Today, the last Sunday before Christmas, is traditionally called “Expectant Mothers’ Sunday”. In the joy of telling the story of the mothers carrying John the Baptist and the Christ-child in their wombs, it’s easy to overlook one crucial element of the story: for most of her life, St Elizabeth suffered from infertility.
Although Elizabeth and Zechariah longed for a child, they passed into old age childless. Not only was this a personal tragedy, but in the Jewish culture of those days, it was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure. Today, we wouldn’t interpret infertility as a curse from God; instead, we recognise that infertility exists, and causes extreme pain and suffering for many couples. At this time of year, when television relentlessly shows us images of happy families gathering for Christmas, the longing for a family that hasn’t happened can bring that pain to the surface. We cannot underestimate this pain.
Infertility sets a couple apart when their friends are starting families. It causes anger and tension in a marriage where one partner blames the other, or takes the guilt upon themself, for failing to produce the longed-for child. And when a devout Christian is in this situation, they might blame God, echoing the words of Micah: “No child has come to birth – why have you abandoned me?”
The pain of infertility is not rare. In Britain today, 8 out of every 100 couples find themselves unable to produce a child despite trying for two years, and naturally the next step is to seek medical help. There are approaches to fertility treatment to which the Church has no moral objection – the same fertility awareness methods which can help Catholic couples to space out pregnancies can also greatly increase the chances of conceiving a wanted child. But medical science now offers the possibility of creating a new human life in a test-tube,* a technique called IVF.** Is this moral?
Normally, the job of medicine is to help our human bodies to repair themselves, or to relieve symptoms when problems can’t be fixed. But the NHS will normally suggest IVF** as the “one size fits all” solution to infertility, and we need to think carefully about this – because IVF isn’t about repairing a human being – it’s the creation of a new human being.
There are practical down-sides to IVF. It’s been around for so long that the first generation of IVF babies are now adults. Some have said they “feel like a product rather than a person”. At a science festival, I once met a young woman who was absolutely livid that the identity of her true father would never be known to her because he was an anonymous donor. But what if we don’t allow a third party to provide any genetic material, and we give strict instructions to the doctors that they are not to produce any “spare” embryos – surely there’s nothing wrong with two married people asking doctors to make a baby in a test-tube when nothing else seems to work?
As soon as a human embryo is created, it contains everything needed to develop into a fully grown and unique*** human being. We recognise that a precious human life is present from the moment of conception – an understanding which the Gospel confirms as John the Baptist, at six months’ gestation, salutes the Christ-child newly conceived in Mary’s womb.
For questions around IVF, we have no explicit teaching from the Lord or St Paul to guide us. But Our Lord hasn’t abandoned us! He promised his followers the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, and appointed Peter as the rock on which the Church could stand secure. So in each age, when new moral questions arise, it’s the special job of the Vicar of Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to guide us towards moral truth. And what the Popes see is that while God has entrusted human beings with the right and ability to manage the natural world around us, we are called to have a special humility, before God, when it comes to the creation of human life itself.
Pope Paul VI warned us of a pitfall of pride waiting for us down the road of medical technology. A humble Christian attitude understands that human life is a gift. It’s a gift which we have no right to throw away through suicide or euthanasia, and no right to wrestle into being in a test-tube. There’s nothing wrong with using medicine to repair the body’s own ability to conceive a child, but when we replace nature with a test-tube, we’re telling God that a child is our right to take, rather than God’s gift to give – and that’s a dangerous attitude of heart for a Christian.
Pope John Paul II saw clearly that there’s something sacred about the creation of a new human life. The marriage bed is the altar of the sacrament of marriage. Genesis clearly indicates that ‘two becoming one flesh’ is what our Creator intended. While medical technology can play its part before or after the moment of conception, the beginning of human life itself is something which should be respected as a moment involving husband, wife, and God alone.
