Understanding Infertility: A Catholic Perspective
By Angelique Ruhi-Lopez
For those who long to be parents, perhaps nothing is more heartbreaking than experiencing the pain of infertility instead. I know this pain firsthand—my husband and I experienced infertility while trying to conceive our first child.
The Centers for Disease Control defines infertility as trying to conceive for at least one year with regular intercourse and no contraception. About one in six couples in the United States experiences infertility issues according to this definition.
When faced with the overwhelming choices associated with infertility, my husband and I began a search for what the Catholic Church teaches about fertility methods. Initially, what I read in Church documents such as Dignitas Personae and Donum Vitae overwhelmed me because of how profound they were; later, as I continued to read and pray, these documents made me realize God’s profound love for me, my husband, and the child we desired to conceive. This love and dignity is what forms the foundation of all the Church teaching on this subject.
Before facing infertility herself, Kate Moss Romero said she was privileged to come to know these teachings, since they were related to her in-depth study of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
“I was just so certain beforehand that the Church teaching was right and what we were going to follow. It eliminated any doubts,” said Romero. “Sure, we had doubts about whether or not we would ever have a child, but we didn’t deal with the doubt of whether what we were doing was right. It is so difficult for couples that aren’t informed about Church teaching. We need to be talking about this before couples experience infertility.”
So how does a couple dealing with infertility know if a fertility treatment is morally right and accepted by the Church? The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, following the Vatican documents on infertility, offers a helpful rule of thumb to help determine this:
—Any procedure that assists marital intercourse in reaching its procreative potential is moral.
—Procedures that add a “third party” into the act of conception or substitute a laboratory procedure for intercourse are not acceptable.
In light of this rule of thumb, procedures such as in-vitro fertilization and other related “treatments” would not be considered moral. In fact, they are not treatments at all because they do not help heal the underlying medical issues that are causing infertility. And a host of other ethical issues arise through the creation of human embryos in a lab.
“It’s easy to gravitate toward something that appears to be a quick fix when it’s not,” explained Romero. “I wasn’t interested in just masking the problem; I wanted to fix things instead of ignoring them.”
Romero found a Catholic solution in NaProTECHNOLOGY, a method of fertility evaluation and treatments that honors marital integrity and upholds the dignity of human life. The “FertilityCare” system begins with the premise that infertility may be a result of disorders that disrupt normal ovarian and uterine function. Because these disorders can interfere with conceiving and sustaining a pregnancy, treatments are administered that help alleviate the underlying causes of infertility.
FertilityCare physicians—trained by the Omaha-based Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction—are now found all over the nation and in other countries. Additionally, other Catholic physicians in the US have begun treating infertility patients in accordance with Church teaching in a similar fashion. Catholic physicians who have committed themselves to treating infertility in a comprehensive, moral way are answering the Church’s call to research alternate means of healing infertility that honor human dignity.
Romero was able to work long distance with a FertilityCare physician a few states away, and thanks to the treatment she received, she and her husband were able to conceive their first son, who was born in December 2010. They are now expecting their second child.
“Infertility feels so isolating, but there are so many people who are in a similar boat and want to be faithful to Church teaching,” said Romero. “It’s hard to reach out and get support, but you need it. It’s hard to handle it quietly by yourself.” For Romero, help came in the way of an online community of Catholic bloggers, faithful to the Magisterium, who share their experiences and treatments and offer one another prayer and support.
“For me, the support came through the blogs. No one else I knew in real life was dealing with infertility,” she said. “The blogs were a huge blessing in that regard.”
The adoption option
For some couples, the journey of infertility leads them to discern alternate ways of becoming parents, and many are led to pursue adoption.
According to the Catechism, spouses who suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate (and acceptable) medical procedures should unite themselves with the Lord’s cross and “give expression to their generosity by adopting abandoned children or performing demanding services for others” (CCC,2379). Some people discern that they do not want to remain childless and try to adopt, while others may discern that they are called to ministry or service in the Church. A life without children can still lead to a good, fruitful life of service. However, adoption is an incredible, loving option that should be, at the very least, considered, discerned, and prayed about.
