Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What does the Catholic Church say about IVF?

Mouthful of a title, right? Let's just say I'm doing it for Google's sake.

So, painfully obvious disclaimer: I am neither a bioethicist nor a theologian. Well, not officially, anyway. I've got 2 semesters of grad theology under my belt, but the only letters associated with my name are Mrs. So read on, knowing that I'm just a girl with an internet connection and a voracious appetite for moral theology and science. (In other words, these here are layman's - or laywoman's, as it were - words.)

I have been blessed with 3 beautiful, exasperating children in just under 5 years of marriage. In other words, I am in no position to talk to anyone about the heartache of infertility, or about the devastating sorrow of losing a baby to miscarriage. But here's the thing: I have friends. And I've watched their pain and I've seen the ache of longing in their eyes. And I see the messages the culture is sending out to women (and men) who suffer from the desolating poverty of infertility, and they are being fed a steady diet of bullshit that only adds to their suffering.

I want to offer the truth. Anything less than the truth is an affront to their dignity, and to the dignity of the children who they long to conceive.

The Catholic Church has that truth. She holds it in sacred trust, the inalienable belief that every human life is sacred, from conception until natural death, and that the creation of human life itself is holy. Hallowed ground.

So that's where I'm speaking from.

There's one more thing I want to say before we dive in. And it's about authentic reproductive technology: NAPRO.

I have a dear friend who was pregnant when we first met, back when I was a full time office gal. I was only months away from my wedding and couldn't get enough of her pregnancy stories and baby kicks. As our friendship grew and her belly expanded, she shared more details. This was actually her fourth pregnancy, she explained, and she'd had three previous miscarriages. But she couldn't get a referral to a high risk OB until after that third loss.

And then, do you know what the solution was for her body to carry that fourth precious baby safely to term? Progesterone. One pill by mouth daily, for the first trimester. Cheap, simple, readily available... and an option she didn't even realize she had, because she wasn't yet "high risk" enough to be referred to a doctor who knew what the hell he was doing.

That kind of dismissive, laissez faire medicine, practiced all too often in ob/gyn groups around the country, is the worst kind of insult to women.

So do yourself a favor and google around for a NAPRO doc near you.

Because you deserve to be served by a doctor who understands how your body works, and why, and who isn't content to write you an annual scrip for birth control to try to shut your reproductive system down.

(And then happily write you another scrip for fertility drugs when you change your mind 3 years down the road but it turns out, your body didn't like being messed with. So now rather than worrying about getting pregnant, you're having to worry about getting pregnant. Because it seems like now you can't.)

But what if it's more serious than that? What about couples who have no other means of recourse than IVF or even surrogacy? How can the Church tell them no, when all she speaks of is the goodness of children and the sanctity of life?

For those very same reasons. Because children are good, and because life is sacred.

Children are good. And they are gifts. We vow to accept them lovingly from God, but the converse does not hold. We cannot demand them angrily, desperately, when they do not come. No matter how great the longing. His ways are not our ways, and oh how easy it is for me to write this while my 3 little gifts lie snug in their beds down the hall.

I haven't felt the pain of infertility. It is a pain I will never know, intimately. But I do that the Church, as our mother, never asks of us that which would harm another person, and certainly not that which takes another person's life.

Many of our current reproductive technologies are harmful, and some - IVF in particular - depend specifically on creating a number - sometimes a large number - of "backup" embryos, both to ensure the success of the couple's efforts to conceive initially and for future use, should they desire more children.

From the get go, IVF is problematic because it violates the dignity of those children created in a laboratory setting. A child has the fundamental right to be conceived in the dignity and privacy of her mother's womb, the fruit of the love between two parents who are committed to each other and to her.

Anything less is poverty for that child, no matter how well reasoned or rationalized the motives of the adults involved. Does that sound crazy? If it does, it's only because our technology has so rapidly outpaced our morality that we accept just about anything at face value, simply because it is possible.

In most cases of IVF, multiple embryos are created and introduced into the mother's uterus, with the hopes that a few good ones will implant. The remainder who survive remain in limbo, kept frozen in a lab until their parents decide whether to implant, destroy, or donate.

Once inside mom, if too many "successful" embryos implant, the joyous event of a longed-for pregnancy is now marred by the dark shadow of "selective reduction," aka abortion. The parents and doctors must now choose which of the baby(s) have the best chance at making it to term, and abort the remainders.

