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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. CM

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

    Way to dismiss the most obvious and Christian solution without any sort of logical reason or rationalization. Instead of taking in one of the millions of poor, unwanted children all over the world, your narcissism lead you to insist that after you ALREADY had two fine boys naturally, you must spend thousands to ensure that YOUR glorious genes proliferated. God forbid any of that fortune you've amassed go to the poor and struggling or (gasp) maybe a minority foster child. No... it is much better applied to test tubes so your lily white miracle can be born just the way you (not God) want it.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Bananarama

      Here's what I don't understand. Why do someone else's reproductive choices bother you? It's none of your business. And you're certainly presuming a lot in this post that I bet you're not actually privy to, such as this couple's motivation for conceiving through IVF.

      I could sit here and speculate that you're an uneducated hatemonger based on your post, but I wouldn't have all the facts necessary to make that judgment. Only you know whether that's true. The same holds for this couple and the way they handled developing their own family.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • DL

      CM,

      As a Catholic, and a parent of an IVF baby, thank you. You make the best argument. It is something I have thought throughout my time battling with my faith and my desire to be a father. What made me go through with it is exactly what you said.... if God didn't mean for me to be a father the IVF never would have worked because God has total controle.

      DL

      May 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Tova

      Why must everything turn into a racial battle?
      First, plenty of white children are up for adoption.
      Second, I'm an in vitro baby from a donor egg. Both of my parents are white but chose - gasp - a Hispanic woman's donor egg!
      It's not about wanting a 'perfect' baby. It's about the most biologically basic instinct - wanting a child (yes, it is biologically true that we want our OWN children)

      May 10, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • CM

      I'm not Catholic nor a minority. I'm just sick of listening to these Christians whine about being treated unfairly by their religion. Your church is so important to you? Then don't do IVF. Oh, it's not THAT important after all? Get a church that more accurately reflects your beliefs. It's not like one is any better than another.

      And I have issues with other people's choices when they affect my choices. Unnecessary medical procedures drive up costs. There's a shortage of doctors in the US and it's a shame so many are abandoning needed practices to give rich folks their dream baby or dreams boobs.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Bananarama

      First, plastic surgery and reproductive encocrinology aren't even in the same ballpark.

      Second, if you want to blame people for driving up medical costs, blame people who are obese and who smoke. The percentage of people doing IVF is nothing compared to the people that we all support through high insurance costs, who have brought poor health and high medical bills upon themselves.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • CM

      Don't worry, I have the same words for the obese and smokers. But every little bit helps. And IVF and plastic surgery are identical to me. Neither is necessary for the health of the patient, both are simply chosen because the patient thinks the procedure will fit their lifestyle. It's just another sign of our ever-growing cultural narcissism, along with reality tv and twitter.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Bananarama

      CM, obviously, I disagree. You can't possibly know the motivation of every single couple going through IVF, and it's arrogant to assume you do.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • CM

      DL,

      Fantastic approach to religion! I'm going to go murder somebody. If God doesn't want me to do it, he won't let me succeed. I can choose to do whatever I want and the fact that I achieve it is a sign God wanted me to do it!

      May 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • CM

      I suspect I know the motivation of 99% of IVF seekers... they want a kid. I doubt anyone would argue that. My point is that rather than finding out they've not medically able, instead of building a bridge, getting over it, and moving on with their lives by possibly taking in a child or two that has no place else to go, they decide that their genetic material is so uniquely valuable, they will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (raising my premiums because it's all insured and the insurance industry sure isn't going to take the financial hit) that could have gone to sheltering and raising a very needy child.. all simply to ensure that it's their fluids making the baby instead of someone else's. This is especially evident in this case, where they admittedly already had TWO children with no need for IVF.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Bananarama

      There's a lot of room between "medically unable to have children" and "able to conceive with help." That's what you're not getting.

      Additionally, adoption is simply not a viable financial option for many people. IVF is.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • CM

      Which is again, a sickening indictment of our cultural narcissism and outdated notions. Viagra is covered but birth control isn't. IVF and boob jobs are covered by insurance, but get cancer and you get dropped. Millions of unwanted babies... so we spend money making sure the financial middle-class can get the kid designed the way they wanted (with THEIR genes) and shuffle the rest through two decades of foster care and failing schools until they're old enough for us to just lock them up for life and sleep well by convincing ourselves they were just worthless criminals given too many chances. You never gave them one. You opted to make sure YOUR genes lived on at their expense.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Bananarama

      Um, no. I am creating a family in the way the current system allows me to.

      I'm still not sure why it's the job of infertile people to adopt all of these needy children. Your argument really shouldn't be confined to people looking for alternative ways to become parents.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • CM

      It's not just on them, but IVF is the poster child of this narcissism. I think it's reckless for people to have large families in general in the modern world, natural or no. If you want a child to raise, adopt one. But IVF is like treating a cut with salt and lemon juice. We've got a problem, so you rush to make it worse.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Kate

      Actually, there are NOT millions of poor unwanted children available for adoption.

      You clearly have never tried to adopt.

      There are indeed many, many poor and unwanted children. The sad fact is that most of them are not available for adoption. Not in the U.S., and extremely rarely in other countries. Only a tiny handful of countries even permit foreign adoptions, and then typically only a few thousand a year after extensive hurdles. Ironically, the worldwide demand vastly outstrips supply.

      I really wish that reality were better understood, so there would be far fewer knee-jerk comments made – in real life or online – telling people to "just go adopt".

      May 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  2. Scott

    For a church whose men can't keep their filthy paws off little boys, they sure have some nerve butting into the bedrooms of adults too. Don't those ancient sissies have new evening gowns and high heels to buy?

    May 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  3. BettyBoop

    And oh MR MR.....my sympathies sir....talk to me when you come back as a woman in your next life.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  4. ProudIVFmommy

    Sean,

    Very well written article. You were much kinder to the church than they were to you and Carolyn! I have my beautiful, loving, and caring daughter thanks to IVF. After her birth, I decided it was time for me to leave the catholic church as I didn't think it was fair to her to raise her with a faith that views her as a sin.

    Wishing you the best!

    May 10, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  5. Sam

    The Catholic church regards IVF as a form of abortion, and thus a form of murder. This is the Church's main objection to it. Embryos almost always die in the IVF process. Usually a dozen or so embryos are formed in the IVF process, and only one or two survives. Usually, there are unused embryos, and these are thrown away. The Church thinks (moral) human life begins when the sperm and egg are first united. Thus, the Church thinks human beings are being thrown away and killed. It is puzzling that this was not mentioned in this article when it is the main thing at issue.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  6. Jerry

    They say they always wanted a large family, but let's take a poll:

    If you could turn back time, do you think the couple really would have gone through the effort and expense of IVF had the first two been "one of each" ?

    May 10, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  7. Melinda

    The Catholic church need to update their stance on this and many other things in order to stay relevant. I was raised Catholic and refuse to go to church because of the hypocrisy of the church.
    If only they took such a strong stand against the pedophiles they hide.
    Families should be able to choose how many children they bring into the world. They should be able to choose IVF or IUI and birth control when they need it, all without the judgement and guilt. It shouldn't be up to unmarried men to decide choices that only a family should make.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  8. BettyBoop

    IVF is expensive, and adoption is expensive. Infertile and/or childless couples who can't afford would do anything for either. Perhaps we as a nation (not separated by religious beliefs) need to do SO MUCH MORE FOR CHILDREN AND UNWED MOMS!!!! Just a thought.....

    May 10, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • MR MR

      BettyBoop is living in the 40’s when her character was first drawn. There are services for women. Far more than you think. This country wastes millions each year on redundant services. If you want to help this country, cut off the butt-wiping services and allow some space for natural consequences. I’m sure Jesus will help them, after all. The Do-Gooders have their heads in the clouds….and in the sand on Sundays.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Jerry

      Fifteen states, including the most populous ones, mandate that insurance covers IVF. So no, it isn't expensive.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  9. hbdru

    Also not religious, and not a fan of IVF. I agree if you can't have kids, it's for a reason. It might even be the finger of the lord saying "no". Some people shouldn't reproduce. There are WAY too many people on this planet. IVF is out of control.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Jerry

      You're not religious, but it might be the finger of the lord? Whatever.

