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whose concept of conception?
a mother-to-be questions the church's position
by michelle von euw

Dear United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,

It’s not a secret that we haven’t been very close lately. We haven’t exactly seen eye to eye on a variety of issues, dating all the way back to the middle ages (for you) and the second grade (for me), when I asked why a woman priest couldn’t give me my first communion.

For the first three decades of my life, I struggled to find some sort of middle ground between what you often said, and what I considered to be a purer interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ, as guided by my parents, the spiritual community they raised me in, and the sermons preached by my local priests. Sure, I was disappointed, to say the least, in the way my own Archdiocese responded to the awful crimes their trusted men committed against innocent children. I railed against my church’s very public, and frankly inexplicable, stand against the legal union of two loving partners, a stance whose timing coincided a little too smoothly with the public news of priests’ despicable and immoral injustices.

But I continuously found a way to reconcile my own beliefs with the larger messages of the Catholic Church.

While my weekly church attendance has dropped off since we moved away from Boston, I still identify myself as Catholic, culturally and even ethnically so, similar, perhaps, to the way that many secular, non-practicing Jews do. My family was Catholic, my husband was raised Catholic, we’d not only gotten married in a Catholic mass, but we took an extremely active role in the planning of that mass, carefully choosing the readings and songs instead of falling back on the standards, writing our own prayers of the faithful, and even distributing communion ourselves.

It meant something to us, to be Catholic.

As we made the decision to try and become parents, we danced at the edges of this identity, considering our religious background, and how we want to raise our children. Organized religion has always been a part of my life: the community was important to my upbringing, and I always believed that I’d want my children to be a part of this spiritual community as well.

And for me, for us, “spiritual community” always meant “Catholic.” It’s how we were raised. It’s the church our parents still attend every week, are still actively involved in, and primarily the church of our relatives.

But now that I am pregnant, now that the decisions facing us are no longer theoretical but very real and very close, suddenly, there's a possibility that the decision to baptize our child may not even be our own.

On November 19, 2009, you released a 16-page document entitled "Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology," and in it, you use a lot of compassionate language and thoughtfully chosen words, but all the trappings of love and understanding and spiritual closeness with God cannot shade the fact that right there on page 6, you state that the conception of my child was “immoral.”


You have the upper hand when it comes to Biblical interpretation and Catholic catechism, and I admit, I’m a bit of a simpleton because for me, Catholicism as a principle has always boiled down to the very basic tenant of, “love one another, as I have loved you.” When church teachings in my eyes have contradicted that statement, I've always chosen to go with Jesus’ words over the Pope’s.

But if I give you that, you have to give me credit for the fact that out of all of us, I’m the only one who knows what it’s like to be in a marriage, to have that connection with God as a wife, and I’m the only one who knows what it’s like to be able to carry life within her body.

And from reading your document, I know that my knowledge of IVF and fertility treatments far exceeds your own. When you write about the process, I can’t help but notice your ignorance of the medical procedures, as well as your reliance on outdated material and in some cases, just plain wrong information about the process of IVF.

Many of your arguments challenging the morality of IVF set up straw man situations, contrasting IVF against the “most perfect” scenario of conception: a wanted child intentionally conceived within a loving marriage. Realistically, I question the percentage of these situations, and feel that our circumstance was a hell of a lot closer to that ideal than accidental pregnancies that had more to do with, say, 2-for-1 drink specials than anyone’s conscious decision.

You write that the problem with IVF is that God is removed from the process of conception. I’d like to tell you that is the complete opposite of my experiences. Many Catholics take comfort from the fact that God is with them at times that are a thousand times more trivial than the process we went through; if an athlete can believe that God led him to a Super Bowl, then why is it so hard for you to accept that God was with us in our journey to a wonderful clinic, an insurance policy that provided coverage, and the help we needed to do what we couldn’t on our own?

If God guides the hands of surgeons who operate on people with life-threatening illnesses, why is it so hard for you to accept that God’s work was done through our wonderful and life-giving fertility doctor?

I wish I could tell you what it was like to be in that room the moment I became pregnant, one of the most amazing, miraculous, and yes, spiritual moments of my life. God was there, and nothing will change that, not even the ultimately hurtful words you published five days later, which claim that IVF “fail(ed) to respect the dignity of (our) marital relationship, of (our) sexuality, or of the child.”