In a short weekend sermon, it’s simply not possible to go into all the questions which this difficult teaching stirs up. “Surely if every child is a gift, a blessing, it’s good to bring another into the world?”, “What about children conceived this way – are they less precious?”, “Should I feel guilty for having my beautiful child, just because we used IVF?” – these are real questions, and if any of them are in your heart, they’re best dealt with in the privacy of a pastoral conversation. Suffice it to say that God loves every child unconditionally, however that child came into being.
To any family for whom infertility is a personal source of pain, if I have touched a raw nerve just before Christmas, I’ve done so because there’s a greater gift on offer: the Christ-child, who can lead you to peace of mind even through the most difficult circumstances. The gift which God offers is not easy to receive. Today’s second reading shows us how Christ comes to earth as a man saying to God “I will obey your will” and who allows his own body to suffer on the Cross. Elizabeth and Zechariah welcome their child at an age in life when they’re certainly not expecting to do so. Mary responds to God with total trust: “Let what you have said be done to me” – even though she will be wrongly accused of being unfaithful. Each of these persons attained their holiness through embracing the challenge God offered, not by avoiding it.
It’s easy to be glib and to make comments about the possibility of adopting a child, or about “offering it up” and embracing the deep pain of infertility. I have no wish to be glib from this pulpit; but as true followers of Jesus, we must set aside our own desires and embrace the unexpected duties which God sends our way. Technology offers us the promise of “what we want, when we want it”. But spirituality indicates that true peace of mind comes through the prayer of the suffering servant of God: “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.” Only in this way can we find true peace.
Our reasoning might not make much sense to a world which has no instinct for what is sacred, a world proud of what technology can achieve; but we who are followers of Jesus belong to a Kingdom which holds very different values. Today’s take-home message is not only that “The Church says NO to IVF”, but that behind every NO in this area, behind the NO which says that human lives are too sacred to be created in a test-tube, there shines a great YES acknowledging the dignity and value of every single, unique and precious human being.
* Technically, not a test-tube but a much more sophisticated and appropriate vessel, but for a spoken sermon I hope I am allowed some poetic license.
** There are other technologies which separate fertilisation from marital intimacy, with acronyms like IUI and ICSI. The spoken sermon refers to IVF since it is the most well-known procedure but the moral teaching applies to any technology which separates fertilisation from a sexually intimate act between husband and wife.
*** In some cases, of course, the embryo can split to form identical twins.
Additional material for on-line readers:
Due to shortness of time in a weekend homily, it was not possible to fully acknowledge additional moral problems which often arise during IVF. Normal IVF procedures result in the healthiest embryos being implanted, with the others thrown away or frozen for possible future use. If we recognise the human dignity which belongs to every human embryo, how can we be content with human life being frozen, still less discarded as mere clinical waste?
For some medical conditions, doctors suggest that IVF works better using genetic material from a third person. The couple receiving treatment would raise the child, but biologically, it will have another parent. This offends our Christian understanding of marriage. In the marriage vows of the Anglican Church in Wales, husband and wife vow to each other that “forsaking all others”, they will be faithful as long as both live. Catholic wedding ceremonies don’t use those exact words, but embrace the same understanding that marriage is an exclusive partnership. Husband and wife have promised to be faithful to each other even if sickness and “for worse” happens. And if marriage is an exclusive partnership, then using IVF to include a third parent would clearly break the wedding vows.
It is clear why, as Christians, we take a stand against third party involvement in the creation of a child: marriage vows clearly commit us to “forsaking all others”. It is clear why, as people who cherish all human life, we cannot countenance producing multiple embryos, freezing some past their use-by date, while selectively destroying others. If we find it difficult to understand why our Popes have said “NO” to IVF in other circumstances, let us assume that they have discerned God’s will correctly, and ask God for light to help us understand this difficult teaching.
Articles 2373-2379 of the Catechism deal with infertility.
A 2004 paper by the Pontifical Academy for Life dealt specifically with fertility treatment.
John Paul II called for research into morally acceptable ways of treating infertility
Benedict XVI in 2012 addressed a special forum on “Diagnosis and Treatment of Infertility”.