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Rachel Gurevich

Myth: You Cannot Pursue Treatment and Consider Yourself a Believer/Religious.

By April 28, 2011

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Once again, it's time to bust a myth in honor of National Infertility Awareness Week and RESOLVE's Bust a Myth Challenge.

Today's Myth: You cannot pursue fertility treatment and consider yourself a believer/religious.

This myth plays out in two ways. One is that accepting help or treatment somehow implies a lack of faith in God. As if infertility is a sign from God that you are not worthy of carrying a pregnancy or becoming a parent, and therefore, finding and accepting help is wrong.

The other way this myth plays out is that fertility treatments are religiously unacceptable, specifically IVF. Some religious groups believe that conception should never occur outside of the body, or they fear that embryos will be destroyed or indefinitely frozen.

This is especially a problem for fertility challenged Catholics, and for Christians who oppose intentional destruction or freezing of embryos.

What's Wrong with This Myth

Plenty of religious people experience infertility and seek out treatment without going against their beliefs. If you're against IVF treatment, there are other options available, including GIFT (more on that below).

As for saying that treatment seeking shows a lack of faith in God, it's no different than taking antibiotics for an infection or having your appendix removed for appendicitis. If you accept medical treatment for other illness, then logically there's no reason not to accept treatment for infertility.

What's (Possibly) Behind It

Obviously, I can't speak to God and get answers. So I'm limited on this one.

What I can do is dispel some misunderstandings regarding fertility treatment options, provide some food for thought on the topic, and provide a Biblical example of an infertile women seeking help to get pregnant.

And I must apologize that this post speaks mainly to Christians and Jews. I have to stick with what I know here. But if you have answers for other beliefs, please do share in the comment section.

First, let's tackle the idea that fertility treatment somehow goes against God's will.

There are those that believe that infertility is some sort of religious curse or punishment or that it is a sign that it is not God's will that you have children.

The fact of the matter is that we have no idea why bad things happen to good people. (And I think we can all agree that infertility is something that happens to many good people.) The Bible has quite a few examples of infertility happening to righteous individuals, including Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah.

To say that you are infertile as punishment would be like saying Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were being punished, and I don't believe the Bible implies that their infertility was a punishment. It certainly caused them all heartache, however, and somehow was essential to them becoming the amazing women they became.

Also important to note is that the fertility challenged women of the Bible did not accept their infertility. They prayed and begged God for children. If they thought this was simply a matter of God deciding they were not meant to be mothers, why pray?

Rachel even sought an herbal fertility treatment:

"During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, 'Please give me some of your son's mandrakes.'" -- Genesis 30:14

Mandrakes were an ancient fertility treatment. Rachel felt so strongly about needing them that she exchanged a night with Jacob for the fertility herb. Unfortunately, the mandrakes were not helpful for Rachel, but this is still a good example of a righteous biblical figure seeking out the treatment of the time for infertility.

Fertility Treatment, Embryos, and Conception Outside the Body

IVF, in vitro fertilization, means fertilization that takes place in the lab, and some have religious objections to conception taking place outside of the body.

However, if this level of assisted reproductive treatment is necessary, there is another option - GIFT. GIFT stands for gamete intrafallopian transfer. With GIFT, the woman's eggs and man's sperm are placed together directly into the fallopian tube. Hopefully, the sperm will fertilize the egg or eggs, and pregnancy will occur. With GIFT, conception occurs in the same place it occurs naturally.

The success rates for GIFT are not nearly as good as they are for IVF, it is a more invasive medical procedure, and you may need to search for a doctor experienced with this rarely used treatment. However, it is an option, and one you should know about.

If fertility drugs or other treatments are not successful for you, and you are against IVF, talk to your doctor about GIFT.

Let's talk a bit about those who don't have a problem with conception outside the body per se, but do not want embryos frozen or intentionally destroyed.

You can speak to your doctor and specifically ask them not to create more than one or two embryos at a time. Your chances of getting a good quality, strong embryo may go down, and so you may need more cycles of IVF for success. Also, depending on the reason for infertility, this option may be unlikely to work. But for some couples, this is a real option to consider.

You can also consider donating any extra embryos to another infertile couple. Be sure to talk to your doctor about this option before you start treatment, as certain tests and paperwork may need to be done before the embryos are created.

Also, you should know that embryos are never created and then destroyed intentionally without your consent. (Dead embryos may be thrown away, but you can always talk to your doctor if you want them disposed of in a special way.) They will be your embryos, and you can choose what to do with them once they are created. You can freeze them and choose to transfer them until you have used them all up. (If you get pregnant with one transfer, you would just use the next ones for the next pregnancy.)

In fact, if some embryos are too weak to lead to a pregnancy or have already died, but you are against them being thrown in the trash, ask your doctor about transferring them anyway, either in that cycle or a future cycle. They will then leave your body with your period.

Some fertility clinics offer religious supervision, where a religious figure, sometimes a rabbi, oversees how the embryos are handled. You don't have to be Jewish to use these services, and if you want added security that your embryos are cared for according to your wishes, this is a possible option.

What the Facts Are

No one really knows what God thinks, and bad things happen to good people for reasons we do not understand. No one can say whether what happens is "meant to be" or not.

Accepting fertility treatment is no different than accepting help for any other medical problem. If you would accept herbs, drugs, or medical treatment for your non-fertility problems, there's no logical reason to turn it away for infertility. Remember that Rachel of the Bible took a fertility herb of her time.

There are options for fertility treatment that may help avoid whatever religious or ethical problems you have. Remember that 85 to 90% of infertile couples can be treated with drugs, surgery, or other low tech treatments, and IVF may not even be necessary.

But if IVF is recommended, you have options, like GIFT, single embryo creation, embryo donation, and transferring the frozen embryos until you have used them all up.

More on infertility and spirituality:

More on infertility myths:

May 2, 2011 at 8:46 am
(1) beautifuleyes says:

“But if IVF is recommended, you have options, like GIFT, single embryo creation, embryo donation, and transferring the frozen embryos until you have used them all up.”
Not really, GIFT is not an option if you have tubal factor or male factor.
You cannot actually ‘create’ one and only one embryo unless you attempt to fertilise only one egg at each cycle . Not feasible for most.
Embryo donation is not acceptable to many and may not be an option in case of ivf for PGD for a genetic disorder.
All embryos can’t always be transferred for various reasons.

Those who DO have the above options and choose to exercise them still however cannot claim ‘Moral superiority’ over those whose medical diagnosis don’t allow them to ‘choose’ these options.

“No one really knows what God thinks, and bad things happen to good people for reasons we do not understand. No one can say whether what happens is “meant to be” or not.”

May 2, 2011 at 9:15 am
(2) Rachel Gurevich says:

You’re right that creating just one or two embryos is a huge risk, and may not work for a number of reasons. I mentioned that this is not for everyone above, and for some couples, it’s impossible. But there are doctors who give it a try for patients who strongly insist. I have no idea what the success rate is, but I imagine it’s not high.

There are of course exceptions to everything I wrote above. Still, for some, these are the only options they are willing to consider. I think it’s important they know there’s a possibility out there, even if it’s slight, even if in the end it turns out it’s not the solution for them.

“Those who DO have the above options and choose to exercise them still however cannot claim ‘Moral superiority’ over those whose medical diagnosis don’t allow them to ‘choose’ these options.”

They shouldn’t — but lots will. I like to hope for the best, though. :)

September 16, 2012 at 5:08 am
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