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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. Jules633

    How does this square with the Church's position on the divine conception of Christ? Does this mean that the Baby Jesus was "deprived of [his] proper perfection" because he was not created through a conjugal act? I don't think so, and I don't think the Church would say that either. There are a lot of moral and ethical issues associated with IVF, but issuing a blanket condemnation of the practice seems to be an unnecessarily harsh and uncaring action.

    May 10, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Becuase Catholicism certainly has never been unnecessarily harsh and uncaring *cough cough*

      May 10, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  2. Mary

    You miss the entire point of the Church's position. It is GOD's choice when a child is conceived. Playing "God" by use of a petri dish is an offense against God. And guess what...life's not always fair! You're not being "discriminated" against by the Church. If God chose to make you infertile, try adoption.

    May 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Tova

      So if you get cancer, you'll refuse medical treatment? I mean, that's playing G-d.
      I was one of 8 eggs, formed in a petri dish, implanted in my mother. I was the only one to survive. If G-d didn't want me here, I wouldn't be here. Simple as that.
      Humans cannot play G-d. If you believe in any deity, you automatically believe his choice overrides everything. End point, no more argument.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Jules633

      Not all attempts at IVF are successful, so if God does not want this to occur, he can still stop it.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  3. Josh

    I was born and raised Catholic and I believe that the church has many hypocrisies that drive many members away. However, I must agree and oppose IVF based on science rather than religion. So putting religious dogma aside, evolution would tell us if two animals cannot reproduce together, then there is a reason for it. I believe that by taking these decisions into our own hands and forcing a pregnancy we are ignoring the natural intelligence of the body and potentially reproducing children who will be destined to have health complications. So instead of survival of the fittest, we have become survival of the richest.

    While I do agree on this particular issue, I still don't need validation from the Catholic Church to do what I believe is right.

    May 10, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Jay

      "So instead of survival of the fittest, we have become survival of the richest." Great point!

      May 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Dorianmode

      Sorry sir, but obviously, it's come down to survival of the "cleverest". God gave us the brains which have discerned the way to allow "other methods of reproduction". It's as "natural" as breathing. New, and different, maybe, but here to stay. Evolution would tell me that if the creature involved was smart enough to figure out another way to pass on the DNA which she wants to do do, it's a good thing. If you had an appendicitis attack this afternoon, I would be willing to bet you would not be waiting around for your body to find a "naturally intelligent" solution.

      @ Mary, (below)
      It's not "God's choice". Why do they allow the rhythm method, which seems to imply human choice in the act, (while STILL asserting that "morality" is a matter of "intention", ie the intent NOT to have a child is allowed in this method). It's a matter of when the couple copulates, nothing else.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  4. Christian Mom

    P.S. To those who are against IVF because it isn't "natural": So, for example, those in need of a kidney transplant should opt out lest they be "punished" by God and just let nature take its course to that of kidney shut-down?

    May 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  5. Buffoon

    Civilizations (hence, morality/goodness/evilness/etc.) existed way before any of today's major religions.

    Morality evolves with time and "all" religions are not the source of morality.

    In god we trust (1956) & one nation under god (1954) are ways that religious sheep subjugate non-believers. It's how they justify their existence & moral superior fallacy!

    May 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  6. Holly

    I am an infertile catholic. I have consulted with infertility specialists in order for my husband and I to expand our family. Because of my beliefs in God, I did not feel comfortable moving forward with fertility treatments. After agonizing over my decision, i finally consulted with my preist last year. He informed me that the church's stance was that fertility treatments are completely acceptable and that the only request the church asks is that we do not destroy the eggs. I know this author states 'sources' that say it is NOT acceptable (which is what I had thought too prior to consulting with my preist) but I have my preist's blessing to conceive however we feel fit. We are moving forward with fertility treatments with God's blessing and my church's. It is unfortunate his preist does not 'interpret' the doctrine differently.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  7. Catholic from Birth!

    Guess what? Many things not Catholic are violated often. Birth control, vasectomy, just to name a few. As a Catholic many, including myself, believe the church is outdated. God loves all his children and participating in the above mentioned article does not make you "none Catholic" and although God would like you to be blessed with a natural conception of a child being Blessed with a child though vitro is a still a Blessing.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  8. Keith

    As with all things, follow the money. If Roman Catholic copules who want kids choose IFV, Doctors get the money. If they adopt a child from a Roman Catholic "charity" the church gets the money. THAT is the root casue behind the Roman church's opposition to IVF, the rest are the "moral arguments" made up to explain their stance. As with everything involving the Roman church, it all comes down to power over the masses and money.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  9. Pat

    I don't understand. I also am a Practical Catholic. I have spent many, many hours supporting 40 Days for Life, single mother's homes, etc. This was because of my understanding that a LIFE is a very special thing that should not be taken for granted, and just tossed away. My wife and I raised our children in what we understood the beliefs of the Chatholic Church to be. I have one of my daughters presently that has been unable to concieve even with invitro. I had no idea of this stipulation on conception.

