Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Reality of Infertility: A Response to "Making Sense Out of Bioethics: Considering the Options for Infertile Couples"

Recently, I was home visiting my parents for a long weekend.  One night, as I was lying on their couch watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory, my mom came storming into the living room and slapped a newspaper down next to me.  I looked to see that it was the Catholic Globe, the paper produced and distributed through our Diocese.  Upon seeing the paper, I knew in an instant what had upset her.  She'd been reading an article that I'd attempted to read myself, but hadn't been able to get through.  It was an article written by a priest, a Bioethicist, entitled "Making Sense Out of Bioethics: Considering the Options for Infertile Couples". Follow this link to read the article in full.

To anyone who hasn't experienced infertility, the article might seem rather practical and straightforward.  The author states that some couples experience infertility, that the Church is morally opposed to certain medical practices to counter said infertility, and then lists other possible options for those couples to "still realize their parental and maternal desires".  At first read through, it might be hard to point out anything particularly offensive or insensitive.

However, break it down and read it through the eyes of someone who has suffered through infertility, and it comes off much differently.  I myself have not had this experience because I've not tried to have children yet.

But my mom has.

I won't lie, this post proved very difficult for me to write.  There's so much about this article that angered me, and I found myself going on and on about the Church's stance on IVF and the author's claim that such treatments "produce" children rather than conceive them.  I struggled with what angle to take, thinking first to go paragraph by paragraph through the article and basically write what I found wrong with the statements and claims made.  I couldn't seem to wrap my head around everything that's in the article.  There's simply so much I could say.  So much I could write.  But then it dawned on me.  It's not about me.  This blog post isn't about me.

It's about my mom.

It's about my dad.

It's about every couple that has struggled with infertility.  Experienced the pain of knowing they can't have children the "natural" way.  Known the fear that the biological children they long for might be beyond their grasp.

This post is about my mom's reaction to the article.  Not mine.  It's about what she found offensive and painful.  What she objected to because of everything she's experienced.  In the end, it doesn't matter what I think.  It matters what she knows.

The author of this article spends much of his time writing about why IVF is considered immoral to the Church and listing other treatments that are basically Church "approved".  Even now as I write, it's very hard for me not to go off and rip into his statements.  But again, it's not about me.  I've never had to choose whether to do IVF or not.  My mom has.

Image result for infertilityMy mom and I never really talked much about her struggles before she and my dad pursued adoption.  She's never really told me about the other options they considered.  All I really knew was that it took them a long time to come to the decision to adopt, and that that decision was preceded by several years of pain and disappointment.  I never understood just how painful, though.  How disappointing.  I still don't understand fully, but after reading this article, my mom shared some more with me about that time in her life.  That time before I was even a thought.  When conception, not adoption, was the ultimate goal.

She told me that IVF had once been on the table as an option for her and my dad.  My mom will admit to having mixed feelings about procedures like IVF.  She isn't completely okay with it, but also isn't completely against it.  What she would never do is presume to think she can tell another couple whether or not they should do it.  She just knows, in the end, it wasn't the path for her and my dad, but not for the reasons I would have guessed.  She talked about the emotional roller-coaster she was forced through when she was going through fertility treatments.  About the hope when the doctor told her she might be pregnant, followed quickly by the despair when sometimes mere days later her body proved she wasn't.  She told me aside from any moral objections, what really kept her from pursuing the treatment was the fact that she simply wanted off that ride.  She couldn't take the sudden up and the crashing down anymore.

Infertility is not an uncommon condition in my family, and we are not unfamiliar with the medical options available to suffering couples.  It's important to highlight the fact that infertility is not just a female issue.  Men suffer from it too.  Men I know and love right alongside women I know and love have had to deal with their body's inability to conceive.  Though my parents eventually chose to go the route of adoption, I have several family members who were conceived using IVF, and no one will ever convince me that their conceptions were any less meaningful than if they took place naturally.  I saw the pain their parents went through.  The struggle.  They tried to hide it from the rest of us most of the time, but the frustration and despair slipped through the cracks every now and then.  If anything, the pain they went through, the disappointment, the perseverance in achieving their goal of conception is so much more meaningful than a lot of natural pregnancies that happen because someone forgot the condom.  Their use of IVF wasn't a way of "producing" children rather than conceiving them, or made their pregnancies any less meaningful than if they had happened naturally.  It made those pregnancies miracles.  The children born of those pregnancies are miracles.

Okay.  So, I managed to slip in a little something about IVF.  I simply couldn't help myself.

My mom was angry at the article for what it said about IVF and similar treatments, but it was the last few paragraphs that really pushed her over the edge.        

