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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. mimi

    I do not agree with IVF and yes it is largely for religious reasons. My spouse and I had were married for about 7 years before we conceived naturally. He was beginning to consider some sort of fertility options, but it was something with which I struggled, I did not want to go that route. Some people really want that biological child, but it wasn't important to me to have a mini me running around, I would have been very happy to adopt, especially considering the amount of children that are waiting for a family.

    I do not think that the Church ought to bend with the times, it is their job to uphold the standard. I believe that is what they are doing, if people decide not to follow that then that is their decision, and I don't fault them for choosing that route I know it can be extremely difficult but it was not for me. Fortunately, in time everything worked out, and honestly given the way life has gone I glad we had those years and various trials to strengthen our relationship and "get our life straight" the timing of everything has honestly worked out for the best, even if we didn't think so at the time.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  2. Howard

    One wonders why so many still cling to a religion that not only fails to meet their needs, but is so demonstrably corrupt as well. Why do people need questionable "holy men" to tell them what is right and wrong instead of listening carefully to their own consciences and then acting accordingly?

    May 10, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  3. GBPackfan

    I say to all who are passing judgement – dont judge lest ye be judged. My wife and I are active Catholics who happen to disagree with the Church on the IVF issue. We have our daughter because of IVF, and we thank God every single day for her. Our faith, belief, trust and love for God is the cornerstone of our lives. If God did not want my wife and I to have a child, he would not have blessed us with our daughter. We accept this as Gods will, his plan for us, our destiny.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  4. Jim

    I'm sure that Jesus loves all of the judgemental types posting to this article. Your responses are pretty much the exact opposite of what he teaches (regardless of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches). For shame.

    WWJD – take it to heart.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  5. Mike

    So Sean, let me get this straight. You want the Church that Jesus Christ founded which holds the deposit of faith to change that faith so that you can commit an immoral act and not feel bad? There is nothing pro-life about IVF. Think of how many deaths it leads to each year. How many of your own children are on ice right now, stuck in a frozen limbo, soon one day to be thrown out as medical waste. No one is saying that your child is less perfect than other children. They have the dignity of being a human being. But the means that you employed to bring her into the world is evil. The ends does not justify the means. You cannot do evil to do good. I suppose people will try to rationalize anything to justify their evil acts. You have people that try to justify direct abortion all the time. Both direct abortion and IVF are objectionably evil and can never be justified.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • cp

      I did 3 ivf cycles and have no frozen embryos. Only 1/4 of couples get frozen embryos, most embryos arrest long before they reach 5 days old. If you did your research you would know this. My 1st cycle I had 4 embryos – 2 were transferred and the other 2 were dying on day 2. It is normal for embryos to arrest – happens 75% of the time only thing is people can't see it when it happens in the body. 2nd cycle I only got 2 embryos – both were transferred and resulted in twins, but our son was stillborn. 3rd cycle I only had 2 embryos again but they both died on day 2 so I didn't even make it to transfer, let alone have any left over to freeze. This is what commonly happens with ivf, it is very rare to have tons of embryos left over.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  6. Stuck@Work

    BRIAN- You stated " It is clearly man using science to interfere with the natural process of fertilization and conception and the theology of the church is clear. Suffering is unfortunately a big part of the christian walk and we are all called to carry our crosses with grace."

    If you were to be diagnosed with cancer and doctors adviced that without a certain treatment you would die within months, but if you have such treatment you live a happy healthy life for the next 40 years...HOW WOULD YOU CHOSE? because if what you say holds, you would be ok with just dying in couple of months, since surgery and scientific treatment is "clearly man using science to interfere with the natural process of" death....

    I would love to read your response...

