Treading on Sacred Ground

The White House has confirmed that President Obama will sign an executive order today (Monday, March 9, 2009), lifting the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, according to CBS/AP News. Immediately, scientists will begin applying for research grants from the National Institutes of Health. The President has said that “all research on stem cells [will be] conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight” and that cells will be obtained via informed consent of the woman or parents involved.

I have never written publicly about the subject, though I have a strong objection to embryonic stem cell research. I have written for twenty-five diocesan newspapers and other Catholic venues, sharing aspects of my conversion story with over 800,000 readers. But I have only shared this part of my life with one person, my husband. I find that I can no longer keep my memories to myself.

It was a Monday about this time of year when my husband and I drove to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis for the final stage of the in vitro (IVF) process. It had been a long journey of shots and hormones, and we had already decided that we wouldn’t try a second time if this round of IVF didn’t work.

It was 1998, and our mounting frustration with IVF had nothing to do with faith and morals. We weren’t Catholic at the time (I converted in 2005 and my husband in 2008). We were just two Evangelical Protestants who wanted a baby. Our faith tradition didn’t have a position on IVF, and we assumed it was morally and spiritually acceptable. And so, we believed we had two options. I could reverse the tubal ligation (which I had elected to have in 1987 when I was still in a troubled first marriage). Or, I could try IVF.

I chose IVF. If I could make the decision all over again, I would choose to have my body made whole again through the reversal. Even in 1998, as the process unfolded, my husband and I began to have doubts about our choice. I didn’t expect the hormonal roller coaster ride that goes along with IVF. And I wasn’t ready for the ethical questions that we would face before the lengthy process ended.

We arrived at the hospital that day, and I was prepped for embryo transfer. We had three fertilized embryos that had successfully developed. Two other embryos had stopped dividing and were no longer considered viable. Out of some thirty eggs, that was all we had. We weren’t given great odds. Most couples had “left overs” that they chose to freeze for another day. We had three embryos. Three little babies and this one day.

I put on a hospital gown, and my husband and I walked into the surgery room. Later that day, we would talk about how quiet the room was, and how the lights were strangely dim — for a surgical room. We talked with the doctor and technician for a minute, all in hushed voices, and then they asked if we would like to see the embryos in the microscope.

It wasn’t anything like college biology class. This microscope was quite different. I remember wanting to see the embryos that I already considered my babies. I already felt a great love for them, something I can only describe as maternal instinct. I walked over to the microscope and peered inside.

At first, I couldn’t make out anything. Then, I saw them. Three little embryos, all lined up vertically. It is a moment that defies description.

I remember the silence that fell in that room — even the doctors, how quiet they were. While the medical professionals would probably never admit it, my husband and I knew that we had just tread on very holy ground.

My husband and I talked about it later. We had come face to face with the earliest moments of our children’s lives. We had peered into something that only God should see. We didn’t deserve what blessing might come despite our serious sin.

And yet, God did bless us. Some might say that we got what we wanted. A precious child. Why turn around and criticize the hand that helped in making that happen?

All I know is that there were so many compromises that we had to make, so many decisions we never should have had to make — and I could have avoided all of it, if I had made rightly-ordered decisions in the first place.

Our daughter is a gift from God. Every child is a gift from God, no matter the circumstances of the baby’s conception. But every child deserves to be conceived by God’s holy design. And every child has the natural and moral right to a mother’s womb. Most IVF embryos are denied this most basic right. Most are frozen and forgotten. With today’s Presidential decision, embryos will be subjected to scientific manipulation and destruction, and your tax dollars will fund the “research.”

President Obama once joked that defining when life begins was “above his pay grade.” Evidently, he has decided that he does in fact know when life begins, that it isn’t above his pay grade at all, because he continues to make decisions that one would only make if he knew precisely when life begins and when the soul enters the body — and that he has come to the conclusion that this great event doesn’t occur at any point in human gestation.

God help us as we try to reclaim a Culture of Life, one little life at a time.

Denise Bossert


Denise Bossert is a convert and a syndicated columnist. Her column has been published in 60 diocesan newspapers. She attends Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri.

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  • wgsullivan

    I would argue that President Obama and the doctors know exactly when life begins. Their experimentation would not be successful if their subject(embryo) was not alive. When the subject dies they are discarded. If they’re (embryos) not alive when the process begins the procedure would be pointless.
    Hitler would be proud.

  • Denise,

    Thank you for sharing a heartwrenching story. The world needs a witness like yours so that we can stop thinking of embryos as objects–your story humanizes them.

  • goral

    “all research on stem cells [will be] conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight”
    The words of our inept president.

    President Obama once joked that defining when life begins was “above his pay grade.”
    He wasn’t joking!

    When you put these statements together as you could do with any of his statements, what you get is ineptness squared.

