The desire to have a family leaves couple stranded with a moral dilemma
Editor’s Note: In 1987 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the direction of Pope Blessed John Paul II and prefect Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), issued a document known as Donum Vitae (“The Gift of Life”). It teaches that if a given medical intervention replaces the marriage act in order to engender life, it is not moral. One such reproductive technology, which the Church has clearly and unequivocally judged to be immoral, is in vitro fertilization (IVF). Read more from the USCCB at Begotten Not Made: A Catholic View of Reproductive Technology.
Last week at the Vatican, the Pontifical Academy for Life gathered together experts to discuss infertility, how it is diagnosed, how it can be treated, and how it impacts couples. In his remarks to the group, Pope Benedict XVI said, “I would like to remind the couples who are experiencing the condition of infertility, that their vocation to marriage is no less because of this. Spouses, for their own baptismal and marriage vocation, are called to cooperate with God in the creation of a new humanity.…There, where science has not yet found an answer, the answer that gives light comes from Christ.”
In that spirit, we recently received the following witness from one of our readers as a cautionary tale of the moral and spiritual issues that may ultimately arise when procreation is separated from the marital embrace. We humbly ask for your prayers for this family. Here is their story. ~ Lisa Schmidt
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A couple years ago, my husband and I were fortunate to experience an enriching faith program at our parish that has deepened our desire to have a better relationship with Jesus and His holy Church. The experience has also opened our eyes and hearts to the fact that some of our actions in the past have gone against the very teachings of the religion we have embraced with all our being. Prior to this renewal experience I would characterize our faith lives as many Catholics might — we attended Mass once a week and participated in prayer. In other words, we were just going through the motions.
Shortly after our marriage, my husband and I wanted to start a family as quickly as possible. We both longed to be parents and raise a family. That desire was a primary driver in both our belief systems of why we were put on this earth. After trying unsuccessfully for some period of time, our direction and guidance soon became “science vs. religion”. Instead of turning to God to understand why, we turned to doctors and science and began working on how to fix it. We were lost and didn’t have the foundation of the Church’s teaching to help guide us.
“Children too are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb, a reward. ” — Psalm 127:3
Our primary fault was to understand that a child is a GIFT from God, not a right. We were focused on our desires, not God’s will. When family and friends asked questions such as, “When will you have children?” or commented like, “I’m surprised you don’t have children yet,” over time I began to feel shame over my inability to conceive a child. I felt under the spotlight of scrutiny all the time. And most painfully, I felt I was letting my husband down.
After limited thought we decided to undergo the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process after doctors advised us it was the only way to conceive. Again, we just looked at the science of having children. We didn’t seek to understand the Church’s teaching on IVF, or more importantly, what consequences could develop once initiated. Even though we chose the IVF process, we told only our immediate family and a couple of close friends. I felt ashamed of having to do this to become pregnant. We were so naïve, like we were the only ones who have ever had to deal with infertility. We asked no questions of any doctor about resources to help us with this decision, and our faith life was not equipped to handle this. Prior to implanting the embryos, looking back, there were many times when we should have taken more time to understand the consequences of the choices we were making and listen to what God was telling us. He gave us so many signs to stop the process — side effects due to the hormones, hyperstimulation of the ovaries, and bleeding in the abdomen, just to name a few.
Despite all of these signs, we continued our IVF process and became pregnant with twins (they implanted two embryos to increase the odds). From this point, our pregnancy was supported by many friends and family. We had prayer chains at several different churches, prayers to St. Gerard, and visits from our priest with blessings. My pregnancy was difficult — sickness and bed rest at the hospital — but God was there for us, even though we chose the path we did. Our relationship with God actually became closer during this time.
“[The LORD, your God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind a blessing.” — Joel 2:13-14
Eventually, we were blessed with two healthy babies, and for this we are truly grateful! We love our children very much, and we can see the love of our God in them everyday! This, however, is not where the story ends.
The process took another turn when, following the delivery of our babies, I needed an emergency hysterectomy. This was much more significant than my husband or I could ever imagine.
During the IVF process more than two embryos were created. The hysterectomy removed my uterus, and with no uterus, there is no place for our other children to go to be carried to term. I can’t carry them, and surrogacy is not an option in the Catholic Church. With this outcome, we now have several embryos frozen in a lab with basically nowhere to go. If they are unfrozen they will not survive; if they stay frozen, is that living? The consequences of our choices have left us with two children we love dearly, but many children we do not know how to care for. How do we proceed for their futures? We have received mixed responses from priests we have visited with on this issue about how to move forward. We were finally able to research the most recent guidance from the Catholic Church after a friend suggested we contact the National Catholic Bioethics Center. The teaching is to leave them in their current state.
We pray for them everyday, but we feel helpless as parents. As my husband and I pray and research what we are to do there are still many questions we have left unanswered. We would love to name them and have them baptized. If they stay frozen can this happen? Every parent’s goal is to help his or her children get to heaven; how can we do this? We feel the only way they can get to heaven is when they die. That would mean unfreezing them and in essence letting them die, but we are also taught to protect life. For now, we try to be the best parents for our two children who are with us and for our children frozen as embryos. We pray for them all and trust God will lead us in the right direction.
“Trust God and he will help you.” — Sirach 2:6
My husband and I try not to go back and relive our choices; how can we with two children we love dearly? We continue to try to look forward and someday we hope to reunite with our children in heaven — all our children. We feel called to share our story more publicly so that perhaps it may help others understand the consequences of choices made with IVF. Perhaps sharing our story here is a good start.
We have found a renewed faith and a love for our Catholic religion that we know in our hearts is the true way with God. With this, though, has come a dilemma. There are consequences to our actions, but we are steadfast in knowing we must now carry this as our cross. And we are now resolved to spread our Holy Father’s message that “where science has not yet found an answer, the answer that gives light comes from Christ.”