The only disrespect to our marriage, and our child, was the ignorance and the intolerance from your office in the publication of this document, issued from a group of men who haven’t and never will experience what it’s like to go through what I’ve gone through, and who apparently haven't even educated themselves properly on the realities of the IVF process.

I’m not ashamed of the fact that we needed a little extra help in order to conceive; in fact, I’m determined to be proud. I believe that our baby is special, for all the reasons that make every child special, but also because of the challenges we overcame dealing with our fertility issues. I’m already a super-protective mom: I don’t know if I can raise my child in a church that considers his or her very existence immoral.

But now, I realize, it’s more than that: as someone who is open and unapologetic about what you call my "immoral" act, I realize that I may not even be allowed to baptize my child in the Catholic Church. (Your document is silent on a child’s status, other than to say affirm that yes, even IVF children have immortal souls. Thanks, by the way.)

When I raised this issue with my mom, she told me that how we became pregnant was no one’s business, but since then, I've realized something. It is your business. You should know that there are Catholics who feel the way I do, you should know the consequences of your words, and you should have a better understanding of exactly what it is your rail against.

Ball's in your court, gentlemen.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw


when left is right, and the right left behind
the whole is the sum of its partisans
by michelle von euw
topic: general
published: 5.10.00

caught in the balance
a tale of one city
by michelle von euw
topic: general
published: 11.8.04


tim lockwood
3.8.10 @ 1:52a

I'm a recent convert to the Catholic faith, as of 2007, and I have read up on this.

As I read and understand it (bearing in mind I'm not exactly an expert in this field, I'm just repeating what I've read) - the problem the Catholic Church has with IVF is that, during the process, multiple embryos are created, then those which have not been selected as the birth candidate are generally destroyed after the procedure is complete. Given the Church's long-held belief that life begins at conception, it is small wonder that they oppose it. The destruction of the remaining embryos is tantamount to murder.

If there were a way to either allow all the embryos to grow into full-fledged people, or to use an IVF process that creates only the birth candidate, the Church would certainly welcome it, IMO. Is there a new IVF process that fits this bill? I honestly don't know; again, I'm hardly an expert in the field. If so, that would be great news.

As to baptizing your child - YES, HAVE YOUR CHILD BAPTIZED! Baptism is God's grace expressed in that Sacrament to your child. The circumstances of your child's conception are not relevant to the question of whether or not to baptize; if they were, I certainly could not have been baptized. A child is never considered responsible for the sins and failings (or strengths and virtues) of the parents.

No person's very existence is immoral; to the contrary, the Church feels that EVERY person's life is sacred from the moment he or she is conceived, even if that person is not recognized as a person by most of society. And that's why they object to IVF. If the science of the procedure changes (or if it already has and the Church becomes aware of it), then their objections will almost certainly be lifted.

sandra thompson
3.8.10 @ 9:07a

As an official heretic in the RC Church, and a militant atheist, I'm probably not the best person to give you advice in these areas, but I suggest you question some other things as well. For one thing, the church changes its mind rather frequently and at one time the beginning of life was not conception. See Genesis 2:7, where life begins at the first BREATH. I gave up trying to reconcile the contradictions in Christianity, the RC Church, as well as theism in general over fifty years ago. I haven't regretted a single moment of it.

michelle von euw
3.8.10 @ 9:52p

Tim, that argument I understand to some extent (although in our circumstances, none of our embryos were destroyed or discarded, and we signed about a dozen pages of paperwork about this, which was a mandatory requirement of our clinic).

But the 16 page Bishop's Letter I refer to in the column goes about 15 pages beyond that point into several other arguments and points; I've chosen a few to discuss here, because this column would be about 4 times as long if I tried to address every point raised.

The document is available on the Bishops' website; if you search by the title (which is in my column), you'll find it rather quickly. Sadly, as I read it, their objections go well beyond the science you mention.


tracey kelley
3.10.10 @ 11:14p

I think it's pretty simple: if you believe in God, then you believe God helped you get pregnant. It doesn't matter what a bunch of shrivled men in funny hats say. God answered your prayers for a child - they didn't.

We're not in the Dark Ages - there is no need for one group of men to provide the narrow moral compass by which to control the masses. The Church's posturing on matters it will never understand is proving more and more archaic.

Eliminate the middlemen and celebrate your relationship with God and your Church structure as you see fit for you and your child.


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