In 2003, I discovered quite unexpectedly that I was pregnant. I was in the middle of my course work for my Ph.D., so we weren’t yet “trying” to get pregnant, but it has a way of happening in a marriage. We were overjoyed to discover the positive pregnancy test — but things quickly went wrong as I suffered a miscarriage in a hotel on a trip to visit my husband’s family. I was devastated.
I had no idea at the time, however, that I was beginning a four-year journey into infertility, which I now like to call “subfertility.” As I learned, “infertile” is not a word you can use until the end of your reproductive years. Unless your womb has been removed or you are born without one (or your spouse is a castrato), life is always possible.
At the time, I was newly returned to my cradle faith as a Catholic. Though we were practicing natural family planning, I really had no idea what the Church’s teaching was on artificial reproductive technology (ART). As one miscarriage turned to two and then to three, and no medical explanation was found, I was alarmed to discover that the one medical miracle available to me was forbidden — in vitro fertilization (IVF) was not an allowable option.
I railed against the teaching — it seemed horribly cold and unfair, and distinctly anti-life. How could the Church teach openness to life and forbid someone as open to it as I the one chance she had at achieving and sustaining a pregnancy? I went to the leading reproductive endocrinology clinic in the country and was again told that no explanation could be found, but that the only hope I had was IVF and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). The theory was that women who were “habitual aborters” — a terrible name for recurrent miscarriers — may have genetically abnormal conceptions, and that PGD could select the most genetically robust embryos for implantation, giving one a greater chance at a healthy conception and pregnancy. Even though my husband and I were both genetically normal, the clinic theorized that this might be our only chance to have a healthy child.
My husband is a physician, and though my Ph.D. will be in the humanities, I used to work for the pharmaceutical industry, so we threw ourselves into research. What we discovered was both horrifying and astonishing. First, we discovered that early miscarriage — while usually not so persistent and, as in my case, so painfully sequential — is not abnormal but normal. Most women miscarry multiple times over the course of their reproductive life, though many of the miscarriages will go undetected.
We also discovered that 70 percent of women who are “subfertile,” the type that are usually considered prime candidates for ART, will eventually come to term on their own with no treatment. So women are being “treated” for something that may or may not even be pathological. And the treatment is risky to both women and their conceptions. The body is chemically shut down with a pharmaceutical hormone override so that the doctors can control the production of its eggs. The ovaries are then “stimmed” to produce a glut of eggs that are then “harvested.”
Both the ovarian stimulation and the harvesting present risks to the mother, including ovarian rupture, and the acceleration of certain kinds of cancers due to the excess of hormones. It is not uncommon for women to suffer from infected and gangrenous gall bladders from the hormonal injections, and the harvesting process presents all the risks that come with unnecessary surgeries, plus a few others — including permanent, true infertility.
Many of the women who come to infertility clinics are often suffering from hormonal imbalances that can be treated through nutrition and other natural remedy. But rather than diagnose the underlying disruptions and get the hormonal imbalance under control — something not only conducive to successful pregnancy but to the long-term health of the mother — they are presented with IVF as a viable option for achieving pregnancy. If they do achieve pregnancy, post-partum the women return to the unhealthy state that originally brought them to the clinic in the first place, without the underlying pathologies being treated; because these underlying imbalances are completely ignored in favor of pregnancy on demand, these women are left with uncontrolled health conditions which make them vulnerable to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
The more I read, the more my stomach turned. If the dehumanizing and demoralizing treatment women received as ART patients wasn’t enough, I also learned that, contrary to the hype about ART doctors being “miracle workers,” their success rates are abysmal, which leads to the implantation of multiple embryos to increase the odds of success. And then, of course, there is the Church’s number one objection: the treatment of embryos as a medical waste product.
It began to dawn on me that the Church’s teaching, which I first only blindly obeyed with more than a touch of rage, was really a saving grace. The babies born to IVF are often low birth weight and display an alarming trend in developmental delays. It is difficult to tell if this is because they are so often low birth weight or if there is something about the process itself that is causing this delay; but there is an undeniable correlation between IVF babies and developmental defects. And what about the treatment of our “non-robust” conceptions? Would they be discarded? Frozen? And if they were frozen, were they then ensouled? Were they living suspended in freezers?
