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. khen

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    January 22, 2014 at 1:46 am |
  2. Moshe Mammo

    Endometriosis is typically seen during the reproductive years; it has been estimated that endometriosis occurs in roughly 6–10% of women.Symptoms may depend on the site of active endometriosis. Its main but not universal symptom is pelvic pain in various manifestations. Endometriosis is a common finding in women with infertility,.*,

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    June 20, 2013 at 7:21 am |
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    January 15, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  4. Anthony

    After the Embryos are placed back into the mother it is all up to God. The most brilliant IVF experts will tell you that they do not know how the body chooses and they can't explain why the body chooses or disregards embryos. As our doctor said, once I put the embryos back, I am giving them to God to choose because there is nothing I or you could do to make this pregnancy work, it is up yo God. I have lived it. Just because embryos are fertilized and returned to the mother it does not mean that there will be a successful pregnancy or they will take to the mother.
    The Catholic Church is wrong. When that child is born, smiling, and answering to their name, you cannot tell me that God didn't accept the means of bringing them to life. They were born as one of God's children. If God didn't approve then they wouldn't be here. And if it comes down to it, like any other loving parent, I would give my life in this world or the next for my daughter born from her natural mother assisted with IVF. I understand the Catholic church's stance on remaining embryos, had I known, we would have been more considerate of the remaining embryos, for that I must make my peace with God.

    April 14, 2012 at 12:59 am |
  5. Consistency is Key

    Condemnation of IVF is consistent with the Catholic church's other teachings. If the Church condemns artificial means of contraception even for married couples, it's consistent to condemn artificial means of conception as well. I'm sure it's incredibly painful for couples who are struggling to conceive naturally to have to also struggle with this stance. Similar to how painful it is for Catholic women who need to be able to use birth control for the sake of their health, but aren't permitted to by their community.

    February 10, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • AP

      Catholic women who need hormonal medication for reasons other than contraception are absolutely allowed to do so. However, if they are married and would normally be fertile (i.e. pre-menopause) they would have to abstain from conjugal relations to avoid the possibility of conceiving a child that would not survive due to its inability to implant in the uterus. This is naturally not an issue for single Catholic women, living chastely, who can use hormonal intervention to legitimately treat medical conditions.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  6. Don Duston

    I bet the Catholic Church will not turn away donations from all the "sinners" that go through IVF and I am sure they will gladly baptize and confirm the children born by IVF, as they are future money-makers.......the Catholic Church will always gladly look the other way as long as you give them the cash.

    December 29, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • thepracticingcatholic

      Are you Catholic? Clearly not...

      January 24, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • carol

      There are doctors in Catholic hospitals that perform fertilty treatments and the church takes that money. Your wife carried a a baby and when you found out it was not your biological child your handied that baby over with grace. That is beautiful.
      My Catholic church would not even let us do a small fundraiser to help a little with our adoption expenses ! Joseph was not there for the conception of Jesus and it was his love for Mary that allowed for their survival. It is sad to hear that the church hurt your family. If they had an issue, it should have been discussed privately with you.

      February 6, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  7. Fred Shaneybrook

    Wow, I had no idea the Catholic Church had this stance. And while not perfect, I thought I was I good catholic. My first child was born thru IVF after exhausting all other medical treatments. My son is now a senior in highschool (a Catholic High School) and has recently come to question why we send him there if they(the church) doesn't recognize him as a person....i am as confused as he is.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Rusaphy

      I hear ya Fred. I underwent 3 rounds of IVF and am currently (miraculously) 3 months pregnant. I was raised catholic, and I'm disillusioned by the church's stance on this. How can I baptise my baby into a religion that would prefer he/she not exist? I've lately taken a hard look at the church's views on several subjects and realized that I don't agree with a lot of it, like women's rights, birth control, molestation coverups, etc. Maybe the catholic church and God aren't all that in sync after all.

      February 6, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  8. Ramona E Martinez

    What is wrong with a church that does not believe in this process of birth. I would not have two beautiful great-grand-children if my granddaughter had not put her life on the line to have children. The Catholic faith, my family has had over centuries comes to an end not because we turned our backs to the church, but the church has chosen to turn it's back to two beautiful babies. How can one be baptize in a church that does not believe you should exist?

    September 25, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  9. ceewhy

    This is ( embryo mixup) is only one of the situations that in vitro conceptions could precipitate. They talk about the church playing God– it is really medicine who play God who play with vulnerable people who are hard-headed, unfortunately.

