility

Infertility is cruelly difficult. Each month feels like an emotional rollercoaster. The arrival of my period brings grief, which blossoms into hope during my fertile days, and then transforms into anxiety during the dreaded two-week wait (“TWW”). Repeat this wild range of emotions month after month, year after year, and you get why infertility can drive one a bit crazy.

During my TWW, I hyper-analyze every little twinge, aversion, and bodily change. I persistently google “early pregnancy symptoms,” even though I know them by heart. I convince myself that my nipples look darker, my pee smells funny, and my food cravings are different. Even though I’ve been trying to conceive (“TTC”) for over 6 years, I still manage to convince myself I’m pregnant every TWW.

At some point, I began to wonder, “Why go through this pain every month if I don’t have to? Why not look into fertility treatments?”

Why I Decided to Move Forward with Fertility Treatments

My husband and I have unexplained infertility, a frustrating diagnosis. After years of religiously charting and timing intercourse, meeting with various doctors, trying different supplements and diets, and undergoing surgery, we finally agreed to meet with a reproductive endocrinologist. He told us that our best option to conceive was through IVF. My two other doctors agreed.

I hesitated, knowing IVF was deemed immoral by the Catholic Church. But I didn’t really understand why the Church said “no.” I am an involved, practicing Catholic, yet no one had ever explained the reason behind the Church’s stance to me.

Truthfully, I didn’t want to understand. I just so desperately wanted a child. It was easier to believe that the Church’s prohibition against IVF was arbitrary, outdated, and anti-woman than it was to start digging and find out I was wrong.

Plus, it seemed simple: Infertility is a medical condition and IVF is the treatment. Nothing more, nothing less. And in my case, three different doctors urged me to do IVF. Who was I to argue?

Even still, I carefully prayed and discerned over whether to move forward with IVF. I felt like Hannah in the Old Testament, bringing my ugly tears and pleas to God, over and over again. During one particular tearful prayer, I finally heard an answer, or what I thought was an answer. A sudden peace washed over me, and I truly felt like God held out His hand to me, saying, “We’ll take this next step of IVF together.

As soon as I got home, I called our doctor and told him we wanted to move forward with IVF.

What the Catholic Church Teaches about IVF

Even though I felt confident moving forward, I halfheartedly began to delve into the Church’s teachings on IVF. I discovered that the Church has released two relevant documents on fertility treatments: Donum Vitae in 1987 and Dignitas Personae in 2008.

I’m an attorney who often reads dense material and let me tell you: Donum Vitae is wordy, hyper-technical, and difficult to decipher. Just about the only thing made clear was the Church’s staunch opposition to IVF – no exceptions.

Dignitas Personae is slightly easier to comprehend but felt rife with indignation and a lack of empathy towards infertile couples. Frankly, I found it offensive, judgmental, and clearly written by a male lacking personal experience with the pain of infertility.

Regardless, I wasn’t moved by the documents. I had a counterargument to everything.

The Church’s concern over the destruction of embryos? Not an issue. My husband and I decided that we would use every embryo created in our IVF cycle – even if this resulted in more children than what we envisioned, and even if some embryos were abnormal.

The Church’s concern over embryo reduction (selective aborting)? Irrelevant. The standard of care now is typically to transfer one embryo at a time. Long gone are the days of Jon & Kate Plus 8.

The Church’s concern that IVF separates procreation from the unitive act of sex? The joke’s on them. The monthly charting and timed intercourse did a number on our sex life and marriage. IVF sounded far more unitive than timed intercourse.

The Church’s concern for the dignity of every human being? Don’t worry. We planned to respect our embryos every step of the way, loving them as we would any child.

At the end of the day, I was comfortable in my belief that the Church missed the mark on this teaching. So onward we went.

The IVF Process

IVF consists of the egg retrieval, where a woman takes medications to grow multiple mature eggs simultaneously, and the transfer, where an embryo is planted directly into a woman’s uterus to increase the chance of implantation.

After weeks of intense medications, many vaginal ultrasounds, and the dreaded shots, we arrived at the clinic for the egg retrieval. We were overjoyed to learn we had 6 embryos: 3 genetically normal, 2 slightly abnormal, and 1 genetically abnormal. We decided to keep all of our “embabies” — what we in the IVF world lovingly dub our embryos. I felt proud of our decision, of choosing to respect all life. But sometimes I caught myself thinking, “Why did I genetically test my embryos? What purpose does genetic testing serve, if I value all life equally?”

