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. DVSDen

    Get out of the Middle Ages, people! Humans have been on the earth reproducing without the assitance of invisible cloud beings for 100,000+ years,. You think the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, etc who lived in the most advanced cinvilzations of their times had any problems figuring out how babies came about? No, they prayed to their own fertility gods and seemed to do alright. All this "children are a blessing from god" is funny if you ask me: There are billions of people on the earth who do not believe or have ever even heard of the Hebrew god Yahweh, or whatever people are calling him in 2011. Did god bless those couples in communist China or Hindu India that are filling up the planet with children who can barely survive?
    As far as IVF goes, my wife and I are pursuing it ourselves due to endometriosis and we both come from large devout Catholic families. If the Cath Church has a problem with our creating a life thru IVF, then they should stop asking for our $$.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  2. terri

    I find it offensive that a couple would go through IV and have yet another child when their are millions of abandoned and orphaned children in this country that need a home. I don't know if maybe some people have just not noticed, but we have an overpopulation problem all over the world. We are depleting our natural resources, and people are starving everywhere. and then we have selfish people who come along and just want to add more.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Bananarama

      So this applies to people who can conceive without help, right? Because surely you're not painting infertile people as selfish for wanting to have biological kids while people who have it easy are exempt from this judgment. Using your logic, every child born is contributing to the population problem, not just those who are conceived with assistance. This would make every parent selfish. Right?

      May 10, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  3. Kay919

    I have very little pity for this couple. They strongly supported the Catholic church, an organization of hate mongers who put great time and effort into systematic discrimination and bigotry, and then have the nerve to pout when that organization chastizes their choices as immoral? The church arbitrarily considers many acts or situations immoral – and what goes around comes around. How do they think the large numbers of people they (as members of the church) dismissed as immoral have felt all along?

    Beyond that, how will having the church officially reassign their choices out of a moral grey zone and into the formally declared realm of "morality" change anything in terms of this family's relationship with god?

    I am glad they have a beautiful healthy daughter, and that they had the financial resources to invest in IVF, and of course that they were willing to give the other family such a precious gift so selflessly, but I hope they are able to see this situation as an opportunity for personal reflection upon the organiziation they have chosen to be members of. If it doesn't feel good when people treat you badly – why would you ever choose to join them in the mistreatment of other types of people?

    May 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  4. Kimberly

    Life is created by God and God creates each and every soul. What part of this is hard for Catholics and non-Catholics to believe. Scientist are playing God in creating life, does this IVF child have a soul? God did not create it, man did. I also wonder if this family is still receiving the Sacrament of Communion, because if they are they are committing a grave sin of sacrilege. Do they not realize that they are committing the sin of blasphemy by questioning the Church on Doctrine, questioning the Church authority, it appears to me that this person knows nothing of his Catholic faith nor has any interest in knowing the truth.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Bananarama

      Are you actually saying that babies born through IVF do not have souls?

      May 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • KC

      ALL IVF children do have souls.... including many that didn't make it

      May 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Bananarama

      Let's be clear–scientists aren't creating life. Nature is creating life enabled by science. If life is not meant to happen, no amount of scientific intervention can change that fact.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Suz

      Wow. It's because of narrow-minded bigots like you that I will be careful to reveal that my 3 children were conceived via IVF. Man does not make an egg and a sperm combine, it's nature and biology that does that. And honestly, there is NO control man has over if you will be successful from an IVF cycle or not, that part is truly up to God, Yahweh, faith, destiny, or whatever it is you believe in. Millions of children have been born this way, and to say they don't have souls is the most horrible thing I have ever heard. To say we are selfish is to say that all parents are selfish.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      If the IVF child doesn't have a soul, wouldn't that invalidate the entire argument against the procedure?
      If you stipulate that zygotes created outside of the human body have no souls, then there is no loss of life!