    Sorry but I would think that the very idea of wanting to concieve a child (in whatever method or from whatever form of assistance that is required) would be a huge plus in the eyes of the church.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  10. Person

    I was raised Catholic and by my late teens I was so irritated by their doctrine of guilt and shame that I 'quit'. When I was later married and struggling with infertilty (actually, my husband was infertile), I realized that all religions were terrible. I was told by religious people that my husbands infertility was "gods way of bringing me to my knees to christ." Really? Hmmm. If some strange old dude came into my house, cut off my husbands penis and then said to me, "Follow me! Love me! Worship Me!" I'd call the cops. I wouldn't get on my knees and thank him. So many people allow their version of god to just be an overbearing, cruel deadbeat dick of a father. I would never worship something like that.
    The final blow was when my children were born and I was told by religious people that my children were "not real". Not real children, who supposedly were going to burn in hell. Lovely.
    Yes, being atheist and doing what is right because I know it is right (not because someones imaginary friend allegedly will harm me if I dont) is the only logical belief for me.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Jay

      Hi Person, I'm glad you got kids now.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  11. Heather

    "Yes, adoption is a wonderful option for the couples who decide it's right for them, but adoption should never be forced on anyone." Adoption is NEVER "forced" upon anyone. If your faith, religion or personal morailty tells you that IVF is wrong then you still have a choice: adopt or choose to have no more children. The author spends so much time arguing that children of IVF are no less "perfect" than children naturally conceived and then in one single sentence implies that adopted children are.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  12. Mary

    If you can not abort a life you can not "make" a life. You can't have it both ways.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Lila

      I agree, it's very hypocritical.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  13. Mehgann

    Just stop going to that church! Problem solved. If you don't agree with them, maybe you don't belong there anyway. I don't mean to be harsh, honestly, but the Catholic Church hasn't made any secret of their stance on this issue. If you don't agree and you don't think God agrees, maybe the solution is to find a church that better fits your values.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Faux Paws

      Exactly. "Shop around". You don't even have to go to another denomination. All you have to do is ask your friends about which church in your diocese has a liberal priest. I guarantee that in the privacy of the confessional, or in a conference in his home, he would not spout the "party line". You CAN have it both ways, and just ignore the old men in red and purple dresses. The church is so much more than them. Peace out.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  14. cicisbo

    The Catholic church is the group that is morally wrong, not this couple who tried for years to have a family. Look at what the church does. Who are they to condemn people when they allow pedophiles to continue to hurt children. What a bunch of hypocritical, power-obsessed jerks.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  15. Bayousara

    Question: Why in the world do millions of people allow ANYONE other than their spouses/partners to have one word to say about their bodies and reproductive systems? Why especially would you take orders from a church that believes in virgin births, that doesn't understand problems with overpopulation, and that doesn't consider the hardships placed on poverty-stricken people. Most of all, how can people justify following "rules" written by MEN who are celibate or are raping boys and girls?

    May 10, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Finger Puppet

      It creeps me out that so many old men are so obsessed with the reproductive functions of young women.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  16. Toby

    Actually, the real question is whether there is indeed a soul-independent of the body, that survives a physical death and retains its memories and experiences. All evidence suggests that Cartesian Dualism is a myth; we do not HAVE bodies, we ARE bodies. Believing in something just because it makes us feel better does not make it true. The Catholic church has been controlling the reproductive lives of its adherents for centuries-for reasons that do not need underlining. People should think for themselves and not allow dogma to control their happiness in life. Peace.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  17. I wonder

    Didn't some famous Catholic woman conceive a child w/o intercourse?

    May 10, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • I wonder

      I mean, she wasn't Catholic but she's pretty well known in Catholic circles.. I think her name was Mary.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Anglican

      Please tell me that you are not speaking of Mary, Mother of Jesus, a Jew.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • VinoBianco

      No, unless through in vetro that's impossible.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Dorianmode

      But she got pregnant by a bird that flew in the window so, I guess THAT method would be OK.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  18. Jessie - NYC

    AMEN TO ADRIAN NOT TODD- Sorry dude don't agree with you-

    May 10, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  19. Pam

    Jason, I can see your point but I have to wonder about – is death from pneumonia the will of God. He gave us the ability to come up with antibiotics. As long as all of the embryos have a chance at life, I always thought that was the important thing. I cant imagine the church saying to get rid of those embryos-they are living.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Krys

      You're equating infertility to a disease? You won't die if you don't have children. As a matter of fact, you'll probably live longer; my teenager is killing me slowly!