    August 3, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  10. Equideadasupe

    Complex Post. This post helped me in my college assignment. Thnaks Alot

    July 6, 2011 at 5:18 am |
  11. Rachel

    Just because you want children doesn't mean that it is what is going to happen. You should just let God's will decide. Just because we can have abortions does not mean it is God's answer to prayers against unwanted pregnancies. It is not your choice to make. You're doing something completely unnatural. It is unfortunate that you didn't conceive earlier without IVF, but you have no idea what could have happened with prayer. And if God decided not to give you the gift of a child then it is just another hardship that you would have had to deal with like other hardships everyone else is dealing with.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Susan

      Can we assume you are against ALL medical treatment for yourself, your family and others because people should let god’s will decide? Do you tell other people who undergo any other medical treatment that they are doing something “completely unnatural” By using modern medical treatment? Do you suggest that since god decided not to give someone the “gift” of clear sight, easy breathing, or being tumor free, then it is just another hardship they have to deal with (and they have no idea what could happen with prayer-so don’t undergo ‘un-natural’ medical interventions)? I suspect your stance is a hypocritical one and you don’t eschew all medical treatment for all diseases in favor of letting gods will decide, I suspect like many your stance is only thus if it affects the reproductive organs.

      November 23, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • Michelle

      Wow! I can't believe how incredibly insensitive you are? Do you have children? Did you have any difficulties conceiving them, if so? I am a practicing Catholic, as is my husband, have been married for 10 years and struggling to have a baby for the past five. I pray more than you know for God to help us in this process, to give us guidance on what is the right thing to do, and help us through this difficult time. We have family and friends praying for us all of the time. I realize that life isn't always fair, but if I have a chance to have a family, who will be raised Catholic regardless of what the church believes about IVF, I deserve a chance as much as everyone else. Infertility is a disease, and I unfortunately have this disease. Are you saying that someone diagnosed with cancer shouldn't seek treatment, but suffer, pray and let God's will be? I refuse to sit back and be miserable waiting for him if there are other options. Unbelievable!

      January 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • IVF Dad


      Do you have children yourself. My guess is yes. God blessed you but in my case my wife was stricken with cancer in her teen years and forced to have a hysterectomy as a teenager. That was gods will we know but would it not also be Gods will that we not be sucessful in any manner we tried.

      It is easy for you to say you must go with the will of God and it's our cross to bear when you have children yourself and never have to deal with those issues. If you follow the lord's teachings one of those you should remember is that only God can judge so why don't you get off of your moral soapbox and await your judgement day. I will go to my judgement knowing that I have been abloe to bring two beautiful souls into this world who are loved by their parents and family, that will live a heathly and blessed life.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Rusaphy

      I love all of these replies to Rachel's insensitive comments. The only thing I can add is, "God helps those that help themselves." He sure did for me. After 3 rounds of IVF, I'm currently 3 months pregnant.

      February 6, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
  12. LaVallette

    I want it. It therefore must be right. The Church must change its teaching!. Just think that through. Look at what has happenned to the mainline protestant churches on the bais of the same principle: The Episcopalians, ELCA, even the Baptists.

    May 24, 2011 at 4:54 am |
  13. Jude

    I'm pretty sure Jesus has forgiven you, or will if you will accept it. Another huge part of forgiveness is forgiving yourselves. You do not need to justify what you have done. We are all dirty. That's why we need Jesus Christ so much. I ask you to consider another of the hundreds of denominations of Christianity available to you in this great country as you journey to a better understanding. Your objection to Catholic doctrine causes me to question your authenticity as a self declared Catholic. Cafeteria Catholic you are, perhaps. (It takes one to know one) it is not easy to be Catholic. Check out that nasty comment from the jack-hole about your sons and jack-hole being a priest. The fullness and sensitivity of this topic is completely compromised and trivialized in this format. CNN... please. Just another indicator of the lowness/illness of our "culture". Your wife's uterus is national news, and you opted for that. Christ have mercy, especially for those in most need of Thy mercy. Including me especially. Peace be with you all.

    May 23, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  14. Kira

    This is so ridiculous- all these people saying that it's reasonable to believe that Christ wouldn't condone procreation "outside the marriage act". Wrong. Christ wouldn't condone procreation outside of MARRIAGE. However, this couple was clearly in this together- clearly still had a strong marital bond, but because of a medical problem, the "marriage" act didn't work for them to procreate. IVF allowed their joint genetic material to create a beautiful child. My husband and I (Christian, not Catholic) used infertility treatments as well. Our doctor ENCOURAGED us to continue to have intercourse because it helped us feel like a team (as opposed to just me and the doc) through the process, and it reduced stress- both helpful in the conception process. I'm certain God thinks my 2nd child is as valuable as the first- who was conceived naturally. How absurd to think otherwise!