      May 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  5. Fran

    Is anyone looking at the picture of this happy family and THEN posting negative comments? the world needs more loving families, rather than the ones where the kids are ignored and abused. I am Catholic, but not a robotic follower, and your famliy has my support!

    May 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      That's right – the world needs far more loving, stable two parent families. Which is why gay couples should be allowed to get married and adopt.
      Ooops! That idea isn't very Catholic, is it?

      May 10, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  6. timd

    Church is good for creating and fostering community but that's about it. It goes bad when you start bringing dogma into it. In light of the international and still unfolding pedophilia scandals, why anybody would be want to take the Cathoic Churches word on anything is beyond me. I mean look what the Catholic Church did to Bill O'Reilly. Father Flaherty touched him and now he's a hostile, self-loathing, closet h0m0.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Reality

      Actually, Catholicism/Christianity is based on the embellishment and "mythicized" life of a simple preacher man aka Jesus. For example based on many contemporay and thorough reviews of his crucifixion, there was no trial for Jesus. The following update of the Apostles' Creed is summarizes said studies:

      The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated and based on the studies of NT historians and theologians during the past 200 years)

      I might believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven.

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
      ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


      May 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  7. David, CA

    @ Thinking7- don't believe in magical incantations? what do you think a priest whispers when the bell rings and the bread is turned into "flesh" and the wine into "blood" ?

    May 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  8. Cherries

    They should just adopt.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  9. Bananarama

    1) re: the egg argument–a woman is born with as many eggs as she's going to have throughout her life. They die on a regular basis anyway–why not use them to try and create a life?

    2) Religious dissent is not always a bad thing; it's how organized religion changes and evolves. Anyone who blindly accepts every teaching of any religion without thinking for him or herself is a lemming, and is not contributing to moving that particular religion forward in a meaningful way.

    For the record, I am currently an IVF patient, and have a hard time giving any weight to opinions of those who have not struggled with infertility. You think you know what you would do in these shoes, but nobody does until the situation arises.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  10. Judith

    I couldn't agree more with Laurel. If you are Catholic, be Catholic, not hypocrites.
    Also, I saw the Dateline special on this family and I have never been more unimpressed by people in my life. Inconcievable is right. And selfish. They already had three children, and they act as if not having a fourth is like a death to them. I suggest they go to an infertility support group meeting and see real pain, hear from those that cannot have a single child of their own and cannot afford years and thousands of dollars of fertility treatment to get even one. Then I would suggest they go home, change religions and shut up.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  11. WMPSBL3600

    Unless you are one of the people who have been told you cannot have children without the help of IVF, you have no rights to judge! And last I checked it is no ones' job to judge except God. My adorable son is a wonderful addition to this world, and who knows, one day may be the smart one who finds the cure for infertility. Without IVF he would not be here and the world would be missing a very happy boy.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Suz

      You took the words right out of my mouth, Thank you. I look at my daughter's face and I know that one day she will make the world a better place - and she already has.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Alicia

      The Church would NEVER say that your children aren't invaluable or unworthy. But the process of IVF destroys life in vast greater numbers than it sees come to fruition. The "take home baby" rate of assisted reproductive technology is not good. Far too many women go through multiple unsuccessful cycles before having one baby, if any. Those lives aren't important it seems. But it's just another case of the end justifies the means.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • John

      umm he beat my son up at school yesterday, i wouldnt call him nice

      May 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  12. FoxtrotBravo

    Reality Check: If you are infertile, there's a reason. And when everything else in your life goes wrong, you will thump your bible and claim that your God knows best.. but why not with this reason? When basically, you shouldnt be FORCING yourself to do something that is natural and in turn creating offspring who will most likely ALSO need assistance much like yourself. It is not a "RIGHT" to breed. Its a natural process. And if it isnt natural to you, then do not perpetuate your inferior gene pool by forcing the issue. This is one time I wish those with this faith idiocy, really would just stay on their knees ineffectually praying instead of actually doing something.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Bananarama

      Yes, there's a reason. A medical reason. That can often be overcome with medical intervention. Where exactly did you get the idea that infertile people have an inferior gene pool? Additionally, there is zero proof that indicates that IVF kids will have trouble conceiving.