Do you see a common thread running through it all? It's all about the adults. None of this is done for the sake of the children, or with consideration for the dignity - or the suffering - of the children.

Conceived in a petri dish, selected from an unlucky crop of frozen siblings, perhaps the survivor of an early abortion on other siblings...and finally, against all odds and many thousands of dollars and hours of pain later, brought into this world, on demand.

Loved, yes. But demanded, first.

Openness to life, we talked about earlier in this series, means openness to loss. But it can never mean intentionally causing the loss. It doesn't mean going to any extremes to obtain life, to demand it and wrench it from God's hands and fit it into our own script.

Is it fair?

Hell no it's not fair. It's not fair that I have children while some couples who don't, can't.

But life isn't fair. And there are all kinds of sufferings and different-shaped crosses we're asked to bear. It sounds so crazy but it really boils down to this: just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should.

Just because we can harvest sperm and egg from willing and desperate would-be parents, willing to shell out thousands for a baby of their own, doesn't mean we should.

Just because we can create new human life in a petri dish, coaxing the requisite genetic material together and then discarding the chromosomal losers, doesn't mean we should.

Just because we can implant a half dozen viable embryos into a woman's uterus with the selective reduction of as many of 5 of them as the failsafe backup plan, does't mean we should.

There are all kinds of things human beings are capable of. But not all of them are good. And in this case, as in so many others, the ends do not justify the means.

For couples who are suffering this incredible pain, the Church has a message of love and of mercy, and more than anything, of being a safe harbor where you can rest and not be further harmed, or cause harm yourselves.

IVF is a terrible poverty to the children involved, first and foremost. But it exacts a terrible price from their parents, too. No parent wants to willingly participate in the harm, destruction, or death of their child. It's unfathomable. And yet we have this billion dollar industry, rushing grieving couples through their office doors and helping them to do exactly that.

There's so much more that could be said, and much more eloquently, but this is long enough. 

There is no judgement here. Only truth, and sorrow, and a genuine desire to bring clarity to a deeply problematic and painful suffering that is rampant in our culture. 

The world promises relief from suffering through denial, manipulation, and force. But Christ says something different. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Easier said than done, right?
Click here for the rest of the series.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The modesty wars

I've been rolling this one around in my skull today in between bouts of toddler WWF-style throw downs. I don't know why they have to bite each other, but I guess if it's important to them, I want to be supportive.


So I have this pretty, funny, sort of insecure little college girl in mind when I write this. And she is smart and beautiful, and she seems to kind of know it, but she also seems to want to trade almost exclusively on her looks. So that makes me think maybe she's not as sure as she'd like to seem. Does that make sense?

So I want to talk to her. But not directly, because I'm not sure how she'd receive it. Even from someone who loves her.

I have to be 100% honest that one million blog years ago I'm pretty sure I wrote a post called Modest is Hottest. And I'm almost positive it was farcical. But just in case, I'm still hanging my head in virtual shame.

Here are two things to keep in mind when discussing modesty:

1. Modest is not hottest. I don't think those words mean what you think they mean.

2. Girls are not responsible for how guys perceive them. But we are responsible for putting on pants before leaving the house/appearing on Facebook.

So those seem to be the two hottest (har har) points of contention in the matter. Firstly, that practicing modesty is in some way competitive with dressing provocatively and therefore, cap sleeves are bringing sexy back; and second, that women are emphatically not responsible for Creepy McCreeperton leering at them in the checkout line but we are allowed to wear underpants outside of the locker room.

It's a tad confusing to navigate, as a woman. As a human.

What if being modest has more to do with how one perceives (and values, and presents) herself (or himself) than about trying to repackage turtlenecks as provocative?

And what if girls (I'm speaking mostly to girls not because it's a feminine issue per se, but because I've got the chromosomes to go there. And so I go.) were absolved from striving to compete on a sexual level, every waking moment of the day.

I think our culture sends a confusing, schizophrenic message to women, inviting us to be simultaneously powerful and provocative and simpering and slutty and empowered and utterly on display. Because equal rights!

So a lot of girls buy into this idea, believing that they've got some serious capital to trade in, namely, their boobs, etc., and that it is their natural born right to flaunt it because they've got it, and nobody can tell them otherwise. Because sexism!

It's kind of ironic that female empowerment has to synch up with public nudity, though. Because you know who is really not coming out on top in that equation?

Yeah, the naked person.