      Yes, there is a reason why some couples can't have kids, and the reason is that one or both of them have a medical condition that prevents natural conception. IVF treats those conditions.

      Do you have a problem with treating medical conditions?

      May 10, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • CM

      Yes, Jerry, I do. Unecessary medical procedures to correct "conditions" that are not life-threatening and simply about vanity drive up health care costs for all the rest of us. IVF is on par with boob jobs and botox to me. You don't need it, you just want it because you feel like it'll make your life perfect. Until there are no longer any unwanted children and orphans out there, IVF is simply the height of hubris.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • leeroyjenkins

      lol jerry just got burned!!!

      May 10, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Jerry

      So CM, unnecessary treatments for conditions like a cleft pallet or other non life threatening birth defects? Perhaps those vain kids can just suck it up because "God willed it"? We wouldn't want them wasting your tax dollars after all.

      We should only treat life threatening conditions? Catch a grip you sanctimonious hypocrite.

      I got burned did I leeroyjenkins? I don't think so.

      May 11, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  10. atheist

    So now church is going to tell us what things are "morally unacceptable." ?

    May 10, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • MR MR

      Are you kidding me? This is the MO of the church. Control and forced ignorance! Send me 10% or your income!

      May 10, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  11. JB

    Is there any form of progress and enlightenment that religious figures haven't stood in opposition to, or tried to stamp out? Why do people still listen to these dinosaurs???

    May 10, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • MR MR

      Religion halts progress and rewards ignorance. The world will leap forward when religion dies.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  12. RMV

    "God wills this and God wills that..." It's like listening to stoners on bad acid arguing about who's hallucination is the real one.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • MR MR

      Religion is the opiate of the masses. Reality is scary, so they pull out this security blanket to hide under. Fairy tale. Nothing more.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  13. B-Dog

    I'm not religious, but I'm not a fan of IVF. If you can't have kids, it's for a reason. Instead of spending thousands and thousands of dollars on IVF for your "own kid" (A TOTAL ego thing by the way), you could adopt one of the millions of unwanted babies out there for far less money.

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

      Where are you getting your facts?

      IVF for us is way cheaper than adoption. It's covered by insurance. Adoption costs start at $10K, cash.

      IVF is not an "ego thing." It's a "money thing."

      Since you're so concerned about all the unwanted babies, are you planning to adopt one yourself? Honestly curious.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • MR MR

      Yes, God is punishing these people by shriveling their wombs and testicles! SINNERS SINNERS!!

      May 10, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Jerry

      Yes, and the reason is that one or both of you have a medical condition that prevents natural conception. IVF treats those conditions.

      Do you have a problem with treating medical conditions?

      May 10, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  14. MR MR

    Jesus twits, follow me! Right off this cliff! Amen!

    May 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  15. gclaheh

    I am Catholic and disagree with IVF. I have read some of the other comments on here and I have to agree. If you have a problem with the Catholic church, leave. I used to be Protestant and always had a problem with Protestant churches, so I became Catholic and never looked back. Think of Jon and Kate. Didn't they use IVF to concieve their 8 kids? When I watched the show, I kept thinking to myself there is a reason why women don't have six babies at the same time. Just look at all of the work that goes into taking care of six toddlers and then you have to support them. Things seem to go wrong quite a lot with IVF. The wrong couple gets the wrong embryo. Then there are sperm donar cases that I won't even get into–can you imagine what it is like not ever knowing who your dad is. The only thing you can ever know about him is his name.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • MR MR

      Yeah, because all naturally conceived children know who their dads are! Work in Social Services for a while. In a year, you will sing a different tune. Sterilize sterilize!

