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My Take: Catholic Church should reverse opposition to in vitro fertilization
Carolyn and Sean Savage with their kids.
May 10th, 2011
09:28 AM ET

My Take: Catholic Church should reverse opposition to in vitro fertilization

Editor's note: Sean Savage is coauthor of "Inconceivable: A Medical Mistake, the Baby We Couldn't Keep, and Our Choice to Deliver the Ultimate Gift" and a cradle Catholic who lives in Sylvania, Ohio, with his wife and three children.

By Sean Savage, Special to CNN

According to the Roman Catholic Church, the only moral route to conceiving a child is through sexual intercourse. As a Catholic, I find the church's position to be discriminatory against couples who have medical conditions that prevent them from conceiving in that manner.

I never intended to challenge the church when my wife and I pursued in vitro fertilization in an effort to expand our family after a decade of unsuccessful infertility treatments. We loved our two boys and we'd always wanted a big family. After a successful IVF procedure in 2007 brought us our daughter in 2008, we tried again so that we could fulfill our commitment to give every embryo we created a chance at life.

When a fertility center made a critical error by transferring another couple's embryos to my wife, we were thrust into an unusual pregnancy and eventually found ourselves at the center of an intense media storm. On September 24, 2009, the day Carolyn gave birth to a very loved baby boy, who was immediately turned over to his genetic parents, the Catholic Diocese of Toledo released a statement to The Toledo Blade condemning IVF as "morally unacceptable."

Because we were the focus of the news, we felt as though the diocese was really condemning us.

The statement hurt Carolyn and me tremendously. We had hoped for the church's support and prayer on one of the hardest days we've ever faced.

Carolyn and I have always believed in our stewardship responsibilities to the church. I'd given thousands of hours over the years to coaching youth through my local parish, have raised funds for Catholic churches and schools and have given charitably to church causes. Carolyn had dedicated her career to teaching and working as a principal in Catholic schools.

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Instead of support, the church branded us in a very public way with the apparently shameful letters IVF. Why couldn't the church recognize our journey for what it was - an affirmation of the sanctity of life? Their negative response motivated me to look closer at the issue.

I believe there is an ethical path a couple can take when pursuing IVF and I ask the Roman Catholic Church to consider adopting a new doctrine that provides moral guidance for Catholic couples on how to do so.

While I share many concerns with the Catholic Church about abuses within the science of IVF, I disagree with a number of points the church makes on the issue. The church spelled out its stance in Donum Vitae, a 1987 doctrine on biomedical issues released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - an office then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratziner, who is now Pope Benedict XVI - and in 2008's Dignitas Personae, another influential church document.

The original doctrine states that "even if it (IVF) is considered in the context of 'de facto' existing sexual relations, the generation of the human person is deprived of its proper perfection; namely, that of being the result and fruit of a conjugal act." Dignitas Personae echoes this position by stating "human procreation is a personal act of a husband and wife, which is not capable of substitution."

I am personally opposed to the intentional destruction and discarding of unwanted embryos and understand why this is condemned by the church. But to state that a child born of IVF is less perfect than a child created through sexual intercourse is absurd. Is the church truly claiming that our beautiful and innocent daughter, conceived through an IVF procedure, is somehow "less" because of how her physical life began? In her, Carolyn and I see God's precious creation.

Of course, the creation of a child through a conjugal act is the preferred method because it is the most natural, least expensive and least stressful. But that shouldn't mean it should be the only acceptable route to conception.

What about Catholic men and women who have legitimate medical conditions, like endometriosis, which Carolyn has and which caused infertility despite efforts at surgical intervention?

Carolyn and I would have been happy to save thousands of dollars and a decade of emotional ups and downs by conceiving the "old-fashioned way," but that wasn't possible. We turn to medicine for a litany of medical maladies and impairments, but infertile Catholics are supposed to avoid treating a medical condition which prevents them from building or expanding their family?

Yes, adoption is a wonderful option for the couples who decide it's right for them, but adoption should never be forced on anyone.

The Donum Vitae doctrine also states that "in vitro fertilization is in itself illicit and in opposition to the dignity of procreation and of the conjugal union even when everything is done to avoid the death of the human embryo."

The term "illicit" has such a grave connotation and to use it in this context seems quite out of place. Should a couple that seeks a child through IVF, and that does so with a commitment to allow every embryo a chance at life, be considered to be participating in an illicit activity?

The most perplexing and pejorative language from Donum Vitae is that "marriage does not confer upon the spouses the right to have a child... the child has the right, as already mentioned to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents and has the right to be respected as a person from the moment of conception."

Babies born of IVF are here because their parents loved, respected and longed for these children well before conception. These children could not get here through the conjugal love of their parents and it took a very deep love, respect, and commitment to pursue the medical treatment needed to conceive through IVF. There is no doubt in my mind that God is working through loving parents and ethical doctors to allow these children to come into this world.

Now for the ironic in Donum Vitae: "Scientists are to be encouraged to continue their research with the aim of preventing causes of sterility and of being able to remedy them so that sterile couples will be able to procreate in full respect for their own personal dignity and that of the child to be born."

So although there are solutions for sterile couples today, those should not be sought because they are outside of the conjugal act? If Carolyn and I were to wait until the scientific advances described in this statement before pursuing additional children, we would not have our daughter - or the opportunity to welcome two more children into this world this August.

If science can advance to the point that all procreation can happen within the confines of the conjugal act, that would be incredible. But what do couples do while waiting the years and probable decades before these advances come to fruition?

The challenge for the church is to see the beauty in the science and that there is a path within IVF that is worthy of God's grace and approval.

The church's presence in this field could help limit abuses and disregard for human life through advocacy, education, and support. Perhaps it could provide counselors as couples pursue IVF and face many technical and nuanced decisions. And maybe the church could help couples navigate even more complex situations, like embryo adoption.

Carolyn and I were victims of the worst IVF mistake on record. But we remain proponents of the science and understand the good that is done by God through ethical physicians in this industry. We value and support the sanctity of life, even if it's created with the help of IVF.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sean Savage.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Opinion • Pope Benedict XVI • Sexuality • Technology

soundoff (1,281 Responses)
  1. Amanda

    Asking for understanding or acceptance from the Catholic Church is like asking the world to stop turning. You're hoping for nothing and are ridiculous for just now realizing what a joke Catholicism is as an organized religion. You have dedicated your life to the religion of hypocrisy and double standards.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  2. plain folks

    The catholic church will adopt this change at the same time that they will allow preist to get married and women to become preist.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Jesse

      Celibacy is a practice of the church, not a dogmatic teaching. That may indeed change. The ordination of women, on the otherhand, is contrary to dogma and will not change. IVF involves the inevitable distruction of fertilized eggs...if it is ever determined beyond a shadow of doubt that a fertilized egg is actually not life, it the teaching may change as well. There is no dogmatic statement saying IVF is wrong...there are however dogmatic statements that the termination of life is wrong.

      May 10, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  3. Mario

    Human life begins when an embryo is properly attached to the womb. Until this happens, the embryo is not a human being. This is the cuurent approach in science. Moreover, and just be sure, Jesus Crhist was not the product of a conjugal act

    May 10, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  4. Julie

    I think the Catholic Church should be more concerned about priests abusing children than condemning couples who need to use IVF to have children. I think the IVF is a gift from God. Priests abusing children and the Catholic Church transferring these priests from parish to parish to hide their problem is one of the worst sins. I'm sure God would agree.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Jay

      I agree with you about the abuse scandal. It's shameful and it is a blight on my Church. I wish there was a way to properly atone for it, to truly make it up to the victims. I also feel badly for the wonderful priests out there who would never harm a child but are now stereotyped because people judge them by the Roman collar they wear.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  5. Doc Vestibule

    Typical silliness from the people who brought us the "sin of onanism".
    A zygote is not a person – it is merely a potential person.
    Should we stop using toilets since we're circ.umventing God's will by preventing the seeds passed in our stool from germinating?

    May 10, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  6. amy

    what a great article. I am a Catholic mother and we conceived our daughter using IVF. My husband had cancer as a child which gave us little chance of every naturally creating a child. God truly blessed us with our daughter and how she became is still a gift from God.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  7. Summer819

    Well written. We too struggled to conceive our first child, but in the end, didn't have to turn to IVF. Still, having seen a close friend go through this process, it's heartbreaking that the Catholic church condemns it. I am not Catholic, but I did struggle with using medicine to try to conceive, wondering if it just wasn't meant to be. If we couldn't conceive on our own, wasn't this a sign? Eventually I got past that. It seems to me if God did not intend for a couple to have children, no matter the route the couple took, a pregnancy would not occur.

    God bless your family, the little boy your wife has given birth to and your two little ones on the way. Not just anyone would be able to carry a baby to term and hand him over after birth. You are truly amazing people.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  8. Rachel

    Unfortunately, the writer of this article does not understand the Church's teachings. Way to go CNN for allowing yet another uneducated criticism of the Catholic Church. *Sigh*

    Children of IVF are not inferior. No where in the Church's teaching does it say that. Their method of conception was inferior, but that doesn't affect the dignity of the child. In fact, the Church's teachings are trying to preserve the dignity of the child by not letting it be created in a petri dish. It deserves to be created in the physical act of love of its parents. But no matter how it is conceived, are children are valued equally.

    The Church is right... no couple has the right to demand a child. Children are a gift, not something that we can claim as our right. The power of procreation is an awesome power... God has given us the ability to create new life with our bodies. It is unfortunate that for some this ability is diminished, but it doesn't mean that we can usurp God's creative power and try and create children artificially.

    For a long time, society has been increasingly separating s*x and procreation. Now we don't even see the connection. That's why the issue of IVF is directly connected to the issue of birth control. You cannot forcibly separate the two.

    The author says that they are against destroying embryos. What do they think happens to most of the embryos created for IVF during implantation? Most don't implant, and those children are lost. You just created a child to then let it die.

    Infertility is heartbreaking. It is one of the worst pains possible. If a couple, in their desperation, uses IVF, then I don't judge them. They are acting out of pain. But I'm not going to say its right. I'm not going to say that the Church is wrong on this, because we don't change moral teachings to make ourselves feel better.

    No one is forcing adoption on these infertile couples, but why not adopt? There are so many children who will never know the love of a family. 4,000 children are aborted EVERY DAY. Why are we spending thousands of dollars to artificially create new babies?

    May 10, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Ms.W

      Well said!

      May 10, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Julie

      It's people like you who are a danger to society.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Dan

      You think everything that happens is God's will and we should accept that. Why did God give us science and a brain and resourcefulness. Maybe to help ourselves and make things better for everyone.

      Also you said Church's teachings are trying to preserve the dignity of a child. You also say IVF method of conception doesn't affect the dignity of the child. Now which is it. Please stop your double talk.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Jay

      "The Church is right... no couple has the right to demand a child. Children are a gift, not something that we can claim as our right." so well said!!!

      May 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Alex

      Rachel, very well stated.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • kathleen

      Rachel - Thank you for stating the Church's position so eloquently. Nicely said.

      May 23, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  9. Michael

    Sean:

    You and your family certainly deserve compassion here. As a fellow Catholic, I hope the Lord gives you His grace to bear the cross of infertility. Also know that I am sure many have prayed for you and your family and perhaps even your bishop, who was likely well-intentioned to avoid confusion on the issue but missed the mark on compassion.

    While I think you make some very lucid points, I have to disagree with a few. Though I am no theologian (and would defer to them on the subject), Donum Vitae does not seem to suggest, as you put it, that an IVF child is somehow "less perfect" than a child born naturally. Instead, it is "the generation" of the child that is "deprived of its proper perfection." The marital conjugal act is love-giving and unites the man and woman as one, as God intended. Introducing a third party simply breaks that unity. I highly doubt the Church or anyone for that matter would consider an IVF child less perfect. Indeed, the Catechism says that all people have equal dignity and value in the eyes of God.

    Also, even if one commits to avoid the death of the human embro, it is hard to deny that IVF is "in opposition to... the conjugal union". It is that which makes it illicit, not I think as you state, "a commitment to allow every embryo a chance at life" that is illicit. Such a commitment is not only morally right, but a moral obligation. In any event, I respect your opinions and wish you the best.

    The USCCB has some guidelines on these issues here:
    http://www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/nfp/treatment.htm

    May 10, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Todd

      "conjugal union"... It's just an ejaculation.
      Whether you ejaculate into a cup or a warm membrane, it really doesn't matter; the result is the same.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Dan

      How can anyone confidently say that IVF is "in opposition to... the conjugal union". That is a loose interpretation at best. Maybe you should pray to God some more on that one.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  10. USA401

    The Churh needs to change its views on everything.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  11. Hard Topic

    I am truly amazed how many people are willing to write some very thoughtless ideas. Is it that you can blog behind the safetly or your doors?
    First, many women miscarry..it's a know fact. There is a big difference between a woman that miscarries a baby vs. a woman that aborts a baby. Two totally different ideas. As for those that feel Adoption is the answer...keep this in mind. Not all people want to adopt. I am adopted, but when it came to starting a family I really wanted children of my own. I wanted that connection. For me adoption was not something I wanted to do. No one and I mean No one should be codemned because they choose to have children of their own, no matter how those children come to be. So it's time for you to get of your high horse and realize this is a story of one famil's views and faith journey.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Ms.W

      What I read is "I want" "I want"..... this is where the problem lies for me. We care more about "our wants", then God's will.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  12. *SIGH*

    If you are Catholic, you must accept the Pope as the hand of god. In other words, the Pope is your god. Live with it happily, or find a church that is in line with your beliefs if you are not going to accept Catholicism in full and just piece meal.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Dan

      Sounds like another brainwashed Catholic. I got news for you. The Catholic church has made mistakes and continues to make mistakes. Following the Catholic leadership blindly and without question is not why Jesus and our Lord gave us a heart and mind. Wake up. By the way I am Catholic.

      Also there are many Priests who don't agree with the Catholic leadership on many topics. Thank God for them. They expand the discussion. This is healthy and not harmful or dissension.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Jesse

      Nah, Catholicism states the Pope is the pontif of the Church, the leader...not that he is always infallible or correct. There have been plenty examples of pope's messing up on theology etc. You may be confused with the concept of "ex cathedra", dogma, and the teaching authority of the church.

      May 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  13. David

    Oh my....talk about a heated topic. I don't think hearts will be changed on this site. But God heals all hearts through time. As a husband and father, I have not expireanced what Carolyn and Sean have had to go thru. My heart goes out to them. While the church deals with many issues, issues concerning faith and morals are where the Church cannot error. I am saddened when I see Catholics challenging their Church on issues of faith and morals in the public arena. I have heard and read way too many stories similar to this one that challenge the teachings of the Church on issues of faith and morals. We all must be careful what we say, how we say it, and who we say it to. In reading the article, when personal desires and wants come into conflict with the teachings of the Church, it seems like words and meanings are given a slant towards justifying our own personal views. The Church has held stead fast through many ages and many issues. Many have come and gone, many are still on the horizon. I pray that we all look into our hearts to follow not what we want, or what we think is right, but what is right. We must be careful not to let what we say lead others astray. The Church is our Mother, who leads and guides us. It is not easy, but in the end it will be oh so comforting. May we all pray for Gods mercy , guidance and understanding.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Dan

      David is somehow assuming that the Catholic church is always right and people shouldn't think for themselves. David is wrong and that is a very dangerous position to take. The Catholic church has so much baggage going back in history. How can anyone think that the Catholic church has moral authority over all Catholics.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Patricia - Virginia

      Now let me get this straight. The pope is the absolute authority on matters on faith and morals. Who says so? The pope? And he must be right because he's the ultimate authority. This ex-Catholic can't buy that. The Bible - inspired by God - makes no mention of rights and wrongs in the conception of a child, or the prevention of conception, i.e, birth control. Nor by the way does it mention anything about celibacy of the clergy. God gave us His 10 commandments, written in stone with His own finger (the only thing that ever was btw). Any other rules are man-made. "And we ought to obey God rather than men." Acts 5:29

      May 10, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • christina

      how childish. i hope our species evolves to a point where we don't need to believe in fairy tales to function, or feel secure. there is probably (and very probably) no god or gods. so maybe we should stop perpetuating ignorance and move forward a little....