Even the most confidant, empowered, enlightened, thresholded, whatever-ed woman of the 21st century doesn't deserve to be put on public display and openly ogled. Even if she is the one doing the displaying.

Does that sound crazy? To say that just because you can do something with your body doesn't mean that you ought to?

Even if a woman is a willing, eager participant in presenting herself as a sexual object to be consumed (and pornography is the ultimate example of this), she is still participating in the degradation and depersonalization of a human being. And that always gravely wrong. Even when it takes the form of self harm.

But maybe there's a better way, where we as women decide that looking decently beautiful and approachable shouldn't require a compromise with our dignity, nor should it involved ankle-length demin? And that maybe situations or people that demand otherwise aren't worth our time?

It's not empowering to shake your sexy kitten bottom at a costume party. Even if you are 22 and your butt is at its pinnacle of perfection (which, I can assure you, it is).

You are not empowered by being naked in public. In fact, nobody is empowered by that.

You are being exploited, even if it is self exploitation. And your sisters, and your friends, and your mom, and your future daughters are all the poorer for it.

Conversely, you do not have to drape thyself in a denim hijab hybrid. There's a middle ground out there, and it's waiting for you at J Crew. Or, you know, somewhere else that carries clothing which is equally attractive and more reasonably priced.

I just want you to know, if you're reading this and feeling judged, feel, instead, looked after.


Feel the weight of your dignity as a human person, and as a beautiful and powerful woman. Feel the immense responsibility you have to demand the same level of respect of yourself that you would ask from anyone else. You are worth it. You are worth more than kitty ears and a push up bra in public. And it sounds so trite. But it's true.

But you have to believe it for yourself, too. And believe that other people deserve to see more of you than is possible when they're seeing all of you.

And seriously, no cap sleeves.

Linking up anyway because it's MY party and I'll tangent if I want to.
Click here for the rest of the series.

An Evie Update

Sweet little Genevieve has led us on a bit of a goose chase during her brief 10.5 months ex utero. The past 6 weeks in particular have been ... confusing. Not bad, definitely. But not filled with relief and answers, either. Here is what we do know, after dozens of chiropractic, physical therapy, pediatric and nutritionist appointments:

She is not failure to thrive (praise God!). She's still very, very tiny, but all her labs came back normal, and she is growing, albeit very, very slowly. She's in the 3% for weight, the 25% for head circumference, and the -20% for length. In other words? Very, very short. But (as her nutritionist keeps cheerfully reassuring me) proportionate. That's why she looks, quite literally, like a living baby doll. She has doll-like proportions.

We've also been seeing a really excellent chiropractor who is trained in a specific form of care known as NUCCA. I won't bore you with the details but you can google it. We've seen really encouraging results in terms of her hitting motor milestones and increased range of motion. For example, a month ago she was not tolerating much tummy time at all (at 9 months old) and wasn't rolling consistently from front to back or back to front. She was also extremely rigid and doing lots of head banging and dramatic, angry baby planks, especially during diaper changes and when we got her dressed. And, most disturbingly, (at least to mama) she wasn't bearing any weight on her legs. She would collapse them if we ever tried to stand her up. All of that has improved in the past 5 weeks.

We've been seeing the chiro weekly, sometimes biweekly, and seeing the PT biweekly. Every day we do exercises with her at home to build up her leg strength and spend lots and lots of time on her tummy, encouraging rolling and coaxing her to crawl. No dice on the crawling yet, but that's totally in keeping with our other kids' timelines.

Here's where I'm scratching my head though: she still isn't really moving around, not in any real sense. She occasionally scoots herself backwards by accident, but no forward momentum. She also doesn't pull up on anything, or even attempt to. Her crib is still set at the newborn level, because she has never pulled up or gotten herself from prone to sitting. When sitting, she doesn't go down to tummy or all fours unless she falls over.

She gets stuck when trying to roll, shooting an arm out at a 90 degree angle to her body and effectively trapping herself on either her back or her stomach. And she resists every attempt to bring her knees up underneath her, screaming when we force her into crawling position.

She crosses her ankles whenever she is lifted and keeps her legs very tightly pinned together. Diaper changes have always been challenging because she will not spread her legs voluntarily, we have to pry them apart.

Her physical therapist sees hyper mobility in her right hip joint, and overall stiffness in her lower body. We do lots of bicycling exercises trying to loosen her up, and spend a fair amount of time down on the floor trying to build up tolerance for weight bearing.