I began to see ART clinics as ruthless, Machiavellian entities, promising life to mothers and fathers desperate for children at any financial, emotional, and spiritual cost. I met many women whom I could only see as victims, as their failed attempts pushed them deeper into despair and financial ruin.
Certainly, many beautiful souls have come into this world through IVF. And not every woman finds heartbreak during ART. They will tell you that what they suffered was worth it. For what mother doesn’t feel that any sacrifice is worth the existence of her children? I’m lucky enough to know many of these wonderful children, and not all of them had problems. Many of them are healthy and were born non-traumatically. But an equal number of them have had traumatic premature births, with consequent developmental delays and physical problems. It is one thing when these problems are naturally occurring; it is quite another when we are subjecting women and their offspring to these possibilities that are no longer random but endemic to the process in which they were being conceived.
I am in no way pointing fingers at the women who undergo ART: They are at the mercy of the medical community, which suffers from a poorly thought-out ethos. Many of these women believe they have no other choice. They believe they have no hope other than what the ART industry offers. They believe the lies. They believe what they are told, as I was: that ART provides your best chance and best hope at conceiving and carrying to term.
Furthermore, they believe they are “infertile” when, perhaps, they are not. There are radical psychological factors going into the perception of “infertility” — some of which I witnessed firsthand in myself, and some of which I observed in others. We are trained to believe that we can turn our fertility on and off at will. So when we are “trying,” we begin looking. Closely. And we start noticing early miscarriages that, in a permanent state of openness to life, would have been undetected, simply because we weren’t paying attention. The stress of seeming infertility makes intercourse forced and fear-filled.
In talking to many women, a strange thing occurred to me. Many of them simply were not having enough sex. They were forcing sex into a small “ovulation” window. It was not flowing naturally from unity and love in the marriage but from a maniacal drive to procreate, the ironic flip-side to a contraceptive mindset. As Humanae Vitae teaches, sex between a husband and wife should be open to life, love, and growth. The status quo, even for faithful Catholics, is to be open to the last two but not the former. When the will flips the “fertility” switch — when we decide we are “trying” to have a baby — the last two suffer with an over-identification with the first. And when, month after month, there is a failure to achieve the desired results, the closer the so-called clinical diagnosis of infertility looms — which, in some cases, could be a terrible misnomer for bad sex.
We decided to pursue a radical fertility treatment — patience and prayer. I suffered six miscarriages total. I turned to blogging under the banner heading “Perfect Work,” drawn from a passage in the Book of James: “Let Patience do her perfect work.” Through blogging, I met many women suffering similar or worse circumstances than mine. We cried together, laughed together, prayed together.
I also was on the receiving end of several vicious attacks. The infertility blogosphere is enormous, I discovered, for two major reasons: One is that infertility is becoming epidemic due to sexually transmitted diseases and the late age at which women are choosing to start families. The other is rather chilling: ART is driving the diagnosis threshold of “infertility” ever downward, in order to increase the number of women who are viable candidates for their “treatment.” Many of these women are suffering under a “diagnosis” that doesn’t even apply to them. And many of them are raging and angry.
When I went public with the reasons my faith did not allow me to pursue ART — the same ART they held up as a beacon of technological hope — it made me vituperative enemies, some of whom still seek me out today to lay more accusations against me. The infertility blogosphere is often a brutal world with lock-step thinking and all the toxic bile women in pain can generate. It has all the markers of a culture of death — anger, despair, hopelessness, judgment.
Still, there were six women with whom I became very close during this time. All six of them now have children: Four of them became pregnant and carried to term naturally. Two of them adopted.
And me? In 2006, my womb was blessed with relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Deacon Bill Steltemeir at an EWTN conference. In 2007, I had Bronwyn Therese; in 2008, I had Marina Clare. I’m currently 36 years old, so who knows what else — and who else — is in store for our family? I recently had another early miscarriage, bringing the grand total to seven (and possibly eight, because it seems that one complicated miscarriage may have been twins).
But I have learned Patience. And her work? I’m reminded how perfect it is. Every day.