      Do a little research before you start spouting off idiocy as fact.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Why not take it to next logical level of eugenics?
      If you have any type of genetic abnormality that might in some way be a detriment to offspring, don't breed!
      If you have severe asthma, don't use an inhaler or a respirator – God made you defective and you have to live with it! In a proper world, your parents would have scanned their genomes to see if they would have potentially inferior children and you'd never have been born!

      May 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • FoxtrotBravo

      @ Bananarama how very awesome of you to get up off of your knees long enough to attack me, personally. Refreshing as always when you holy folk spitter and sputter.. I see you didnt address the issue of your ineffectual prayer and your god apparently having made you unable to do what nature intended. IVF, and continual interference on these issues has not yet been around long enough for the research you so desperately need for the obvious.

      @Doc Vestibule
      Pathetic to curse someone when you cant spitter sputter any better an argument than your other praying folks. Weak stock breeds weak stock. Deal

      May 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Kate

      Reality check: There's nothing natural about the computer or the internet that you used to post this.

      Uh-oh! Quick! Log off before you offend a deity!

      May 10, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  13. Kittykat

    Possibly the only thing I actually agree with the Catholic church is their position on IVF and other methods of fertility treatments. If god, mother nature, or whatever you believe in don't want to reproduce, may be you shouldn't. I have volunteered with children that need foster homes or adoption and it is heartbreaking. I wish more infertile couples give adoption a chance. These beautiful creatures are growing up neglected, unloved, with no self-esteem. It simply is cruel to try to bring another life to this world when so many are lingering in foster care.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • ClaytonR

      I wish more PEOPLE period would give adoption a chance. We did and are not infertile that we know of. It was the best thing we have ever done!!!! Adoption is an option.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Suz

      Like I said, until you know someone close to you that is diagnosed as being infertile or you yourself are told you are infertile, you have no idea what it's like.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  14. KC

    I'm not Catholic and I oppose IVF. There is a reason why people are infertile... God made you THAT WAY. If you see nothing wrong with creating numerous embryos that die in hopes one or a few makes it, then God made you infertile for a GOOD reason.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      if everything in life is predestine...then why even bother?

      May 10, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Suz

      So by your logic, if I am born with a congenial heart defect, I should do nothing about it because that's the way things are?


      May 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  15. anobody

    Simple solution really – Leave the church and don't look back. Where was the church when you needed their support? You have sacrificed for them and look how they support you in your time of need. Time to put childish fantasies to rest and live a pragmatic life.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Mary - Alta Loma, CA

      Well said.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  16. Scott

    Incredibly selfish. Church rule stands in the way of what you want. Follow the rule or break it? You made the wrong choice.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Mike

      Unlike Government, the Church imposes its will on no one. What's the penalty for not obeying or leaving the Church? Anyone can disagree with the Church's teaching. It's just illogical to do so AND still call oneself a "Catholic."

      May 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Robrob

      Yes, God forbid you give a child a loving home.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Silly

      @Mike The church excommunicates you.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Mike

      @Silly, exactly my point. The "penalty" for disagreeing with Church teaching is not being considered a Catholic. That's a logical deduction not a punishment.

      May 11, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  17. mattmchugh

    The soul resides in the genome.

    I wish Catholic bioethicists would just come out and say it. The unique spiritual connection of human beings to the Almighty is a direct result of a particular sequence of nucleotide base pairs. It's what the Vatican believes. Why are they reluctant to phrase it thusly?

    It sounds no sillier than any other bit of Catholic doctrine.

    - mm

    May 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  18. Bob

    Imagine, a religion imposing silly, primitive rules on its adherents ...

    May 10, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • ScottK

      Imagine, a God who supports miscarriages, unwanted pregnancies, birth defects, pregnancies that risk the mothers life and pregnancies from r a p e, but does not support a loving couple who want to use IVF. Talk about sadistic...

      May 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Artist


      Imagine, a God who supports miscarriages, unwanted pregnancies, birth defects, pregnancies that risk the mothers life and pregnancies from r a p e, but does not support a loving couple who want to use IVF. Talk about sadistic...
      He is a twisted mf likes watching children being r a ped and killed. But DO NOT MESS WITH THOSE EGGS!!!

      May 10, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Silly


      May 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  19. Jesse

    A: The Church has a right to do whatever they it wants to do, as long as it's in keeping with dogma. B: If you don't like it, leave it C: Who the hell are you to decide the Church's teaching on this is incorrect? D: Luther among others already gave you a nice little option for a place to exercise your faith...if you want to protest the Church, join up with the Protestants – they would love to have ya! And when you decide you don't agree with your local denomination over whatever issue you are sure to have, you can start your own new schismatic denomination! How nice.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • David, CA

      How "christian" and typically catholic of you Jesse; snide, hateful, and arrogant. Exactly why the RCC and holier than thou people are on their ways to becoming irrelevant dinosaurs.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Kimberly

      I could not have said it better Jesse! Thank you! I'm a traditional Latin Mass Catholic who has infertility issues and my husband and I didn't run to an IVF Dr. we also wanted a large family. These things are not in our control, but in God's and it is through God that I'm thankful for my 10 year old son and 22 month old daughter conceived the good old fashion way and they were created by God!

      May 10, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • David, CA

      @ Kimberly- well congratulations that by sheer blind LUCK of the genetic draw that all your "parts" were in working order and able to have children "the old fashioned way". How arrogant of you to assume that your way is the only God approved way to bring a child into the world. I guess you just have the psychotic need to feel superior to everyone else. You can snidely "thank God" for your kids all you like and imagine you are better than this family that had to resort to IVF, but facts are their children are no less human, no less important, and certainly no less valued than your own.
      Get over yourself already.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  20. Laurel

    I feel no sympathy for this couple. FInd another religion if the Catholic faith doesn't appease you. I'm sick and tired of people trying to force the church to adopt THEIR views. I'm sure the Methodists or Episcopalians would welcome you with open arms. Give me a BREAK!

    May 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • David, CA

      I'm sure the Taliban would LOVE you.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Callie

      Maybe some people have strong values and beliefs that aren't just switched over night, and they would like to help others with the same kind of faith a chance to be accepted by the church they were raised with.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Happy Mom at Last

      I agree with you. Too many people spend their lives trying to change a religion that doesn't care what they think and will never change. If you are unhappy you do need to look at another religion. I'm always amazed at how many people say "I love the Catholic Church, but disagree with most of its teachings." What exactly do you love then?

      We left the Catholic Church and are much happier for it. Life is to short to be part of a religion that you disagree with most of the time.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Brent

      Moral relativism isn't going to solve this couple's problem. Simply joining a church (note: lowercase c) that rationalizes the killing of life isn't going to suddenly make things ok.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • gottagit@gmail.com

      Agreed!!!.....the holy Roman Catholic Church upholds this purest of all religious doctrines. If one decides to pick and choose which tenets of a religion that "fit in" with their lifestyle, then there is no religion. This silly, slf centered man can't even see the contradiction of his thoughts. He aught to be excomunicated. He no no Catholic

      May 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Mary - Alta Loma, CA

      Well, I am glad that we can all have an opinion. I am also glad that the force I believe in gave me free-will and a good mind. As such I think for myself and answer to no one but that force who through what ever means, gave us our world and my beautiful children. I left the and of Catholic Voodo many years ago. I often wonder how any thinking individual can permit him/herself to believe in/answer to anyone other than thine own self!

      May 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
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