She was 10 days early, so she's not a preemie by any stretch of the word, or even pre-term, technically. She did get me sent for all kinds of 3rd trimester ultrasounds because her femurs were measuring so short for gestational age. And now she's a 10.5 month old who wears 0-3 bottoms with ease. Her Apgars were rock solid, her birth was easy (if such a thing can be said), and she has never been majorly ill or injured, thank God. So all the risk factors are...missing.

All this to say, it could be nothing. Or it could be something. The most frustrating part about it is that, as a mom, I see something. But I can't diagnose it. And even if I could, I don't see what more we could possibly be doing in terms of helping her to learn to use her body and work her little muscles.

The "issues" I'm seeing, as mommy, are:

- not crawling or initiating movement to get from point A to B
- not pulling up
- not going from sitting to floor or from floor to sitting, independently
- not bearing weight on legs unless manipulated into position
- resisting having her knees brought up underneath her in "crawling pose"
- occasionally head banging in frustration
- rigid, tightly locked legs and hips, making diaper changes and getting dressed fairly difficult
- crossing ankles tightly when picked up
- extreme rigidity during most tummy time, essentially crazy baby planks
- not a tooth in sight (probably nothing, but why not add it to the laundry list)
- not trying to recover lost toys, or moving to get a dropped bottle. She just screams and we deliver. So maybe we're just really well trained...

I feel more than a little crazy, especially when talking to family members, as I sheepishly reveal that we've been to yet another doctor's appointment and everything came back...inconclusive. The refrain from almost everyone who has evaluated her has been, "we're not really sure what's going on, there's no one thing I can put my finger on, let's wait and see."

Waiting is tough. It's tough on mama who wants to know what, if anything, is wrong, and I'm sure it's tough on my friends and sisters who have to listen to yet another thing I googled at 10 o'clock and night and maybe sort of somehow applies to her.

But, that's in the job description, right? Work, pray, and worry obsessively...oh, wait, nope. Still not quite hitting that last metric.

So here's Evie. She's 10.5 months old, she can't crawl or scoot, but she has a handful of words, she makes her wants and needs very apparent to anyone in a 15 foot radius, and she's utterly charming. She can't pull up, she can't stand unassisted, and she doesn't like spending too much time on her tummy, but she is becoming increasingly fond of rolling.

So I guess we'll wait and see. Thanks for letting me talk at you. Wink emoji.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

I'm Catholic, can I get a vasectomy/tubal ligation?

There have been a number of questions about permanent sterilization during this month-long series, and while I wrote a post on it a while back, I think it deserves a fuller treatment, and a more nuanced explanation.

I know this is a question that many, many couples wrestle with. Even couples who have zero moral qualms whatsoever about shutting down their reproductive functions struggle with the permanence of surgical sterilization, because, well, it's permanent. And that makes you feel something on a deep emotional and, dare I say, spiritual level.

We know this part of our bodies is sacred. Walk into any delivery room or birthing center and watch the miracle of life unfold and just try to remain unmoved.

There is something profound and powerful at work in our fertility.

The short answer for why Catholics don't practice permanent sterilization is the same one you'll get for why Catholics don't use any other form of contraception: it isn't broken. 

For those of us who are called to marriage and to parenthood, the invitation to participate directly in God's creative process by bringing forth new human life is a staggering, gut-wrenching responsibility.

Vasectomies and tubal ligations take the "I will not serve" of contraception and carry it a step further, beyond the moment to moment "not this time" of hormonal contraceptives and barrier methods. They allow us to say with our bodies, in effect, I will not act in accordance with my nature, not now, and not at any point in the future.

In other words, God, you screwed up. I'm not supposed to work this way.

The Church isn't anti contraception because it's science. Or because it's artificial. Or because she has million dollar stock options in thermometers. The Catholic Church (and, up until about 100 years ago, all of Christianity) opposes contraception because it is in direct defiance of the very first thing that He commanded us to do, once He created us, man and woman.

Do you remember?

Be fruitful, and multiply.

(Not: have so many children your uterus falls out and you go bald/die of starvation because you have more children than can fit in your doublewide. But be fruitful, and multiply.)

Children, in Scripture, are only and always a blessing. For couples who have many of them, and for couples who wait in longing for a single one. (Ahem, Abraham.)

There is never a point at which God says, okay, I think we're good here, plus, you guys, college is so expensive right now, you probably need to go ahead and shut things down and start maxing out that 529 because otherwise you are going to be SO screwed.