"In some cases, a couple’s infertility will end up being irresolvable. Even as a husband and wife face the grief and sorrow of not being able naturally to conceive children of their own, they can still realize their paternal and maternal desires in other meaningful, fruitful and loving ways. For example, they may discern a call to adopt a child, providing a mom and a dad to someone whose parents have died or felt that they could not care for the child."
Why did this paragraph set her off in particular?  Adoption is obviously a wonderful thing!  She ended up adopting three children and thanks God everyday that she did.  So what's the problem?
Read it again.
Read the last sentence.  Look at the part that says "providing a mom and a dad to someone whose parents have died..."  Again, if you haven't experienced adoption, you might not catch it.
"to someone whose parents..."
My mom isn't raising anyone else's children.  She's raising her children.  She and my dad are our parents.  You might not think the wording of this sentence is that big of a deal, but when you've grown up constantly correcting people about who your "real" mom is, it's a knife to the heart.  To me, this paragraph says "well, if you can't have your own children, there are plenty of people who don't want theirs so you can have them".  My mom read it in a similar way...these kids aren't really yours.  You're just the back-up mom.
"They might decide to become a camp counselor or a schoolteacher, or provide temporary foster care to a child in crisis, generously taking on an authentic parenting role. They may become a “Big Brother/Big Sister” to youth in the community who yearn for a father or mother figure in their lives."
I need to start this paragraph off by saying that these are all wonderful pursuits, and more people should take on such roles as camp counselor, foster parent, or Big Brother/Big Sister.  However, how dare the author assume that these roles will in any way compare to having children of your own, whether adopted or conceived?  It's comparing apples to oranges.  Foster parent comes the closest, but it's not the same.  Couples who suffer from infertility can experience years of physical, emotional, and spiritual agony, the effects of which can linger the rest of their lives.  My mom is so happy that she has my siblings and I, but she still experiences mixed emotions when she thinks about the fact that she never was pregnant.  She'll never know what it's like to carry a child.  When other women talk about their pregnancy experiences, she can't participate in the conversations.  She simply doesn't know, and as completely happy as she is, and how certain she is that she wouldn't change a thing about how we became a family, those feelings simply don't disappear.  That hurt and disappointment lingers.    
"Although these solutions do not take away all the grief, they are a means by which God helps to draw good out of their situation. By these means, couples are challenged to “think outside the box” and enter into the mysterious designs of God within their marriage. By stepping away from a desire to conceive and raise biological children of their own, couples facing irresolvable infertility can discover new and unexpected paths to marital fruitfulness, paths that bring great blessings to others, and that can lead to abiding joy and marital fulfillment."
Move on.  Get over it.  That's basically the gist of this final paragraph.
It's easy for someone living a celibate, unmarried life to write this.  Children aren't in his future.  He doesn't have the feelings of a spouse to consider.  His hopes for a family aren't unexpectedly crushed because his body has betrayed him on a primal level.  It's easy to pass judgement when you haven't been personally drowning in the experience.
Infertility is traumatic.  Grief is not the only emotion that couples experience.  Grief barely scratches the surface.  Disappointment.  Frustration.  Physical agony.  Hopelessness.  Guilt.
The guilt surprised me.
My mom told me how guilty she felt.  She said that when you go in to be tested for infertility, as bad as it sounds, you hope it's not you.  But if it's not you, then its your spouse.  It was my mom, not my dad.  He was perfectly capable of having children.  The guilt that she couldn't give him what someone else could was one of the hardest things for her.  The physical pain, the emotional strain...all of it was wrapped up in guilt.
I had never considered that.  I'm not at that point in my life yet.  I haven't been in a committed relationship where it's not just about what I want.  Whenever I think of having children, it's always with just me in mind.  I've always thought, if I have trouble conceiving, I wouldn't have a problem adopting.  But what about my spouse?  What would he feel?  What would he want?  What would he be capable of?
It's complicated.  Infertility is complicated and difficult.  People do almost unimaginable things to their bodies to try and overcome it.  You don't put yourself through that kind of pain for nothing.  The desire for children for these couples is so great, so all-consuming that they will put themselves through torture to achieve their dream.  I've heard people dismiss these efforts as selfish.  Unreasonable.  But they don't get it.  They haven't experienced the desperation these couples have.  This author has never and will never experience this first hand.  So it's easy for him to write about it.  To be practical and reasonable to the point of dismissive.  It's easy for him to pass judgement.  It's easy for him and the rest of the clergy to pass judgement on the way our families are made  in black and white terms because they don't know the gray.  They haven't lived it.  They haven't suffered through it.  Not the way some couples have.  Not the way my parents have.
Their pain isn't yours to dismiss.  Their experiences aren't yours to undermine.  Their tragedy is not your "mysterious design".  Their marital fulfillment is not your soapbox.  Their fruitfulness is none of your business. 

1 comment:

  1. What a powerful statement, knowing your mom like I do. I am sure Ishe was more than hurt and angry than a little bit. I think you opened up the side of infertility that we tend to forget . And that it's not just the physical but everything that goes on in between. Very well wrirren.