      May 10, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Jim

      Roman Catholics are taught that the church is the ultimate source of morality, as the sucessor to Jesus. It is one of the central tenants of the Church, and is probably the largest difference between the Roman Catholics and Protestant faiths.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  14. Ieat

    Invitro is complicated. What if you out in 4and end up with 4 and the doctor said you have to abort 2 to be safe. Church is against that too. Not to mention there are plenty of kids waiting to be adopted. I get why you want to have iv, but I get why the church is against it too.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  15. C

    Just do whatever you think is best. Most of the "catholics" in church are there because they don't want to be talked about..."so and so wasn't in church this weekend.." I would rather be a decent person 7 days a week than 1 hour a week. If stem cell research developed a cure for cancer, I would bet the "catholics" would be some of the first in line for treatment.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  16. Jamie

    Thank you for sharing your educated, well-expressed opinion. In a perfect world, couples won't have to choose between their church and their desire to build a family.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  17. What about

    I just really dislike the fact that people overlook the truth of alternate paths for women to have children. One in particular is the surrogate Sarah used to conceive her first son with Abraham. That childs destiny is irrevelant but the point I am making is that children can be conceived in non traditional manners and have been for thousands of years. The Catholic church has no business in such a private affair as with conceiving a child. As long as the Catholic Church is assisting parish priests evade conviction for raping children, it has NO MORAL AUTHORITY at all!!! And anyone who believes they do has been spiritually brainwashed!!

    May 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  18. Rick Labus

    Not surprising the church would condemn you. Anything that is seen as advancing science is a threat to the church and their believers. Simple reason is that the more they know and learn the less likely they are to attend and support.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Patrick

      "The Church has nothing to fear from the progress of science" -Pope Pius IX

      May 10, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  19. BigQuestions

    The real issue with IVF is defining when life begins. If you believe that life begins at conception, IVF essentially results in the creation of many children, most of which will die before they even reach the womb (IE, many embryos do not survive thawing). If you believe that life begins at some other point along the path of pregnancy, you have started down a slippery slope that is used to rationalize abortion etc. This is a very difficult issue that my wife and I have struggled with and we have compassion for everyone else that is faced with these decisions. Ultimately we decided that we cannot set an arbitrary point when life begins and as such, couldn't go through with IVF. It was a very tough decision given our desire to have more children.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Blaise Pascal

      A great many pregnancies, just as IVF embryos, end. At weeks 1-2 of pregnancy, women do not know they are pregnant, and some estimates are that over half end in a tiny miscarriage unbeknowst to the mother. I don't recall many funerals for multi-cell embryos, or miscarriages for that matter.

      To suggest that IVF is in opposition to the conjungal union is an embarrassing display of irrationality. The conjungal union ain't working for the apparently biblical guidance to go forth and multiply. People can have at their conjugal union until they are blue in the face or otherwise.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Eric

      If you check the scientific research, you will see that most "naturally" conceived embryos do not survive either. I can't find an exact figure, but I have seen estimates that 50, 75, even 80 percent of naturally conceived embryos do not survive to term. Most of the time, a failure to properly implant in the uterine wall or an error in early cell division results in a spontaneous miscarriage, often before the woman has any idea that she is pregnant.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  20. Charlie

    I also want to thank you for your article. As the catholic parents of a beautiful boy conceived through IVF we also feel blessed by God and in no way do we feel that we did anything wrong. The Catholic Church should understand that it is not only science involve in the process, but the blessing of God.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • christina

      what about your understanding of science? i think if you were more scientific with your outlook on catholicism in general, you may draw some conclusions about how ridiculous the religion is period.... magic man in the sky? talking snakes? all powerful but yet allows terrible tragedies such as world hunger and AIDS and perpetual violence.... and he needs your money. a little fishy?

      May 10, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Really?

      Atheists are so simple... I suppose your world is black and white? You can't see it so it doesn't exist? I suppose oxygen doesn't exist either then? You know, a magic molecule that exists in the sky? I bet they will try to tell us that trees, which clearly do not think or move or do anything of the sort produce oxygen.

      In the end this is no place for a God exists or doesn't exit conversation, don't attack someone's faith just because you don't agree with what they think to be true. God can not be proven, or dis-proven with the tools we have so it is impossible to have a "logical" argument for either side.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • BRC

      @Really?
      Your argument is weakly based. I cannot SEE oxygen, but it can be easily detected and measured. Any readily available oxygen sensor can give me an accurate percentage by volume of the oxygen in the air around me. I have never heard of or seen a God sensor.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
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