    Yes, we have a leader and his cohorts who are marching in muddy jackboots right into the sanctuary and to the applause of many in the pews, I might add.

    Yes, I realize that of equal importance is the counterweight of them fixing the economy for the sake of the poor; fixing healthcare for the sake of the poor; creating a more just society for the sake of the poor.

    No, poor us (we). Be prepared for more obaminations.

  • “My husband and I talked about it later. We had come face to face with the earliest moments of our children’s lives. We had peered into something that only God should see. We didn’t deserve what blessing might come despite our serious sin.”

    I’m sure you must realize the sin was not in the looking … the looking was a kind of grace, for it gave you an opportunity to contemplate the seriousness of your actions. And in the contemplation, to express the lesson in words that even now may change a life.

    “[God makes] all things work together for good…” the Scriptures tell us. By walking as closely as possible to truth, we spare ourselves untold heartache. And yet, in our failures we often catch an unforgettable glimpse of the mercy of God.

    We were made for love, to participate in the divine and creative love of God. But for every true and good gift, the evil one conjurs a deceptive counterfeit. Your story shows just why the Church is right to speak against these kinds of assisted reproductive technologies. The cross of infertility is both real and painful … but perfect love always works according to God’s design, not our own.

    Heidi Saxton
    Extraordinary Moms Network

  • Pingback: Treading on Sacred Ground « Extraordinary Moms Network()

  • Know them by their fruit.

    Revelation 12:12
    So be glad, heavens, and those who live in them! How terrible it is for the earth and the sea, because the Devil has come down to you, filled with rage, knowing that his time is short!

    Death death death! The fruits of Obama.

  • If, by claiming that “when life begins” is above his pay grade, Sen. Obama meant to suggest that he did not have the authority to define the beginning of life, that was an admission of humility, and fitting.

    I don’t think that is what it was. He was trying to dodge the question, “Do you know when life begins?” And by claiming that such knowledge was above his pay grade, he demonstrated beyond any doubt that he is not fit to govern.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that governments are instituted among men to secure those rights, the foremost of which is the right to live.

    If a man does not know when we the people begin living, or claims that it is not possible to know this, then he clearly lacks a core competency to safegaurd our lives, which is the foremost responsibility of government.

  • Claire

    Beautiful article. And very necessary.

  • perusha

    Wow! Thanks for writing this article. I have a similar story and just want you to know that I totally understand the hesitancy to write about it. As I penned the comments below, I stopped several times asking Jesus how much detail I should give. I asked the question, am I writing this to help me in the healing process, or am I writing this to maybe save someone else from making a grave mistake? Maybe both are true. Here is my some of my story. I hope it isn’t too long.

    My husband and I began the process of IVF in 2003 after six years of unexplained infertility. My husband and I are cradle Catholics and knew it was against the Church’s teachings. But when you are staring age 38 in the face and your insurance company is willing to cover most of the cost, reading about the process didn’t seem so harmful at the time. I promptly took the role of Eve and listened to the serpant, while my husband stood by silently and partook of the apple, as well, without a fight to protect us. (Can you tell that I have since been through the Great Adventure Bible Timeline with Jeff Cavins?)

    It had taken three years to conceive and have our daughter in 1997. I’ll never forget going to a talk by Ralph Martin at a local Church and being prayed for at the end of the evening. I told them about our miscarriage three months earlier and how we wanted a baby. I told them that if it wasn’t God’s will for me to be a Mom, then I asked for the grace to not be afraid. So these two people put their hands on my head and prayed for three things. First, for the baby that I had miscarried. Second, for the miracle of conceiving a child. Third, for me to not be afraid if God did not want me to be a Mother. I simply cried as they prayed. The next week, my husband and I conceived Angela and I was pretty sure it was a miracle. She was named Angela because of a conversation I had with God in church back when I was in about the sixth grade. I don’t remember who initiated the conversation, but I always knew that if I had a little girl, her name would be Angela. I think the priest had told us a story of St. Angela at the completion of Mass that day and it really struck a cord with me.

    When she was six months old, we started trying for another baby. Six years and lots of prayer went by. In the meantime I had been a youth minister, left the workforce as an IT manager for the Dept. of Justice, attended at least six retreats and was currently the president of our parish pastoral council.

    But as age was becoming a real factor and the insurance coverage was available, we justified IVF by saying that we would respects life 100%. We rejected the GIFT process where extra embryos can not be frozen and therefore destroyed. We made the decision that if we ended up with extra embryos, we would go back and give every one of them a chance at a full life. We would not give them to research or adopt them out. If we had to get nannie’s, then so be it. We had been blessed with financial security, so that was our thinking as we went forward. We even thought having me assist my husband in the sperm donation was a way we could get around him not having to self stimulate. We were so careful to not look at any of the videos or magazines in that donation room. Who were we kidding?

