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Assisted Reproduction

The Moral And Religious Debate Over IVF In Chicago

As plans for a new IVF facility in in a Chicago suburb are debated, opponents to the clinic are finding friends in familiar places – the religious community:

When Katie O’Connor and her husband thought about having a child through in vitro fertilization two years ago, they knew that the technique — which often results in the destruction of surplus embryos — went against the teachings of the Catholic Church in which they had been raised. But they didn’t decide to shun IVF. They decided to leave the church. “Once we knew this would be our path, we started to feel uncomfortable” with the Church’s teachings, said O’Connor, 34, of Chicago, now a practicing Lutheran and the mother of a toddler named Gwen. “We were proud of the struggle we went through. It made it even more amazing and we didn’t want to hide that fact.”

The moral and religious debate over IVF is bubbling up in the Chicago area as activists, many of them members of a Naperville Catholic parish, criticize a fertility clinic planned for their town. The Rev. Thomas Milota of Ss. Peter and Paul, located two blocks from the proposed clinic site, says it is a matter of defending human dignity. “Those embryos that have not been implanted also have value and worth — those that were determined to be genetically defective, those embryos that were not wanted and discarded,” he said Tuesday before the Naperville City Council approved the clinic in a 7-2 vote.

It was a sign of the growing prominence of an issue that has long been obscured by the nation’s passionate dispute over abortion. “Personhood” laws, which seek to grant legal rights to embryos, have been proposed in 33 states, and though none has yet been enacted, IVF advocates say they represent a clear threat to fertility clinics.

“It is definitely getting worse, and we absolutely attribute it to the personhood movement,” said Barbara Collura of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association. But Keith Mason, the Denver-based president of Personhood USA, said the movement doesn’t seek to ban pregnancies assisted by science — only to regulate them to protect what he and others consider to be human life. “The personhood movement has exposed some of the dark secrets of the IVF industry,” he said. “A lot of practices are not respectful of basic human dignity.”

In vitro fertilization, which has been used since 1978, is performed by removing eggs from a woman and fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory, said Dr. Glenn Schattman, president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. Sometimes the fertilization isn’t successful, and sometimes the cells stop dividing on their own. When viable embryos do form, some are placed back in the woman with the hope that they will develop into a baby. For younger women with a good prognosis, Schattman said, only one embryo might need to be implanted, while older women usually require more.

A potential problem raised by critics is the possibility of too many fetuses developing in the womb, leading to some being aborted. But Dr. Ralph Kazer, chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said that situation is increasingly rare. “The number of times per year that we send patients for counseling about this issue is usually … very infrequently,” he said.

One enduring moral issue, though, comes from the embryos that are not implanted, but are instead frozen for possible future use, donated to researchers or simply thrown out. Dr. Randy Morris, who plans to open the Naperville clinic, said the fate of those embryos is up to the patient. “I’m more like a custodian,” he said. “It’s not for me to say what happens to an extra embryo if they have it.”

It was standing room only as the City Council considered the issue. The meeting room was filled with opponents of the clinic as well as Morris’ supporters, who wore matching blue T-shirts. Nearly 50 residents spoke during the debate that lasted almost three hours. The council ended up approving the clinic, not on the moral issues raised but as a zoning matter.

Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League told the council that destroying the embryos was akin to killing children. “Human life is being cheapened through the practice of IVF,” he said. “Not the lives of these beautiful children (produced by the technique) — the lives of the ones who are put in a deep freeze or sent off for embryo experimentation.”

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, considers the entire procedure to be fraught with ethical problems. “The somewhat whimsical but simple way of putting it is that the document Humanae Vitae says you can’t have any sex without children,” said Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a Catholic divinity professor and associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago. “Donum Vitae says you can’t have any children without sex.”

Milota, the Naperville pastor, said his concerns were more practical. His church’s activism, which he said was unconnected to the personhood movement or other outside efforts, centers on the destruction of unused embryos. He said he doesn’t question the humanity of children born through the process. “One of the big concerns of those people (is), ‘Are you saying my child isn’t worth anything?'” he said. “That’s exactly the opposite of what we’re saying. We’re saying your child is beautiful, your child has dignity and your child has value, but so do these other children who are in some ways the victim of this process.”

But the fear of being judged convinced one Downers Grove woman to keep her use of IVF a secret from her church. One of the embryos created through the process became her son, now 3. Others, she said, were discarded. “I think that there is an element of guilt, but at the same time, I had to do what was best for my family,” said the woman, who asked not to be named because she still attends the church. “As much as I think the Catholic Church’s viewpoint is strong and valid, it’s also not with the times. Modern medicine has come a long way, and there are a lot of people who could become wonderful parents who need just a little bit of help.”

I’m sorry, but I am so sick of politicians and religious leaders condemning infertile couples to a life without children — particularly when almost all of them go home every night to the smiles and giggles of their own kids. Even worse are those self-righteous, sanctimonious blowhards who seek to deny access to assisted reproduction while concealing that their own family was created through the use of such technology. And for all the religious hypocrites that selectively read the Bible to justify their opposition to family building through surrogacy, they ought to pay closer attention as the first reported surrogacy case was not Baby M out of New Jersey. Rather, it was Abraham and Sarah who had their son Ishmael with the help of history’s first reported traditional surrogate, Sarah’s chambermaid Hagar.

If you are morally or religiously opposed to IVF, then God bless you and by all means follow your faith and avoid these technologies. But your right to exercise your religion under the First Amendment also protects the rest of us from having your belief system imposed upon the rest of us heathens. So, with all due respect, follow your faith and stay the hell out of our bedrooms and doctor’s offices.


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