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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. Jesus

    My dad wants you to go forth and multiply. He didn't say you can't use science to do so. He just wants to make sure that you over populate the earth and destroy the planet. He wasn't specific as to how you are to accomplish that. I think if science can speed the process, knock yourselves out.

    PS: Make some more coal power plants. We just LOVE what they are doing!

    May 10, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  2. MS

    The Catholic Church is wrong on so many things that I consider their position on IVF to be one of their lesser crimes against humanity.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  3. Philip Hades

    "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."

    Gee that's nice. But you're not the Pope so – as a Catholic – your opinion is pretty much worthless. Of course you could stop following the anachronistic, authoritarian doctrine that tells you that you have no say in developing your moral code, but that would be ridiculous. No, better to moan for a few hundred words on CNN and have absolutely nothing change.

    At least now you have some idea of how the rest of the world feels.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  4. esailor

    I cannot believe how much negativity there is on these postings. This poor guy is pouring his heart out and there are all these "convert" comments, and all this anti-IVF commentary. Thank you for bringing this issue out. As a Catholic father of two children conceived through IVF I think you are doing a great thing. I highly doubt that any of the negative comments are coming from people who have walked in your shoes. God Bless you.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  5. bonita

    This is the same church that just recently admitted Gallileo was right. Ignore their nonsense – you know in your hearts what is right and what is wrong. It's between you and god, not some out of touch bishop or pope who looked the other way while priests molested children.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  6. Ignore

    I like the argument one person ridiculously made here. "Did you ever consider your god made you infertile for a reason"? My argument is did you ever think that if god din't want IVF why did he create it? The Catholic Church doctrine is based on archaic values from thousands of years of control that has been slipping away in an eroding base. It clings to life any way it can by making headlines. The same Joseph Ratziner would cover up imoral child abuse by priests but condemn IVF. What a joke. He is the last person that should write doctrine anyone should recognize. His doctrine allows pedophiles to abuse children and cover it up.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • CM

      God didn't invent IVF, mankind did.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • realist

      CM, read this:

      http://epistle.us/inspiration/godwillsaveme.html

      IVF was my helicopter. I thank God every day for sending it.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • CM

      Ha. And for those praying for a child and instead getting cancer... helicopter to heaven right?

      May 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  7. AugT

    God bless you and your family through this extremely tough journey with IVF. I can't imagine the heartbreak and disappointment that you and your wife experienced.

    As a couple who also went through many failed IVF cycles – I know the joys and disappointments that come along with the process. Sadly having the wrong embryo implanted is devastating but then having your faith give a judgment about the whole IVF process.

    Quoting our IVF doctor "IVF is really in God's hands. There are things in which science can not change which has been decided upon by God." We eventually gave up on IVF after our 8th cycle and decided to adopt. We now have been blessed to have a wonderful two year old in our lives.

    Don't lose your faith, even in your darkest moments. Somethings are decided upon God for the greater good. Keep the faith and God Bless!

    May 10, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Angela

      AugT

      Your IVF Dr. said exactly what my Dr. told us. Everything about an IVF procedure is in Gods hands. If you have ever researched or know of someone who has gone through IVF you know that it is a very unpredictable process. Upon looking into adoption, we found out that not only could we not affort the 25 + thousand dollars, but it was also a 2 year process of background checks, paperwork, contact with biological parents, paying for all of the biological mothers medical bills and even after all of this, the mother can still change her mind up to 72 hours after birth. Also, even after a year, the mother can still win in court to get her baby back... We could not do this. We completed IVF and we now have a very loving daughter that arrived in 2009 and now I am pregnant with twins through IVF. It comes down to what is right for your family. One comment was about unessary embryos dying???? Well, in a natural cycle don't you think this doesn't happen????? The only difference is that the embryo isn't absorbed by your body and expelled through a menstral cycle... Come on people, this is biology 101....
      Don't make comments unless you know about the subject.... And no, adoption is not for everyone!!!

      May 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  8. SeoulMom

    Well, I was totally with you until you dropped the "Yes, adoption is a wonderful option for the couples who decide it's right for them, but adoption should never be forced on anyone." line. I am not religious person (actually a lapsed Catholic who has embraced various spiritualities) but I will say this. Maybe you couldnt conceive because "your god" as evidenced via "your church" thought you had a large enough heart TO consider consider adoption. I am a cancer patient in remission and because of my treatments it would be extremely difficult to conceive. It was just a no brainer to pursue adoption...I guess whatever is best for your family...

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

      Exactly–it's what is best for their family. It's nobody else's business.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • CM

      Yet these parents will insist I cant smoke a joint in my own private house because it somehow threatens THEIR children. Or my friend cannot marry his partner because apparently it will ruin THEIR children to see a gay couple. Funny how it's nobody else's business until they remotely perceive some tangential threat to their little Disney family fantasy and then suddenly everything is THEIR business because we have to think of the(ir) children!

      May 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Bananarama

      Again with the broad brush. I assume you mean Catholics and not everyone who conceives through IVF? Because those certainly aren't my views, and they're two separate issues.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • CM

      Actually, that's a general indictment of parents who use their children as political playing cards to justify repression based on outdated values. My point is parents act like it's none of my business what they do, even when it affects me tangentially even while they insist the world around them reorder its life lest anything ever make it through their blissful little child-bubble. If parents can use the fact that they think something negatively affects their kids (often with no evidence that that's even true) to justify sticking their nose into MY business, then I am perfectly allowed to stick their nose into my business when their choices are affecting me.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Bananarama

      The irony here is that at least half of the people you're railing at aren't even parents yet, and when/if they become parents, there's no guarantee they'll hold the views you cite. You're trying to justify your opinion with things that have no relevance.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • CM

      No, I'm simply pointing out that parenthood and the pursuit of it makes people do ridiculous and hypocritical things. I can't inject my opinion because it's none of my business yet my business is controlled by parents claiming their prejudices are only designed to protect their kids all the time. Catholics that would never question the church's anti-gay edicts (which comport with aforementioned prejudices) suddenly think it should change it's mind on IVF because it's easier for them. People that want evolution banned from schools suddenly love science when a loved one gets alzheimer's (Nancy Reagan) or they want a baby and can't have one. They whine about the lack of parenting in inner cities but would rather create a baby from a turkey baster than parent a needy urban child. They talk about overpopulation and human environmental damage but toss it by the wayside as soon as IVF can give them their dream child.

      It's not about right/left, race or religion, or anything else. It's about this obsessive deification of childbirth as some sort of litmus test for success in women/couples. It's created a generation that is so psychotically obsessed with parenting as the be-all end-all goal of existence that their kids are the most drugged and damaged generation ever and they have a pretty bleak future as our planet's resources continue to be depleted. It's time we stop putting having a baby on a pedestal.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  9. Bob & Bridgitte

    We have a wonderful 8 year old daughter who is the result of IVF. On Sundays her beautiful singing voice now fills the Catholic church we attend; the church that would deny her right to exist. Assisted reproductive techniques are simply an extension of the dating service.........".Mr. sperm, meet Miss egg. You two have a lot in common, like parents that are so in love and committed to each other that they are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to start a family, which they will cherish every single day knowing how special the blessing of life is, having walked the hard road to achieve it."

    May 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  10. Bob

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    The catholic church is so wacked out I can't understand why anyone remains.

    "the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents"

    Does that include the "conjugal" act of your friendly neighborhood rapist? How about the "conjugal" act of a molesting parent or sibling?

    S-e-x is only for bearing children, and you better not enjoy it or else you're REALLY going to h-e-l-l. All of this from a bunch of child molesters.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  11. Not impressed by your want of children

    Really? With the 100s of thousands of children available for adoption in this country alone it is upsetting some people will spend 100s of thousands of dollars to create a life that is genetically similar to their own. I'm not religious so I don't care what the church's position is of IVF but as a human being I am appalled to read this couple didn't attempt adoption. I know what they would say, they want a baby and adopting a baby is difficult to do. They would be right but I would wonder why they just have to have a 'puppy' when getting to be parents mean that much to them. If they are religious then why did they not consider the idea that their God doesn't want them to have children biologically their own? If they aren't religious then why the article? What a waste!

    May 10, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Bananarama

      So–are you adopting? Or are you just leaving it up to people who can't conceive without help to clean up the mess of people who did conceive naturally and then decided they didn't want their babies?

      May 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Kris

      So, when are you going out to adopt one these needy children that you speak of? Get off your high horse

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

      Good to see some other sensible heads around here.