A couple of months later, we transferred one perfect embaby. We could have pre-selected the gender, but we chose to leave that up to God. Again, I patted myself on the back, telling myself my motives were pure and godly.

Ten days after the transfer, I took a pregnancy test. I remember sitting on the bathroom floor, staring at the negative pregnancy test and willing a second line to appear. It never did. It took me a long time to get off the bathroom floor. Feeling devastated doesn’t even cover the depth of emotion I felt.

The second embryo transfer failed, too. The grief over this loss was even deeper than the first. 

Soon, an unsettled feeling started gnawing at my heart. For the first time, I wondered if I was wrong. My unapologetic, confident attitude towards IVF began to chip away. I worried about my frozen embabies. “We don’t freeze infants, so why do we freeze embryos? Are they okay while frozen indefinitely in time? If they grow into healthy babies, how will I explain their conception to them?”

Above all, I questioned if my desperation to have a child blinded me to what God really wanted for me.

My Discussions with a Priest about IVF

It took me months to work up the courage, but I eventually requested a meeting with my priest. I was a jumble of nerves when I arrived at his office. I word-vomited all I had done, the fears and guilt that consumed me, the arrogance I possessed when dismissing the Church’s teaching on IVF, and the worry over my frozen embabies.

I expectantly waited for his rebuke. But none came. Where I expected judgment and disappointment, he responded only with love, compassion, and hope.

My priest commended me for having the courage to speak to him. He acknowledged the depth of my sorrow, affirming that infertility was a great suffering. I felt seen and safe.

He mentioned something that I hadn’t yet considered or even heard about. He said, The problem with IVF is that it treats babies as commodities rather than human beings. IVF is a business, and babies are the product.

I timidly asked what I should do about my frozen embryos, afraid of the answer. He responded, “Sometimes we make a mistake and later come to a better realization. These mistakes can be hard to correct, and in the case of embryos, we can’t undo their creation.” He continued, “What we can do – and are required to do – is to treat those embryos with dignity and honor.

He affirmed that I could transfer my remaining embryos without shame, going so far as to call my future transfers “acts of charity and courage.” He absolved me of my sins through the sacrament of Reconciliation, replacing my guilt and shame with lightness and joy.

And Julie,” he said before I walked out, “I’d love to walk with you and your husband through your next embryo transfer, if that’s okay. At the very least, I can pray for your baby.

Tears sprung to my eyes.

Just a few days later, I received an email from my fertility clinic notifying me that my remaining embryos were being transferred out-of-state to a storage facility. I cried in disbelief and anger. How can they just take my embryos away without even so much as a phone call? These are my babies! 

I sucked in a breath, remembering my priest’s words. “Commodities.” My embryos were merely commodities to my clinic. Now, I saw the Church’s position on IVF in a different light. Now, I understood Dignitas Personae’s insistence on keeping procreation out of a lab. I could even forgive its harsh tone. After all, these are human lives at stake. 

My Heart Yearns Both for a Child and to Follow Catholic Teaching

To be honest, I still feel a bit confused over IVF. Some days, IVF doesn’t seem like such a big deal. If Jesus walked the earth today, would He really dissuade us from using technology that is literally lifegiving? After all, God is the ultimate creator, and if having children isn’t a part of His plan, then IVF won’t circumvent that. Are those opposed to IVF like the Pharisees in the Gospels, wagging their fingers and looking to enforce rules without thought to one’s heart? And, what if my embryo transfers had worked? Wouldn’t the birth of my own child make the whole journey worth it?

But on other days, I feel confident that IVF is not something God wants us to do. Playing with the creation of life is just too delicate for us humans to dabble in. It reminds me of Eve wanting to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Are we like Eve, trying to achieve something that was never intended for humanity to achieve? I am also reminded of Jesus’s warning in Matthew 7:15 to beware of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.”

All I know is that IVF unsettles me. Please pray for me and all couples walking through infertility. May my desire for you, God, be greater than my desire for a child.

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