    May 10, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Mike

      Your comparison does not hold water. Taking chemotherapy for cancer is a morally neutral act which is done for good, e.g. bringing wholeness to the body. It is possible that an bad consequence might come from this act but usually the good outweighs the bad. IVF is morally evil. One cannot do evil to do good.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • cp

      Mike you just proved how ignorant you are.
      IVF is not evil. Your saying my daughter who was conceived by ivf (as well as the million of other people in this world) are evil. Seriously! Just because some old unmarried pope told you this does not make it so. Please tell me where in the Bible it says ivf is evil. I can make the same argument that any medical treatment is evil. It would be false, but anyone can make any claim they want. Heck, I can make a claim that the Earth is flat.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  7. Michelle

    Wow, I can't believe the word selfish thrown around when talking about couples wanting to experience carrying a child, and experiencing childbirth. That is our purpose in life. I'm going to guess that those comments are coming from people that were able to conceive multiple children without issue, or have none at all. Infertilitly is one of the hardest and most emotionally taxing things that someone, especially a female can go through, I am Catholic, and it's sad that we are looked at in this light. We have a beautiful daughter conceived from IVF, and it is the best thing we have ever done. Call us "selfish", or whatever, but we would not have done it any other way. It is our god-given right to have children.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • SeanNJ

      If you believe your only purpose in life is to reproduce, then I believe you're missing out.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • ClaytonR

      Sorry, but she already had the experience of carrying a child and giving birth with her 2 sons. I kind of can see that stance if you have never had that and you want to experience those things but they already did. Maybe it was a sign to try something different. I think that is the point.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • ClaytonR

      And if you are Catholic you know having children is a gift, not a God given right.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  8. Lila

    I'm pro choice although abortion would never be a choice for me, I support other women, but IVF sort of irks me. If you are not meant to conceive why not adopt or take in foster kids instead? Even though I personally don't like it and would never do it , I support that choice for others. The Catholics are correct, at least they are consistent with their pro life positions. They are anti war, anti death penalty, etc..They are a religious organization what other position should they have? There are legal laws and there are religious laws created by that group, being involved in that organization is also a choice.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Susan

      Lila,
      So if you have a problem with your reproductive system you are not “meant” to conceive? Is that like if you have asthma you are not “meant” to breathe easily? If you have cataracts you are not “meant” to see clearly? Seems to me there is no “intent” in disease, it just is, but thankfully sometimes we can treat things with medicine. And why not adopt or foster? Well, often for many of the same reasons people not dealing with infertility don’t choose to adopt or foster instead of having biological children. Adoption or fostering simply isn’t the right choice for everyone for all kinds of reasons. Adoption and fostering along with the wonderful parts have their own issues, challenges and complexities and simply are not right for every family, every situation. It is pretty easy to say “I would never” when you have never been faced with the situation-it is a whole lot different when you are actually standing there.

      November 23, 2011 at 3:23 am |
    • cp

      It is not that easy to adopt. Much harder to adopt (and more expensive) than doing ivf.
      Plus you don't have a genetic child and don't have control over what the biological mother does during pregnancy.
      Why should only infertiles have to deal with drug babies, etc.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  9. lis

    I wish I could be surprised that so many posters here are claiming to know how IVF works and why it is used, but unfortunately many people have opinions on things they don't completely understand. Such is life. Whether you agree or disagree with Assisted Reproductive Techniques, know this; most people who use IVF do not make an abundance of eggs. Only some of the eggs are mature, and would likely have turned into a baby at some point, if they had the chance to fertilize naturally. I know many couples who have used this process to conceive and not one of them would consider destroying created embryos. Most of them aren't lucky enough to have frozen embryos left over after a cycle and need to start again, if they choose to do so. The couples i know who have had extra embryos (very few) have donated them to other childless couples.
    I know it is easy to think what you want to believe, but in this case, there are facts that i wish more people knew. Maybe there wouldn't be such a stigma surrounding the use of IVF as a treatment for the diseases that cause infertility (of which there are many). Diseases that people deserve to have the right to treat as they wish. I mean no disrespect to those who feel it is against their own religion to pursue treatment. Treating infertility is a personal decision and not one that any couple arrives at lightly. I hold hope in my heart that none of you nor your children know what it is like to be unable to conceive.
    Please, if you wish to be more informed about IVF, ART or infertility in general, visit http://www.resolve.org to learn more about the Infertility Community.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Michelle

      Great post. Thank you!