      And for the record, no I have not adopted. I have no desire for any kids. But I HAVE already decided that if I ever feel the urge, I will be adopting, whether I'm able to go natural or not. I certainly would not bend heaven and earth in a big eff you to foster kids so that I could make sure it's my load in that fetus when all is said and done. What I'd bring to the table as a parent has a lot more to do with me as a person than my pearl jam.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • realist

      You should really look into the actual costs of adoption and IVF before you make this pronouncement. In many cases, adoption is at least as expensive - and sometimes more so than - IVF. Adoption is also no walk in the park emotionally ... there is a ton of uncertainty. Neither path is easy.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Kate

      I'm not religious either, but I was raised a Catholic. God gave them two biological children. Maybe it was God's decision that they should take their thousands of dollars and adopt. If you are faithful you have to respect God's decisions and not just when you agree with them. PS. Adoption is not so difficult if you don't demand a white baby.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • realist

      Adoption isn't the "easy" path most people who say "just adopt" seem to think it is, regardless of the race of the child you adopt.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Not impressed by your lack of compassion

      I have to say your lack of compassion is palpable. Adopting a child is a wonderful act, but the very real need for adoptive parents does not negate the very real human right to reproduce; genetically as you put it. The logical extension to your argument is that no one in the world has the right to have a baby as long as there are orphans awaiting adoption. Maybe that's a good argument, but don't single out those unfortunate enough to need reproductive help as the ones who don't care about orphans.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  12. ?????

    If you truly want to understand the church's teaching, read

    http://www.catholicinsight.com/online/church/vatican/article_475.shtml

    Please note that most fertilized embryos (As catholics we believe they are lives) are killed in the process.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  13. CM

    Tova, they could have gotten a child to raise many ways. And if they got a donor egg only one of your parents actually satisfied the biological instinct. I'm not calling IV babies a sin or abomination or anything. I couldn't care less about them. This is solely about the motives and hubris of parents that demand the procedure.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  14. heidi

    I have to say that it really disturbs me when a church turns away any of God's children. It doesn't matter how the children were conceived or if they were adopted, all children are the same and brought into this world by God's choice.
    On another note, The mother in this story took on a difficult but wonderful journey as she was essentially the surrogate mother for this child. As difficult as it was because she wanted her own child, she created a life for another family who was going through the same difficulties.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • tina

      god's children??? oh. grow up.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Priest

      mmm, boys

      eggs, baaad

      May 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  15. Cigar man

    The catholic church as I understand it, looks the other way when it benefits them. e.g., priests that play with alter boys behind closed doors.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  16. bush limbush

    the catholic church is full of contradictions and hipocrasy. they are silly, dangerous and should be ignored.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Noncatholic

      What religion or person is not a hypocrit

      May 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  17. downwithcathlics

    cathlics are dumb anyway, cant do invetro but my priest can molest the alter boys

    May 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • bush limbush

      Well said!

      May 10, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • gerald

      Stupid. Church teaching is clearly and undeniably against abuse of children. It is not the Church that is stupid it is you that is ignorant and prejudiced.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  18. Paul

    Letting a religious organization make decisions for you seems primitive and self destructive to me. Get off your knees and live like thinking, feeling human beings.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Carl LaFong

      Amen to that.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  19. weallgotone

    "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."

    Then convert.

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

      This is exactly why the Catholic Church is hemmoraging. "Agree with everything we say or else".
      I'm so happy I left.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • ted

      Catholics believe that children are a gift, not a right. This is our faith, very logical, straight forward. The child is not looked down upon at all. Not even a little. If you have any questions, the Catholic teachings are the most logical of any Church. Most people do not know what the Church really teaches. I.e. above commentary is wrong about how the church views this child. We believe in helping nature, not replacing it. Ask me any question about church teaching's and the answer will be logical. You might not believe, but it is logical.
      Take care,

      May 10, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • gerald

      Tova, I'm happy you left too. Your faith is weak and you want the church to approve of what people do so they don't have to follow anything really. Everyone wants to make up their own story of right and wrong but most have not even read the Bible and have no real clue the why's on catholic teaching. I suggest you study JPII's Theology of the Body and get an education on why the Church teaches as it does. But most are too lazy to study the Church. THey want a social organization for their baptism, first communion, and confirmation parties of which they don't have a clue what these doctrines are.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  20. Lori

    It is really sad that you have had to go through any of this. It makes it even harder when you have a lot of faith not only in your family but also in your church to make the right choices by all of them. Its not an easy choice to make and it affects the whole family. Until people walk in your shoes, live your life, make your choices and know all the questions that you ask yourself the entire time you are going through IVF and the options that go with it – Who are we to judge? I thought that was God's call. Anything that anybody does in this World will be questioned and judged. I believe you were lead to take the path that you have and there is a reason for it – Thats between you and God.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.