Infertility: A Silent Epidemic and Growing Pro-life Concern

An infertility “epidemic” now affects one in five US couples with difficulty achieving or maintaining pregnancy. After looking forward to the blessing of children, my wife Marie and I were surprised to find ourselves in the infertile group. When we consulted doctors, most of them casually recommended “In Vitro Fertilization” (IVF) or “test-tube babies” without even investigating or attempting to treat the medical problems preventing conception.

An astonishing 100,000 IVF pregnancy attempts are made annually in the United States alone, usually involving more than one embryo. The vast majority of such babies do not survive the unnatural thawing and implantation procedure. Currently in the USA 500,000 tiny children are in freezers awaiting eventual use, and 50,000 more join them each year. In Croatia, HLI’s Dr. Antun Lisec claims that more babies die from the “fertility industry” than by surgical abortion.

Catholic couples experiencing the pain of childlessness and pressured by medical doctors can be tempted by IVF even though effective moral means exist to combat infertility without the health risks of IVF to babies and mothers. How can we cooperate with the lucrative industry that treats children as objects to be produced in labs, subjected to “quality control,” experimented upon, and in most cases discarded? Modern methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP) have helped many couples to conceive by determining the most fertile times in the wife’s cycle. Diagnosis and treatments for conditions causing infertility are available from outstanding specialists like Dr. Thomas Hilgers of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Nebraska.

Catholics are blessed to have Donum vitae, also called the “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation”, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, explained in Donum vitae the moral illicitness of IVF, surrogate motherhood, and experimentation on human embryos. This magisterial instruction is available on the Vatican website, and it is likely that another document addressing newer fertility techniques and ethical questions will be published soon.

Most of us probably know married couples unable to conceive or who experience problems in having additional children. Understanding and compassion are essential if we wish to reduce rather than compound their suffering. Infertile women report similar levels of emotional pain as those diagnosed with breast cancer. Hence we should take the time to learn which statements tend to open wounds and which heal. For example, questions about the underlying reasons for infertility can be painfully perceived as motivated by curiosity rather than empathy. Family and friends should avoid impatience with the grieving process that can be quite long. My wife has recorded a powerful talk discussing these and other important aspects of infertility.

Infertile couples must learn how to overcome destructive temptations such as falling into self-pity, “avoiding the cross” through a stoic attitude, anger with God, or envy of others. Since infertility is something of an “emotional minefield,” those wanting to help should reflect carefully before offering advice. As a general rule, it is better to allow the couple to raise the topic. Listening with understanding and sensitivity to the cross they are carrying is a beautiful way to witness to God’s infinite love and desire that we help others achieve their most fundamental human needs (cf Mt 25, 31-46).

Our modern world lacks respect for human life on a most fundamental level. The commonly promoted solution of IVF for infertility illustrates this cultural depravity. Clear Church teachings and authentic moral alternatives are available, but few are aware of these life-affirming resources. In closing, I would add that the Lord’s greatest gift to us is spiritual fatherhood or motherhood. This is true for the priesthood and religious life, but also for some lay people in God’s mysterious plan. Let us rise to the challenge as bearers of the Gospel of Life.

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  • slbute

    Could the fact that 62 million people have an STD in the U.S. have anything to do with the rampant infertility problems?

  • Claire

    Maybe it could, slbute, but your comment totally ignores the point of this article, which is to promote support toward infertile couples so that they are less likely to give in to temptation to utilize technologies that disrespect life. Some couples are infertile for reasons other than STDs; you could at least show some compassion toward them.

  • http://www.christianword.com Heidi Saxton

    For those interested in rescuing one or more of the child-embryos currently in existence, go to http://www.nightlight.org/snowflakeadoption.htm.

    I’d also like to respond to the first commenter from a different perspective. As Catholics, we believe that the story of salvation is one of redemption and grace. The fact that one or both partners have contracted an STD (often men are carriers without showing symptoms, and can pass along their disease even if the couples abstains until their wedding night) does not disqualify them to participate in the call to bring life into the world, or to be good parents. Through NFP and other authentically Catholic methods of diagnosis and treatment, many couples can and have experienced healing from the past.

    Speaking as someone who is unable to achieve or sustain pregnancy, I can also assure childless couples that God calls ALL women to some form of motherhood, whether that be biological motherhood, adoptive motherhood … or extraordinary spiritual motherhood. That yearning that you feel was placed there by God, and He is the one who orchestrates the circumstances of our lives to bring it about.

    My adoption blog “Mommy Monsters” (http://mommymonsters.blogspot.com) offers a list of “Top Ten Articles on Adoption,” including a prayer for waiting parents. I sincerely pray that you will open your hands and hearts, and allow God to redeem the grief you are now feeling by channeling that love and longing by leading you to a child who needs you NOW. God bless you!

  • http://www.anthonyschefter.com prairiehawk

    I know a woman who is considering IVF, but I don’t know her well enough to open a conversation. But I understand she is in a very painful situation and I want to help. Please PRAY for those who are considering a procedure like this one. Children have a right to be born in the usual way.