“When in doubt, all you have to do is look at the Holy Family,” said Dr. Elizabeth Rex, mother of three— two through adoption—and an adjunct professor of bioethics at Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. “Jesus was both the biological son of Mary and adoptive son of Joseph by Divine Providence. Jesus fulfills the prophecy through his legal father, Joseph, who is not biologically related. I just hope that Catholics and Christians can have a more comprehensive understanding that adoption is what God has always wanted as a way of forming a family. He did it with his only begotten son in the Holy Family of Nazareth. We can learn from this example that adoption is a good choice that God has foreseen for all eternity.”
Adoption should never be viewed as a replacement or a quick fix to fulfill the desire of biological children. It is simply a different way to build a family that can happen with or without the presence of fertility. Through adoption, parenthood may not be experienced as one imagined it, but certainly fully.
“We need to as a nation and as a world think of children not as possessions or property, but as souls entrusted to our care,” said Dr. Rex. “Especially as Catholics, we are all adopted children of God. We are entrusted to our parents, but we’re all God’s children.”
Dr. Rex and her husband started The Children First Foundation, which promotes Choose Life license plates, Choose-Life.org. The additional cost of these license plates goes directly toward helping fund efforts for prenatal care for women considering adoption services and pro-life pregnancy centers that encourage adoption.
There are more than five million people today in the US who were adopted, and a total of about 100,000 are adopted domestically and internationally each year by US parents through foster care, domestic adoption, and international adoption.
It is normal to have fears, concerns, and questions prior to adopting. Many worry about the cost of adoption, but there are foundations that help defray adoption costs, and some adoption agencies offer a sliding scale for fees. We may also be inclined to ask ourselves whether we can love an adopted child as much as a biological one, but of course we can—just as we love our spouses despite not sharing the same genes.
“Adoption has reaffirmed for me that love is a gift and a choice. Parenting is not about biology; it’s about love and loving as God did. I think adoption is a beautiful, concrete example of how we choose to love. It’s a love that calls us to go outside of ourselves, and one that is misunderstood by many,” said Carmen Santamaría, who adopted twins domestically after experiencing secondary infertility following the birth of her two biological children.
As a result of our combined experiences with infertility and adoption, Carmen and I felt called to co-author a book entitled The Infertility Companion for Catholics: Spiritual and Practical Support for Couples, which combines Church teachings on infertility with firsthand experiences and resources for couples struggling with infertility and miscarriage. Our desire in writing this book is to offer hope both to couples in the midst of this struggle as well as the families, friends, and Church ministers who support them.
“Infertility teaches us to trust in God’s plans and reminds us that we don’t have all the answers. The Lord tells us, ‘My ways are not your ways,’” added Santamaría. “We need to trust that whatever situation we are in, God is working in us to perfect us, and he knows what is best for us, however painful that may be.”
Infertility & Adoption resources
Catholic Healthcare Options
FertilityCare Centers of America (Find NaPro TECHNOLOGY medical consultants)
One More Soul (NFP only physicians)
- Facing Infertility: A Catholic Approach by Jean Dimech-Juchniewicz (Pauline Books and Media)
- Infertility Journey: Making Faith-Informed Decisions Under the Guiding Hands of God (booklet) by Jeannie and Bruce Hannemann (Elizabeth Ministry International)
- The Infertility Companion for Catholics: Spiritual and Practical Support for Couples by Angelique Ruhi-Lopez and Carmen Santamaria (Ave Maria Press)
- Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It by Ray Guarendi (Servant Books)
- The Call to Adoption: Becoming Your Child’s Family by Jaymie Wolfe (Pauline Books and Media)
There are more than 40 Catholic blogs dedicated to the subject of infertility. Here is just a sampling: