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

    Parenthood and the pursuit of it makes people do ridiculous things. I can't inject my opinion on IVF's wisdom because it's none of my business how parents conduct their families, yet my business is controlled by parents through censorship and blue laws all the time for the sake of protecting their kids. Catholics that would never question the church's anti-gay edicts (which comport with their prejudices) suddenly think it should change its mind on IVF because it's easier for them. People that bemoan stem cell research or evolution as amoral, even evil, 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.

    This obsessive deification of childbirth as some sort of litmus test for success in women/couples has 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. Not to mention, 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 5:35 pm |
    • Angela

      Alright CM since you are so high on adoption, why don't you tell us on the procedures, since you are such an expert... What you are not saying is that it costs around 25 thousand dollars, + tons of paperwork, home evaluations, background checks and it can take up to 2 years to complete... And, after ALL of that the mother can still go to court to get her baby back... Sorry, at least If I conceive through IVF that baby is mine, and no court can take it away unless I am an unfit mother...

      May 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • CM

      Those are a lot of great arguments for fixing our broken adoption system, not spending millions annually on the time and cost of IVF procedures. Funny how if natural doesnt work, you'll take fertility drugs. If that doesn't work, turkey baster approach. That doesn't work... borrow an egg or sperm. And if THAT doesn't work, hire someone to conceive and carry the kid for you! But there might be a few hurdles in the adoption process, so let's just give up on that and pay a doctor rather than doing anything about the problem.

      Why don't you tell me Angela, if adoption cost the same and took just as long (and I hear IVF can take 2 years just as easily) and totally protected your rights as a parent against the birth mother... would you opt for it? Or would you still want the IVF?

      May 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • Angela

      I am sure that in that case I would probably still want to try for my own biological baby. The reason we have children is because the biological mother and father do not want to have that child and give it up... Teen moms, parents on drugs, why don't we address the real issue on WHY children are up for adoption in the first place!?!?!? My inscurance covered 90% of my medical needs during my IVF process, there is no way my inscurance will cover ANY cost for adoption..

      May 10, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Correction

      I am sure, in that case, I would probably still want to try for my own biological baby. The reason we have children to adopt, is because the biological mother and father do not want to have that child and give it up... Teen moms, parents on drugs, why don't we address the real issue on WHY children are up for adoption in the first place!?!?!? My inscurance covered 90% of my medical needs during my IVF process, there is no way my inscurance will cover ANY cost for adoption..

      May 10, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Jerry

      Where you adopted CM?

      If not, I really wish your parents had followed your sanctimonious sermonizing, and chosen to adopt rather than have you.

      May 11, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  2. gerald

    Ignorant bigots shouldn't try to state Catholic teaching.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Colin

      Catholic teaching is promulgated by ignorant bigots.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • gerald

      Thanks for your ignorance.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Artist


      Ignorant bigots shouldn't try to state Catholic teaching.

      Interesting...Gerald do you believe dragons existed at one time? Do you hear god's voice? Do you think there are demons actually moving around and working against your god's plan?
      Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have normal emotional responses, and to behave normally in social situations.
      As the illness continues, psychotic symptoms develop:
      • False beliefs or thoughts that are not based in reality (delusions)
      • Hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not there (hallucinations)

      May 10, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Brian

      Artist, your one dimensional view of the world fails to resonate in the "delusional" minds of the billions upon billions of humans who believe in the possibility of the afterlife.

      May 10, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • gerald

      Artist, you continue to put up straw men and bowl them over, distorting Catholic teaching and they showing yourself superior? You would think if you are so intelligent and educated and we are so ignorant you could at least get Catholic teaching and understanding correct. Then if we are so inferior to you you should be able to refute Catholicism at face value. You cannot. It is you that is the fool. Just as scripture says "the fool says in his heart there is no God".

      May 10, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  3. Colin

    Can you even econcieve of seeking the Catholic church's view on anything in the 21st Century? It blows me away that people would look to such a medieval fossil for anything.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  4. Colin

    Who cares what the Catholic Church thinks? I would no more look to those Dark Ages morons for gudance on in vitro fertalization than I would look to a caveman for advice on house painting.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • gerald

      Then don't care for all eternity in hell for all I care.

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

      Colin: great analogy.

      May 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  5. CSnord

    I have a better suggestion: If you can't have kids, don't - or adopt. This planet has enough people. Why is everyone so gung ho to add more? It's stupid.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  6. ptschneider

    So many children out there in need of a loving family, and all this selfish onager can do is bray about his right to IVF.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  7. NK in GSO

    Sean, a period is trashing of an unfertilized egg, whereas "tv" meant IVF fertilized embryos. Not that I agree with "tv" about that.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  8. Lopine

    The catholic church is designed to protect pedophiles. Pretty much everything they say is nonsense. They want big families for a steady stream of little boys to victimize, and to try and keep people in poverty from all the mouths to feed, and thus uneducated, and unable to leave the church. To the author, with the state of the planet, you needed more than 2 kids? What' wrong with you? As far as IVF, it's just a tool, and the catholic church should butt out. But, if you want kids, and can't have them, put your ego away, and adopt a child who needs a home! I'm childless by choice, and don't regret it.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  9. tv

    Life begins at fertilization. What happens to the embryos that are not transferred to the uterus? Toss in the trash (if not frozen), murdered.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      By that logic, every woman who's ever had more than one period is a serial killer.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Bananarama

      Actually, if they're not transferred and not frozen, it's because they would never be viable. There would be no shot that those cells would ever become a human being. How exactly is that murder?

      May 10, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  10. SeanNJ

    I'd say we have plenty enough people, and any extraordinary attempts to have more is simple vanity.

    As an atheist, I also agree (oddly enough) with the religious people who say you can't pick the things you like and discard the rest. If you want to be part of the group, you gotta play by the group's rules. Otherwise, go start your own club.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  11. Pam

    I am so sorry for this couple and understand their hurt at not being able to conceive naturally, but he, and many of those that have commented, doesn’t get the Church’s teaching. The Church says that we are not to follow the culture of “it's ok to do evil if the outcome justifies the means”. With IVF, human life is created and the children that live are wonderful, but there are too many children that die, never have a chance to be born because of the extra embryos/children that are created, or remain in a frozen state forever. He sounds like he wants to be a good Catholic, but he’s misguided and sounds like others that say “I’ll follow, as long as it fits what I want to do. “ Jesus had disciples that followed until they decided they didn’t want to “eat” his body and “drink” his blood (John 6). The teaching was too difficult for them. That’s when Judas turned away.
    The Church is comprised of humans that make tragic mistakes or commit horrid offenses, but the teachings are from God. Don't throw out the teachings in order to follow your own self interests.

    May 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  12. tmarie

    For another perspective and for something inspiring, see this four part series: The Gift of Infertility" http://catholicexchange.com/2007/07/16/94550/

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

      What a load of crap this is. This isn't "inspiring," this is a message designed to keep people in line with Church teaching.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  13. NK in GSO

    Please....Who cares about the catholic church or any other church for that matter? These are the same people who were sure that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and the same people who still believe in Adam and Eve and discard Evolution. IVF is a marvelous scientific breakthrough. It is the result of human genius. Don't let a bunch of religious zealots convince you otherwise and discourage you of having a child.

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

      Again, another person who doesn't get the Church's teachings. The Catholic Church doesn't say you have to believe in Adam and Eve or that you shouldn't believe in evolution. You can believe whatever you want. The point is that at some moment, God had to breath the human soul into being. Whether we came from monkeys, apes, fish, or whatever, at a point in time, God gave us the human soul. That's all that you are required to believe.
      I invite you to sit through RCIA classes just to learn what the Church truely teaches instead of misperceptions and media reports.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • CM

      While you're busy singing the praises of science, what's the scientific analysis of the consequences of our ever-increasing overpopulation problem? Science gave us the nuclear weapon too... doesn't mean it's a great idea to use it.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Colin

      Well said.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • gerald

      Yes and nuclear bobs and cocaine and gas chambers are the result of human genius too. By the way the CC does not deny evolution as a theory.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • MrEee

      The molestation of young boys, the Inquisition, and imprisonment of Galileo are also the work of geniuses. Or is that the work of the Church?

      May 10, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  14. Carrie

    I am Catholic, I have severe endometriosis, and I want children. I hope I'm BRAVE enough to go through IVF, if that's the only way I can conceive.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • CM

      There are millions of children that want you as a parent too. They're already here and in dire need of a good, loving parent. You can adopt them all over the world.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  15. God

    I realize I can be a bit draconian, but honestly, what do you plebs need science for anyway? You were supposed to be happy with your wars and fear of the plague. Now be quiet and get back in your pews.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  16. Brian

    Nobody is forcing him to be a Catholic. If he feels that Catholicism's stance on the issue is wrong, then perhaps he needs to consider whether Catholicism is the path that he needs to continue to take.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Paul

      Totally agree with you. Tired of people claiming to be Catholic but then advocate something that is so against Church doctrine (like this or those who call themselves Catholics for Choice. If you don't like what the Catholic Church teaches, please leave. I'd rather the Catholic Church population get smaller than continue to have to put up with this kind of thinking.

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

      They have stopped being Catholic when they reject church teaching. Most of these people haven't even read the Bible or the catechism, yet make comments about what the Church teaches and what is right and wrong. Please leave so the Church can be like gideons army. It started at 10,000 and God whittled it down to 300 and said that's about right. Then clobbered he Philistines for them because the 300 had faith.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Eileen

      Can't take dissent, eh? Well, I did leave and have been glad of it ever since. What I think of the Catholic church? I'm in a good mood right now, so I won't even go into it!