  • merrylamb2001

    We were only marginally infertile, in that we managed to eventually have two full term pregnancies and raise two children. However, I remember the couple of years where we first could not achieve a pregnancy and then had our first pregnancy end with a ruptured fallopian tube. I still think about the years after my daughter’s birth when even when we were open to life we did not conceive. My cousin had first a miscarriage and then a ruptured tube. She was never able to have a baby of her own. One of my college friends has two adopted children because she was unable to conceive. None of us ever had an STD. My cousin married when she was under 25, I married at 26. Right now one of my daughter’s friends who was a virginal bride, is trying to achieve a pregnancy so far without success. She has had to sit back and watch the friend who married two months before her bloom with pregnancy, while she is having difficulty conceiving. Conception is in God’s hands, although doctors can give legitimate help, and correct information is important. None-the-less the inability to conceive or having great difficulty doing so is a source of pain that women have felt clear back into Biblical times. There isn’t always a clear explanation and sometimes the explanations a couple gets indicate that the problems were things like a retrograde uterus, hormonal problems, or a low sperm count. Granted our current culture’s delay of marriage, use of hormones, and sexual habits before marriage may be a factor in some cases. However, to assume that infertility is someone’s fault is truly not helpful. Infertile couples need support and encouragement not blame.

  • Claire

    Thank you, Merrylamb. I fully accept responsibility that in my case, infertility was likely due to marrying at 35 (which was probably my fault because I lead a less than Christian lifestyle in my 20s). However, I know many women who as you say are infertile despite being chaste and marrying young, or marrying older by no fault of their own.

  • MMary

    It is sad that infertility seams to be a growing problem, what ever the reason. My DH and I went through a little over 3 years of being unable to conceive, I sit here now almost 12 weeks pg and very excited and happy about our future. But in those three years we heard numerous times that we should try IVF because it worked for so and so. If we mentioned that we didn’t think that was for us, we would get comments that if we weren’t doing everything possible that not having children must not really bother us, or disbelief that we would allow our church to control our medical decisions. As Catholics we need to support couples making the decision to follow the churchs teachings, we need to talk about the number of unborn children IVF creates. As people we need to be careful in our words to couples about when they *want* to have children, I could never understand why my coworkers thought they had the right to question me every time there was a wedding or baby shower at work about when I might *want* to have a baby. Want has nothing to do with it. Some infertility is caused by our choices or life situations (my struggle may be linked to meds I took after heart surgery as an infant) whats important is how we handle this struggle. God forgives us for those past choices when we ask, (although its often harder to forgive ourselves) and He and all the saints are with us we make or future choices.

    Prayers to all struggling with this,

    Mary

  • mraiello

    With every case of STD, there is a 10% chance of permanent sterility. And so many STD’s are silent. We must tell our teenagers and young adults to abstain from premarital sex. And it is MANDATORY that our priests and bishops preach this from the pulpit.

    But for those people who are infertile through no fault of their own, they should investigate NaPro technology, pionered by Dr. Thomas Hilgers from the Pope Paul VI institute in Omaha, Nebraska.

    This has offered hope to infertile couples without going the IVF route.

    He also has trained many physicians in this technique so there may be a practicing physician in your area.

  • Claire

    Those couples who are infertile due to previous repented sin could certainly also pursue naprotechnology.

  • wgsullivan

    Ditto on the touchy subject to introduce. Any suggestions on how to direct friends who have dabbled with IFV and strongly opinionated family that sees opposition to IVF as narrow-minded and uncaring?
    One other thought brought to mind from Fr. Corapi. A less politically correct word to use rather than premarital sex is fornication.

  • Claire

    I have this issue with my family. My brother and sil conceived my niece, who I love dearly, via IVF. She was one of 18 embryos; 16 are currently frozen, and the 17th was transferred along with my niece but ended up miscarrying. My family is very anti-life, and when I point out to my mother that it’s just the luck of the draw that my niece is here with us rather than one of those other embryos, her response is that those embryos are not yet people because they don’t have a consciousness! Her own grandchildren, and she shows no consideration for their lives. Recently a colleague conceived triplets via IVF, and has 10 frozen embryos, and I’m expected to congratulate her and act all excited. I’m afraid if I do that, I’ll be giving the message that I condone what she did, but I also don’t want to be critical of a pregnant woman or get in trouble at work. I just tried to congratulate her in a low-key way, and subtly asked about the “extra” embryos. Luckily she resigned right after announcing her pregnancy. One colleague for a while kept giving me updates on her, but she knows how I feel about IVF, and after a while she got the hint that I don’t want to discuss it, so it’s been a while since I’ve heard an update.

  • homeschoolmom

    Is the snowflake adoption a valid option for Catholics? I assume that this process involves the same technology as IVF. I ask as a person having fertility issues but wanting more children.

  • Claire

    Homeschool Mom,
    Embryo adoption (the snowflake option) is one of those grey areas. Until the Church makes a determination, Catholics are allowed to utilize this technology based on their own consciences.

  • Robbie J

    I know a number of couples (4) who have conceived using IVF. In 3 out of 4 cases, the children have had serious or re-curring illnesses and/or developmental issues. The most serious was a 10 year-old boy who developed an extremely rare type of cancer and died. Needless to say, his parents were devastated. I wonder if any extensive studies have been carried out to determine if IVF conceived babies are more at risk than naturally conceived babies.

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