    May 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • joantheark

      Really Kira? The Jews had some pretty strict rules about spilling seed Jesus was a Jew and he came to fulfill the law not abolish it. So what makes you think Jesus would be so cool about procedures that require a lot of speed spilling as well as a lot of frozen and freezer burned embryos?

      June 1, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Rusaphy

      In response to Joan, I underwent 3 full rounds of IVF and never had any embryos frozen. I wish I had. I simply didn't have enough eggs to begin with. What you don't understand is that IVF necessitates taking a whole slew of shots for weeks – up to 4 per day – to make enough eggs mature. I was one big bruise from the shots. Then, you have to go through the egg retrieval procedure where the doc shoves a long needed into you to suck out the eggs. Not exactly painless. And then you bite your nails for the next several days hoping at least one gets fertilized and survives to be transferred into you. If you're lucky enough to have any transferred, then you go through several more days hoping one implants. If it doesn't, then you need to start the process all over again. But – if you have some embryos frozen, then you can skip over the shots and retrieval. Unused frozen embryos don't have to be destroyed, you know. They can be donated to other couples whose eggs/sperm are low quality so they, too, can experience the miracle of life. Maybe study up before you go shooting off your mouth next time.

      February 6, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  15. Kira

    I'm glad that as a Christian, I belong to a religion that allows for infertility treatments. I was lucky to conceive my first child without medical intervention, but due to various health factors, I would never have had subsequent children without infertility treatments. Thank God for inspiring scientists and doctors to develop a means for me and my husband to "multiply and replenish" as we wish to do.

    May 22, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  16. Greg

    Try to look past the church and their judgement of your choice. Ultimately it's just you and God. Christ died for your sins long before the Catholic church existed and while the Catholic Church and all Churches are ultimately good and beneficial parts of our society they are only man and man does not know. Miracles happen everyday and IVF just happens to be a miracle that God allowed man to discover after a lot of people prayed for children.

    May 17, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Dawn

      Actually Greg, Christ did not die "long before" the Catholic Church existed. The Catholic Church was created at Pentacost, when the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles. This was the fruition of Christ's own promise that the men he'd chosen to lead his church would be given the power to "bind in heaven what is bound on earth and loose in heaven what is loosed on earth." And don't forget that part about "forgiving sins," given expressly to HUMAN agents.

      May 17, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • WiserThanEwe (not a sheep)

      Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today. –Lawrence Krauss

      May 22, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  17. HANK

    Typical cathlic church for ya!!!!!hipocrites as usaul

    May 16, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • thepracticingcatholic

      Look, I've struggled with infertility for about a hear now...took us 7 months to get pregnant the first time and we miscarried our first child (so a year and seven months of trying and no baby that's here with us) ... However, we are practicing Catholics, and will not eve do invitro or go the surrogacy route...

      You have to be open to the truth and have a correct order of love in your life to understand the Church's teach, which, by the way, is a teaching of love. The mindset that we have the right to have children (in stride with the mentality that we have the right to contracept and decide definitely when we do not want to have children), is a very SELFISH mindset and a short-sighted one.

      Don't call me insensitive or say I can't relate – I want to have a baby more than anything...I've dreamed of being a mom for as long as I can remember, and I come from a large Catholic family (as does my husband) with lots of nieces and nephews and sisters in law who are all having babies all the time. I'm very happy and pray constantly for the many many women around me who seem to get pregnant without even slight difficulty, who have been contracepting for years, who were even planning on getting pregnant...and I ask God WHYYYY?!? WHY WHY???!!!! And I sob and bawl my eyes out because, as anyone who has struggled with infertility knows, you have such a deep aching and longing in your heart for a child that you can barely stand it...

      But then I remember – suffering has a purpose. I am personally going through my suffering for a reason and God loves me (so much that he gave his life for me) AND ultimately, our purpose for being on this earth is to prepare us for heaven...If you are Christian, you have to believe that!...Jesus never said bad things don't happen to good people. In fact, he suffered immensely, as did his followers. To think we can have a child just because we want one is selfish and short-sighted. We have to acknowledge that we are NOT God ...Yes, take clomid and do anything you can to help your body/your spouse's body work as it should and be fertile...but don't cross the line. Actually spend some time reading what the Church teaches, again, in love – Donum Vitae, Humane Vitae, Evangelium Vita, Dignitas Personae...with an open mind (You wouldn't characterize yourself as close-minded would you? How small-minded to think that the way you think and understand is the right way...). Listen what the Church and God have to say...And know that people who don't even know you, like myself, are praying for your strength and hope and faithfulness ...

      January 24, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
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