By Mark Schmidt
Director of the Office of Respect Life/Social Justice
This past year, the Archdiocese of Dubuque Family Life Office debuted a website on natural family planning. In addition to the basics of NFP, it also included personal stories from couples who have used NFP for various reasons, among them, to assist them in conceiving a child. One such couple is Ashley and Jeff who struggled with infertility. They were offered in vitro fertilization as their only option by their doctor. Instead, they reached out to a priest and learned about another possibility called natural family planning (NFP). Through the use of NFP they were able to conceive because NFP helped to diagnose and relieve underlying causes that were preventing conception.
When a married couple cannot conceive a child, such an experience can be painful enough, but that experience can also come with the added pain of guilt, fear, doubt, loneliness and even anger. Listening to couples who have had difficulty conceiving, they share the pain and suffering that comes with the inability to bring forth life. There are questions of “is it my fault?” “Did I do something wrong and now I am being punished?” “Am I a real man (or woman) if I can’t conceive a child?” “I felt like I let down my spouse, that she/he deserved better than me.”
With infertility, couples are often willing to “try anything” that gives them hope of conceiving a child, and not all of those methods they may be offered are morally permissible. The church has evaluated various methods and continues to do so; “Donum Vitae”(DV), written in 1987, considered the challenges of infertility and the various interventions available at that time. And in 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome released a follow-up, “Instruction Dignitas Personae On Certain Bioethics Questions” (IDP), to consider techniques that had been developed since that 1987 document. What is just as important in these two documents is that the church clearly teaches that there are permissible methods of intervention to assist couples. Among them: “techniques aimed at removing obstacles to natural fertilization, as for example, hormonal treatments for infertility, surgery for endometriosis, unblocking of fallopian tubes or their surgical repair, are” permissible (IDP).
Among other possible techniques, the church teaches that: “new medical techniques must respect three fundamental goods: a) the right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death; b) the unity of marriage; c) the specifically human values of sexuality which require “that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses” (IDP).
There is hope for many such couples. While such methods of assisting reproduction as in vitro fertilization, surrogacy and use of donor gametes (ovum/sperm) are not morally permissible, there are various medical methods for assisting in conceiving a child that are fully compatible with Catholic moral and ethical teachings. Among them are practices used in natural family planning. Such methods seek to diagnose and treat underlying issues that are preventing conception while confirming and conforming to the church’s teaching on the unitive and procreative nature of sexual intercourse as well as recognizing the intrinsic dignity of each and every human person at every stage of life following conception.
For some, even with morally permissible medical intervention, they will still not be able to conceive a child. It is important for others to recognize that couples in this situation must be given space and time to grieve. We must offer them compassionate relationship and, if and when they are ready, the church encourages them to consider various ways in which they may still offer themselves to support life in this world. “In order to come to the aid of the many infertile couples who want to have children, adoption should be encouraged, promoted and facilitated by appropriate legislation so that the many children who lack parents may receive a home that will contribute to their human development” (IDP) and/or “various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children” (DV).
The week of July 23-29 is National Natural Family Planning Week and coincides with the Respect Life and Social Justice “Formation For All” program. To hear Jeff and Ashley’s whole story you can participate in the Formation for All session on IVF and NFP at dbqarch.org/rlsj/formation.
And, you can visit the archdiocesan NFP page at dbqarch.org/nfp where there are many more resources, videos and personal stories about natural family planning.
You can also contact the consultant for health care ethics for the Archdiocese of Dubuque for more information on morally permissible methods for conceiving a child at DBQCHEAL@gmail.com.