A new Catholic dilemma is born

IVF couples are confused and upset by the bishops' statement that in vitrofertilisation is wrong and blaming infertility on casual…

IVF couples are confused and upset by the bishops' statement that in vitrofertilisation is wrong and blaming infertility on casual sex. Kathryn Holmquist reports

Katherine, a Catholic and a mother of twins conceived through in vitro fertilisation, believes the church is condemning IVF in the way that it once condemned unmarried mothers. Parents will make their own choices regardless of the church's advice, she says.

"Revelations about child abuse by Catholic priests, and the hypocrisy associated with that have undermined the church's influence significantly. I think Catholic parents will make a choice based on what they believe, and on their personal relationship with God," she says.

Katherine intends to tell her children they were IVF babies, and is confident that when they are old enough to become interested in theological issues, they will be well able to reconcile the church's views with their own beliefs.


She's one of many people upset or confused by the Catholic bishops' recent public condemnation of in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

The National Infertility Support and Information Group has been inundated with inquiries from Catholic couples following the bishops' statement. Some had already had babies through IVF. Would their children now be excluded from First Holy Communion and Confirmation? Those who were joyously pregnant through IVF, suddenly feared their unborn babies would not be accepted for Christening within the Catholic Church.

The pain and confusion felt by the support group's members was heightened by the attacks on them by Pro-Life supporters at the public meeting of the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction at Dublin Castle, at which the bishops presented their views. The National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISIG) alleges members of the Pro-Life Lobby targeted people wearing NISIG nametags and accused them of being anti-life.

"I desperately want to create life. What can be more pro-life than that?" asked one woman, who is being treated for infertility.

Father Kevin Doran, secretary of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Committee for Bioethics, has criticised Pro-Life activists for disturbing the meeting and inhibiting calm and open debate. "I felt uncomfortable with their behaviour, even though we are on the same side," he says.

For members of NISIG, the accusation that they are anti-life continues to sting 10 days after the meeting. They also feel shaken by the public airing of the submission which the Catholic bishops made to the Commission in December 2001.

"IVF has been available in Ireland since 1986. So why didn't the bishops tell us this before?" asks Helen, spokeswoman for NISIG. "I think this is going to put many couples into a dilemma." The Catholic Church's stance is that IVF is wrong under any circumstances, even when embryos are implanted within the woman's body.

All conception must take place naturally within a woman's body, says Father Doran. But if a child is conceived in vitro, that child will still be welcomed by God. There is no question of children being rejected for Christening and First Holy Communion because they were conceived through IVF, he stresses.

The decision on whether or not to avail of IVF, sperm donation, egg donation or other interventions is a personal "crisis of conscience" for Catholics, Father Doran explains. Should they decide to go ahead with such procedures, they would not be excommunicated. Nor would they be acting within the church's teaching. In other words, they would be in a grey zone which is not a sin, but a "crisis".

"Our members feel strongly that God's love is unconditional and accepts the person. We feel that we are very good living Christians and all we want to do is create life," says Helen. "We didn't ask to be infertile, we didn't ask to have blocked tubes, polycystic ovaries, endometriosis. It's not our fault. It's not the male's fault that he has a low sperm count or he doesn't produce any sperm.

"These are real women, with serious spiritual and medical issues, who now feel rejected," says Helen.

Many parents of IVF-conceived children tell them how they were conceived. But a return to secrecy around infertility problems could be the inevitable result of the church's condemnation of IVF. The NISIG has spent years trying to de-stigmatise infertility and open the issue to public discussion and empathy. Now, couples considering IVF could be afraid to make themselves known for fear of being ridiculed by Pro-life campaigners, or of being regarded as bad Catholics.

One of the church's objections to IVF is that not all embryos created in a lab can be implanted in the womb. Some embryos may die in the process, some may be frozen for future implantation and others may die on thawing.

Doctors working within the area in the Republic insist that all embryos are treated with respect. If they cannot be implanted, they are frozen for future use by the couple. There is no embryo experimentation in the Republic.

Another issue the church has raised is that the fundamental cause of infertility could be traced back to premarital sex.

For example, blocked tubes can be caused by chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease which a woman can be unaware she has. We should be looking at the causes of this, rather than trying to treat it with IVF, says Father Doran. One protection against sexually transmitted diseases is for women and men to remain chaste until marriage.says.

"Is Father Doran labelling us as promiscuous?" asks Helen. "I know of people who have blocked tubes due to surgery at an earlier age, or severe endometriosis. There should be no stigma about infertility whatever its cause."

Infertility is a complex issue. While chlamydia is to blame in some cases, there are many other causes of infertility, such as low male sperm counts, which affects 26,000 couples in the Republic every year.

"How will couples who have had failed fertility treatment be able to mourn their loss within the church, when the church condemns IVF treatment?" asks Helen.

Tina, who helps run the NISIG helpline, says that as a Catholic, she had felt excluded from the church for not being a mother. Images of Mary and the baby Jesus at Christmas, Christenings, First Holy Communions, Confirmations and Mother's Day were the touchstones of Catholic family life. As a woman, she felt she had no place in a church that celebrated women only as mothers.

Tina chose not to have IVF because she did not want medical personnel interfering in that most private part of herself. She stands by her decision, but at the same time has talked to her priest about feeling ostracised.

The priest assisted her in organising a Mass for her unborn children. These children, though never conceived, are as real as any other child, she argues.

Aside from such theological questions, fertility clinics must now deal with Catholic clients who may feel ambivalent as a result of the bishops' statement. However, Dr Tony Walsh of the Sims Fertility Clinic, in Dublin, asserts that none of the couples coming to him has ever expressed concern about the Catholic Church's views.

"The submission is important in stimulating the debate which will help frame future legislation of this very sensitive medical issue", he says. But he remains convinced that the medical profession works within the guidelines of the Medical Council, which prohibits experimentation with or destruction of embryos. If implemented, the bishops' statement would remove many procedures available to infertile couples, such as sperm donation and embryo freezing.

"In particular we disagree with the bishops comments' in relation to gamete [sperm or egg\] donation which has been an important treatment for infertile couples in Ireland for over a generation, says Dr Walsh. "The bishops' proposals would force many hundreds of couples to seek treatment overseas adding greatly to the burden of couples dealing with the trauma of not being able to conceive a child."

Exporting the problem, he adds, is a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Surnames have been withheld to protect people's privacy

The helpline of the National Infertility Support and Information Group 1890-647444 is open daily until 9 p.m.