      May 10, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  10. Noodle

    IVF will cause embryos to be destroyed in the process of creating a viable one. Permitting IVF is the same as permitting abortion -> the destruction of embryos is condoned. If God wanted you to have children, you would have them naturally.

    There are more than enough children without parents in this world already. Go adopt if you are that desperate.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Educatedbutnotperfect

      You have your opinion but I assure you, you'd be singing a different song. Neither route is easy. They are both expensive, not to mention physically and emotionally draining. You might want to educate yourself on the issues before judging others.

      May 11, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  11. Nate

    I am Catholic and eat meat on Friday's during lent, I use contraceptives, and sometimes I use the Lord's name in vain, had a child out of wedlock,and sined in many other ways. My poin here is that although I am Catholic, and was raised strictly Catholic and follow my religion, we don't have to follow this or any religion as if it is a law. God wants us to be happy, if a baby concieved by IVF makes the couple happy then I belive God will approve. Our religion needs to step out of the stone age, not to say the Pope needs a G6 jet or a BMW but lets loosen it up a little.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • MC

      Being a part of any religion involves believing the tenets of the religion. I disagree with tenets of Judaism, can I still call myself a Jew? According to your logic, I can.

      May 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  12. M.

    Sean, I couldn't agree more! My husband and I have struggled for 8 years (our entire married life) to conceive. The catholic doctrine and the church's views on IVF have permanently turned me away from attending mass regularly. We belieive in God and we believe life is a journey and God afforded us the ability and strength to try IVF several times. Unfortunately, with many IVF cycles, ours were not successful. We believe each embryo we created (all seven) are in heaven waiting for us. I beleive that so many couples who go through IVF or any fertility treatements are permanently branded not only by the catholic church but by society in general. It is a very difficult fact to accept never being able to have a child. And narrow minded ignorant people don't make it any easier. I'm so glad God has blessed you with 3 wonderful children and I'm very happy that you chose to share your story. Thank you!

    May 10, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Bill

      Do you really feel at peace in your conscience to have left the Church and Mass, specifically the gift Jesus gives of Himself in His Body at Communion for the sake of your own narrow-minded beliefs in what God has ordained for Creation, such as the as the practice of IVF which Christ's Vicar explicitly condemns? Why not instead humbly place yourself before the Heart of Jesus and ask Him to help you understand His will around the difficulties and challenges of infertility and conception, and to open your heart to those practices which the Church expressly condones, such as NaPro technology? Don't run from the Lord, run TO Him!!

      May 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  13. Kim

    This is why I don't believe in god. Form your own opinions about right and wrong. Its so silly that people put "God " before everything, including ones own children. How about the fact that the Catholic church is against birth control. What if a woman who doesn't want kids gets pregnant? Abortion is a sin too. So she has a baby but doesn't treat it right. Is that OK?

    May 10, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Aaron

      Opinions mean nothing. There is reality and then there is someones opinion. Your opinion can be that there is no such thing as gravity, the truth is that you are wrong. Your opinion is that abortion is okay just because our justice systems says it is okay. Well, reality should tell you that killing a child in the womb is wrong.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  14. Ms.W

    SeenTheLight~
    I HAVE been through the process... I am 26 yrs old,have two adopted children through the foster care system (No fertillity issues). As a Christian, I believe that if you have a desire to become a parent, but could only love a child that has your DNA, then you might want to check your motives/desires/heart with what the bible teaches about love.
    I understand the adoption process is not easy , neither is the IVF procedure. If you have been waiting 3+ years to adopt, here is a place where you can find about 10,000 of these kids: http://adoptuskids.org/Child/ChildSearch.aspx
    Good luck in your search and I hope you find your child soon. He/she is waiting.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • ClaytonR

      AMEN Ms.W!!!! That is what i don't get about some of these responses. They speak of how difficult the adoption process. I have many friends who have gone through IVF and their processes were extremely difficult too!