      May 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  20. TB

    Like it or not, it is what it is. You choose to be a Catholic. The real issue is where the soul enters the being. The Church feels this should happen in the mother's womb, not a petri dish. Stop and think about that. And then to freeze these embryos and have these souls locked up in a freezer. I see its point. And God for bid, discard them when they are no longer any use to us. Like it or not, that is a reality for most. The Church's teachings are based on many years of philosophy and theology, far above me and many of us. There are things we don't like, that's ok. If it were me, would I do it, probably. But I'm not saying it's the right thing to do. Many times I consciously do not do the right thing for self gratification. Don't we all? But that doesn't mean you can tell one of the oldest well thought-out religions that it is wrong.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Mehgann

      Well, if you think the soul enters the body in the mother's womb, then those embryos in the freezer are just cells until they are fertilized and put in a womb, yes?

      May 10, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Gerard

      The real issue here is whether or not Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny are in union with the Heavenly Host in their conception of spiritual perfection. My Spirit thinks that Leprechauns are conspiring with Garden Gnomes to open up a vortex into the third ring of hell, but I told him that's just silly. Oh wait, is it not the middle ages anymore?

      May 10, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • joey

      its unbelievable that humans even have this discussion. all forms of herd mentality are ridiculous. when will the planet be done with these stupid religions ?

      then look at the wars. christians, jews, muslims, all children of the mythical abraham, killing each other. BRILLIANT !!!

      May 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Adrian

      Well said man!

      Mehgann: The soul enters at the moment of conception (when cell S enters cell O and become a person) wherever this happens...

      May 10, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • nicolekurtz

      As a recovering Catholic, I recommend you get out of that ridiculous cult of judgement and hate. Once you leave the cloud of Catholicism, your eyes are opened to the incredible love that exists in the world. IVF is bad? What about the environmental causes of infertility? What about GMO's? How about pesticides that mimic estrogen, throwing a woman's hormones out of whack? Those things are okay? How can the church possibly approve of Catholics eating Genetically Modified Foods, which are destroying the balance of nature...and destroying the health of humans...and adding to the causes of infertility? Yet, IVF is forbidden? I'm confused. GMO's are "miracles" of God, but IVF is not? Really? Just like abortion is forbidden, but providing health insurance for all of those pregnant mamas and babies is not a priority. It's seriously a very sick mind game.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • RB

      I chose to leave the Catholic Church after persuing IVF treatments. Not because of "God's Laws" but rather because I felt the people who made up the Catholic Church (parishners, priests, Pope) were not worthy of my efforts and devotion when their own efforts were to judge and condem others. I have a stronger relationship with God because of it. I have an acceptance and understanding (of God, my life and those around me) that I never had when I was a member of the Catholic Church and I am so very thankful for that epiphany. Self righteousness is a sin as well, and when the Catholic Church and its followers understand and do what they can to minimize such sins commited through a misguided sense of self righteousness, only then will I consider it a place worthy of my devotion to God.

      I wish you all much peace.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Buffoon

      Keep in mind that civilizations (hence morality, goodness, evilness, etc.) existed way before any of today's major religions. So, don't tell us that most civilizations are wrong and certain (e.g. your) religion is right!

      Cut the pontification and subjugation of others - e.g. in god we trust (1956), under god (1954), etc.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Well, Muslim theologans would disagree as to when the soul enters a potential human being – most say it happens 120 days after conception.
      Hindus might tell you that the soul only enters the body after the first breath of life.

      But of course, to the Catholic, it is a grievous sin to beat off into your sock and commit the sin of onanism.

      I wonder.... is retrograde eja.cul.ation sinful given that the sp.erm never leaves the body?

      May 10, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • joey

      buffoon is correct. the arrogance of the so called "major" religions is astounding. africa alone has many hundreds of different religions. those are mythical, as is the white man's.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • BRC

      I have to take issue with the "oldest well thought-out" line. Christianity is only 2000 years old, and the Roman Cathlic Church slightly younger than that. I can think of more religions and belief sets the pre-date Christianty (in some cases by a lot) then came after it. As for well thought out, that's really a matter of personal opinion, but I have trouble calling anything that has spent much of that 2000 year existence tryinig to defend and explain its practices, and in some cases changing them, very well thought out.

      May 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
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