      May 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  17. Priest

    Why destroy an egg when you can have a little sausage? wink wink say no more say no more

    May 10, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  18. Jesus


    May 10, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  19. For IVF

    I think the curch needs to seriously concider changing its doctrine concerning IVF.
    Hopefully the more catholics that voice thier beleifs in the use of IVF, the more presure the church will feel to accept it.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • MrEee

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

      The Church IS condemning you. If you don't like the doctrine / can't abide by it, why don't you grow up, see all these cults for the controlling shams that they are, and move on with your life. If you want to be a cult member though, then you should follow the cult rules.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Godplan

      As difficult as this may be, we need to live our lives according to God's plan and not our own plan. We may not totally understand why we have certain medical conditions or why tragic things happen in our lives. We are not capable of understanding God's plan all the time. But if we put our faith in HIm because He does truly love us, then we cannot go wrong. There was a reason you were not able to conceive naturally. This reason in only known by God. As hard as it might be to see, it was part of his plan. Open your heart, pray and LISTEN to what He really wants you to do. That is what the Catholic church wants you to do. It's not about this church rule and that church rule. It is so hard to put our own plans aside and truly listen to God's plan for us. By doing IVF, you force YOUR plan into your life. And God's plan gets interupted. Now, because He is a wonderful god, He will never give up on you. Just dont give up on Him. Pray. Listen.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • MrEee

      Exactly. So if you want to be in that cult, accept its mysterious ways that you can't hope to comprehend. If you're ready to join the frightening world of knowledge, you can walk away and let the Pope / Cardinals / whoever get back to making their rules for others to follow.

      Sometimes you need to really take a step back and look at what you were indoctrinated with. Does it make sense? OK, does it make _any_ sense? Ah, it's not supposed to because it's so mysterious, right? OK. So either keep buying into it or free yourself. Nobody else can keep you brainwashed, at some point you make that decision for yourself. A lot of people never reach a point of stopping and thinking, through your difficulties maybe you have to opportunity.

      Good luck.

      May 10, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  20. leeroyjenkins

    In all honesty they do already have 3 children and here they are complaining about not being able to have a fourth. Couldn't they adopt? I don't know the science behind IVF so I'm not placing moral judgement here, but imagine how much better for society it would be if instead of throwing thousands of dollars away at IVF, they donated that to charity, and also took in a an adopted kid.

    I could understand if this was their first child, but for heaven's sake this is the fourth! Sounds like another Christian who only wants things their way (PS I'm a Christian also).

    All the problems of our world come down to one thing: 99.9% of people are selfesh, look after themselves and rarely help others, all the talk about how perfect this world would be with no religion is just plain false.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • ham

      Amen brotha!

      May 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • GMC

      I doubt they would have qualified for adoption because of their age. It is no where near as easy to adopt as people seem to think it is. A crackhead can have a baby and screw it up for life, but people who have a great desire and ability to be wonderful parents can't qualify for adoption. Explain that one. Also, adoption costs more than IVF, so your money argument doesn't hold.

      May 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • leeroyjenkins

      ok well you may be right about the costs, I haven't adopted before so I don't know....but you trying to tell me that they wouldn't be allowed to adopt bc of their age? I highly doubt that, they look about 40

      May 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • TommyTT

      You make your choices. They make theirs.

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

      thanks tommy, however your comment provides nothing of value. I'm not trying to make a decision for them, just speaking my thoughts. I believe in live and let live but discussion and debate about things is often quite healthy.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • CM

      Tommy, it'd be great if that didn't go one way. Funny though, how I can't suggest adoption might be the better option because it's their choice, not mine. Yet it's my choice to smoke a joint in my house, but parents have eliminated that choice for me because they say "we have to protect the children." No, you want to protect your idyllic delusion of a 50s sitcom life and take the lazy way out of having the police enforce your values rather than actually raising your child well enough to choose your values.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Karen

      I believe it is really inappropriate for the Catholic Church to condemn or label illicit anyone's desire to build their family. I am a Catholic who used IVF to expand my family. All my children are loved and wanted. Some were conceived the old fashioned way, some were adopted and my last were IVF. My dear friend, also a Catholic lost a child to a genetic condition and years later completed her family with IVF using a donor egg. God's grace gave us the ability for families to grow in many ways.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • CM

      Karen, I'm mighty curious as to whether you feel the same about a gay man building his family through marrying his partner and adopting a child together. Or is it only "normal" families like the ones created through $100,000 lab procedures in a test tube that the church should accept?

      May 10, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • SMILEY

      It doesn't seem as though they're complaining IMO about whether they can or can not concieve via IVF... I think the main point of this story – which you seem to be missing – it that their faith doesn't allow it as a viable form of conception and they wish it wasn't so.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
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