      May 10, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  15. Lynette

    Thank you, Sean, for your thoughtful column. I am a Catholic with two beautiful daughters - one an IVF baby and one an adopted baby. What a blessing! Like you, I wish I could have conceived naturally but it did not happen. I do not plan to be "punished" for the way in which I brought together my family. Instead, I think I'll focus my attention on raising kind, responsible, giving children who want to be productive and caring members of society.

    At church a few years ago, we were handed out "suggestions" for confession - one was confessing to using reproductive technologies! Ha! What a joke. My girls are the biggest gifts and I am so proud of them. I know God is too. We are fortunate to living in a society that can help us through technology.

    Let's focus our energies on raising well-adjusted kids and less on how we got them!!

    May 10, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  16. Alex

    My husband and I are Catholic in our faith, but we do disagree strongly with the Catholic Church on many issues. And in many instances, this article pointing out one, the Church seems to be more about politics than faith. It's difficult to have a constant relationship with God when men (i.e. Popes) are constantly changing the rules of what is required to have a relationship with God. If you listen to what God is telling you in your heart, then you are doing the right thing. It doesn't matter what a bunch of politicans and administrators say. Your relationship to God is personal – your heart will tell you what is right.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  17. Suzette

    Organized religions are such crap. Does anyone really need a bunch of dried-up old men thousands of miles away to dictate moral and ethical decisions for his or her own personal life? Does anyone really need approval from others when they pick a life's course? Break away! Be free to live your life on your own terms. Stop knuckling under to other people. That is, after all, all these judgemental beings are, PEOPLE, just like you. They have no right to power.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • NatBlue

      Amen to that! Lose the church and its presumed authority.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Kelly

      Well said!

      May 10, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  18. juljo

    This reminds me of the joke about the man who is caught in a terrible storm. First the firemen came to evacuate him and the man said "God will save me!" The waters continued to rise and a boat arrived to help him. The man refused saying "God will save me!". The waters continued to rise. The man climbed to the top of his roof. A helicopter comes, lowering a ladder. The man again refused insisting "God will save me!".

    The man drowns.

    When he gets to heaven he asks God, "I had such faith in you, why didn't you save me?" God's response? I sent the firemen, a boat and a helicopter.

    If you believe in God (I do not incidentally – but remember my Catholic upbringing well), I find it highly arrogant to believe that you can know what he intends.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  19. Cris

    I am a catholic as well. But I am also for IVF. If everything is "Gods Will" to have children then the same should go for all aspects of medicine...we shouldn't have antibiotics, surgery or breathing machines. If God wants you to live then he would let you live you wouldn't need those things.

    IVF is a medical intervention just as any other. If your child had terminal cancer would you go by "God's Will" or choose treatment to allow your child to LIVE.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  20. Don

    Thank you for writing this article. My wife and I are also struggling with infertility, and are both Catholic. We have been struggling with the decision of whether or not to persue IVF for over a year. The specialist we see is willing and able to take all necessary steps in order to ensure the embryos we don't use will either be frozen so we could use them if the first IVF procedure does not work, or donated to a mother and father in need. Adoption may also be a next step for us, however, then we miss out on the experience of actually being pregnant and the nine months of anticipation. We also miss out on raising a child that is a little piece of both of us. I think it is easy for "fertile" catholics to condemn IVF because, well, they're "fertile." They are blessed in that way, and that is a beautiful thing. I understand the Catholic Church's teaching on this topic, but even in IVF there is not guarantee; so in order for that embryo to make it God has his hand somewhere in the process.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Terri

      The good thing is they do accept your child after the invitro. Been there and I am so happy with our decision. We would not have our wonderful son if it were not for science help and God letting it happen. God was with us through the entire process.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Michelle

      God does have a hand in it. Just because the female is implanted with embryos doesn't guarantee a baby. Nature has to take it's course at that point. We also struggled, and are Catholic. We went ahead and tried it. It didn't take the first time, so we did it a second. It is the best thing we ever did. I couldn't imagine a life without our precious miracle baby. Good luck.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:30 am |
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