    Looking back now, we were so arrogant. I guess we figured that the cross of infertility was so bad that we deserved to try to lift ourselves out of it if God was not going to answer our prayers. I can identify with Sarah having Hagar sleep with Abraham and conceive Ishmal. How we humans like to take things into our own hands and usually end up messing things up pretty good.

    It was Good Friday, 2003 when we had the eggs harvested. Originally, they saw about 20 eggs but when they took over my system with the shots to boost egg production, that day they retrieved one from the left ovary and five from the right. We, too, were offered a look at our three embryos. Rather than by microscope, it was in a photograph that we still have. I can totally identify with your feeling like we were seeing something that was not ours to see. We felt very lucky that we did not have to freeze any embryos.

    Our day of implantation was Easter Sunday of all days. In my arrogance, we spent the 30 minute wait (in the hospital) before moving saying the 15 St. Bridget prayers that you are to say everyday for a year, which I had been saying for months already. I even did the Novena of 9 First Friday’s consisting of Mass and confession in a row during the nine months of my pregnancy.

    After Good Friday services, I went straight to the confessional to tell our priest how I hated to be going against the teachings of the Church and told him about the three embryos that would be implanted in a couple days. I know I didn’t see where I was sinning at that time, but it was very important that I was upfront with God and our priest. Since I didn’t ask for forgiveness, I guess that kept our Priest from having to tell me that I wasn’t absolved. Down deep, we both knew I wasn’t.

    It was much later while reading a very thorough article that explained in detail everything that is wrong with IVF that I finally began to realize why there is no legitimate “Catholic IVF” process. That article explained that to invite a third party into our Marriage and the process of conceiving a child at that level was wrong. IUI’s and IVF both crossed the line of having a third party involved.

    It was 2007 that I returned to the confessional asking for Mercy from God because I then totally understood the sin I had committed.

    I know I have been forgiven, but I still wonder about a lot of things. I wonder how much of this I should share or keep from my son as he grows up. I wonder how it will affect him to know that he was conceived in rebellion to our faith. I wonder what example I showed to my daughter who was seven at the time and far too aware of what was going on. I wonder what it will take to get my husband to fully understand why IVF was wrong and the Church is right in its teaching. I feel bad that my husbands co-worker has now done IVF twice since we did IVF and I figure our example was part of her decision to go forward with IVF. I pray for the courage to go and talk to her about all of this now that I know the truth about IVF but ask for the grace to discern God’s will in this and not just a cleansing of my conscious at the expense of theirs.

    On a larger scale, I don’t like the direction our country is taking with Obama and his decisions about life issues. On a small scale I pray daily for these and many issues facing the world. I know God has a plan to bring us from an age of disobedience to an age of obedience. I know this is a time of Mercy and not judgement. Now is the time to reach out to everyone with the truth of his love and mercy. I am willing to do my little part to help souls turn back to God. I hope this helped a few souls in the process.

  • elkabrikir

    I can share the truly beautiful story of a humble couple who accepted God’s Will for their marriage and humbled themselves to live in obedience to the church teachings on fertility issues.

    My friends conceived their first child several months after marriage during the use of NFP to avoid pregnancy. None-the-less they rejoiced. About a year later they began to try to conceive again, to no avail. They never considered any immoral means to add a child to their family. Never.

    Six years later they began the adoption process, concurrently praying for a miracle for my friend’s 40 year old sister who was dying of ovarian cancer. A miracle was granted: my friend conceived a daughter shortly before her sister’s death. The child was named after her deceased aunt.

    Fast forward, 13 years. My friend has never conceived again. She has 2 biological children and 2 through adoption. Her faithfulness through the suffering of secondary infertility has blessed me immensely. In fact, I believe her witness has been a vehicle of grace for me to persevere in giving birth to and raising 11 children. I honor her and God through my sacrifice of love.

    St Paul says “yet while we were still in sin, Christ died for us.” ” We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

    Still, it is possible to remain faithful and holy. Too many Americans cry “ignorance” or “special circumstances” or “the ends justify the means……in my case.” Few are held accountable. Not being Catholic is NOT an excuse to sin. Truth is inscribed in the human heart. We all have intellects and have a duty to form our conscience. This decadent culture gives a pass to mindless living. Sinful behavior is the fruit.

    Unfaithfulness in the most sacred of all human relationships, marriage, began the free fall. Acceptance of contraception was the first external sign of a rotting culture. Few of us have the standing to preach to others. We are not pure. “Perusha”, hopefully through your beautiful testimony, somebody will listen to you and learn from your hypocrisy and selfishness. More than likely, at this point, many would say, “you got yours, now leave me alone.”

    Praise God for my friend because “while I was yet in sin” He placed her before me. Her faithfulness opened my eyes more than any lament.

    Be holy as your father in heaven is holy.