      May 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • KS

      Actually no, they used IUI. Which is just injecting the man's sperm directly into the uterus via a catheter (and she was on fertility meds). Totally different.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Jerry

      It's always a good idea to use the most extreme and absurd example you can think of to demonstrate a general point. Well done.

      FYI – Mistakes like you describe in IVF treatment are incredibly rare. A tiny fraction of all the procedures that take place every year. Somehow you don't strike me as the kind of person persuaded by facts though.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Sera

      And there are those of us females who can not conceive because our fallopian tubes are damaged. The only way for my husband and I to have children is IVF - all because every doctor over the course of TWENTY years didn't take my complaints of being in pain seriously.

      Our priest changed his mind regarding his beliefs regarding IVF when he offered me counsel after my emergency surgery for multiple endimetriomas on my ovaries that ended up destroying my fallopian tubes and did additional damage to my ovaries, uterus, small intestine, large intestine, bladder and urethas.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • mittens05

      They did not use IVF....they used fertility drugs. Is THAT an acceptable way to create children in your eyes???????????? Get your facts straight....and things can go wrong with the "normal" way babies are conceived too.......

      May 10, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • CM

      "The only way for my husband and I to have children is IVF"

      Wrong. You could have adopted.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  16. chiara

    Once again the Catholic church creates rules to guilt their followers into thinking they've sinned–Read your bible and quit playing God. How about all the perverse priests out there who get shuffled around in an effort to hide their disgusting, dehumanizing sins? Show us scripture that says IVF is a sin...

    May 10, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • CD6910

      Scripture does not contain all the truth about Christianity. There is no mention of IVF because there was no IVF. Just because it's not in the Bible doesn't mean you can or should do it.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  17. Evan

    Despite being a Catholic, I'm almost certain that i will employ the IVF route if i'm in their shoes but i must state that my (our) personal actions should never influence that or be forced upon the church. Just because we often personally tolerate some things shouldn't mean the church should change to accommodate our actions. The truth should be stated even when we deviate from it. Call that hypocrisy but none is perfect but the church (God) is perfect.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  18. EMERSE

    I agree! If you don't like the way the Catholics run their game, switch teams! Choose your religion carefully and make sure it coinsides with your life style. Just kidding. Thats what denomination is all about right? Just kidding. I don't really care. Just live your life and die happy!

    May 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  19. blessedmomtobe

    Sean – thank you for the article and sharing your experience.

    For the 'love it or leave it' folks out there – take a step back. What Sean is discussing is not a major tenet of the religion or the philosophical foundation. He is discussing a chuch stance on a very recent issue – which he notes has not been updated in quite some time. He isn't asking them to change their mind on an issue that has been a foundational issue for over 2000 years. It is perfectly rational to believe that as we all become more educated on any topic, we may change our views of it – including the church.

    Just as Martin Luther did – he is voicing his oppposition to a church stance on an issue (and for the true theologians of the group, you would know that following the voice of Luther – the Catholic church did make many changes! Luther's compliants regarded practices and stances – not theology). While, the church is slow to make changes – it isn't incapable.

    As a fellow cradle Catholic and a soon to be mother as a result of IVF, I couldn't be more proud of Sean's article.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • CD6910

      The Church has a well discerned, thought out, educated view of IVF. As Catholics, we must learn to confrom our will to God's will, that is what makes us holy. Doing what we want, when we want, does not confer grace upon us.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Alex

      CD6910 – exactly right.

      May 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  20. sarah r

    Carolyn and Sean:

    It was completely wrong for the church to 'out' you the way it did and use your story for political purposes. My heart goes out to you.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Scott

      I have a son due to IVF. If the Church belives that this vibrant, intelligent and loving person is the result of an immoral act then the Church itself is completely wrong. There is nothing, NOTHING, immoral about bringing this wonderful life into this world.

      Those readers who are posting against it; you would not be able to look my son in the eye and tell him he should not exist. If you can do that, then you can rot in hell because that is where you belong.

      May 10, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
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