If He sends them, we accept them.

And if we can't accept them? If we are simply not in a place where it would be prudent/loving/responsible/safe/possible to accept a(nother) child?

We don't. Have. Sex.

If you cannot welcome a child into your family you should not be doing the thing which invites children into your family. It's that simple. And it's that difficult.

For couples who have grave, serious reasons why having a child would be absolutely disastrous, how could anything else but abstaining be loving?

Because what if it happens anyway? We all know that couple who still got pregnant, in spite of their best efforts to prevent it. And then what? Hopefully not abortion...but what if the reason for not getting pregnant was a grave medical complication for the mother? How is that fair or loving to her?

It's not just that, though. It's not just the "you might still get pregnant even though you're fixed" argument. It's also because it's sexually bulimic. It's doing one thing with your body, but meaning another. When we do that with our words, it's called lying. So when we do that with our's still lying. And denying the truth has consequences. Real, tangible, physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences.

Marriage is hard enough when everything is on the up and up. But when a couple chooses to consciously and systematically say one thing with their bodies but mean the opposite, there is going to be tension. There is going to be strife. There is going to be a breakdown in communication and mutual respect. And God knows we don't need anything more stacked against us, not when it's already an impossibly tall order. (Matt 19:10)

This is not a condemnation of couples who have made this decision and who regret it. This is, hopefully, a wake up call to couples who have never considered the real spiritual and emotional ramifications of physically severing the connection between sex and reproduction.

While there is no guarantee that either tubal libations or vasectomies can be reversed, there are doctors out there who are willing to try. Depending on the individual circumstances of the procedure, it can sometimes be done. And even if it doesn't work, what a huge opportunity for grace and for reconciliation to make that sacrifice, bodily, to attempt to restore what has been damaged.

For couples who are older, it might look a little different. While there is no way to return to one's childbearing years and make different choices, there is a huge opportunity for older couples to minister to younger couples in the trenches who are considering making this decision for their own marriages.

It's a message that younger couples desperately need to hear, and there are far too few voices speaking this truth: your bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made, sex was created for marriage, and marriage is designed to be fruitful and life-giving. 

Don't separate your love! Don't try to undo what God has intentionally and lovingly written into your bodies. It is good that you are together, and it is good that you love each other enough to participate in bringing forth new life out of that love.

And God knows this world could use a little more love.

Click here for the rest of the series.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

When NFP is hard to swallow

The funny thing about talking shop about NFP (Natural Family Planning) with other users is that the conversation, either online or in person, usually goes one of two ways.

Exhibit A: NFP blows. Meet my fourth daughter, Maria Faustina, miraculously conceived 13 days post peak. She's our 5th child in 6 years. Still, be it done unto me according to my chart...

or else

Exhibit B: NFP is so magical. It will change your life, divorce-proof your marriage, and guarantee smoldering, ecstatic sex almost every day of the month (except for a teeny tiny window, if you're seeking to avoid pregnancy.) You're an idiot if you find it challenging. Because science.

I guess I fall somewhere in between there. And I'd guess that many of us do.

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of beautiful mamas at my own parish yesterday (talk about humbling) and it was just so refreshing to be able to speak openly and honestly about the beauty AND the struggle of NFP. Because, like so much else about love and marriage, it's not always easy and it's not always clear. Because sometimes it's cloudy. Or cloudy-clear.

Aaaaaanyway, the thing is we aren't doing ourselves any favors as a Church or as couples in desperate need of support, fellowship, and wisdom from other families in the trenches if we don't speak openly about this thing that we're all expected to do (wink, wink) but that few of us are actually doing. And those of us who are doing it? Well, we're idiots. And sometimes we believe that to be true.

It's not easy being open to life in a culture so utterly opposed to it.

Our neighbors think we're weirdos. Our parents think we're irresponsible. Our bosses think we don't know what causes that. And our cashiers at the grocery store wonder if we know where the condoms are stocked.

Here's the thing though; Jesus doesn't promise convenience, lack of suffering, or predictability. There was something about a cross and lifting it upright and, you know the rest.

We live in a time and a place where convenience is the highest good. I think some of us actually worship it. I think of this most often when I'm doing the microwave dance, reheating my morning coffee, wondering how 28 seconds can pass so slowly and if I stare intently at this glowing box, will it heat any faster?

But Christianity is not convenient. 

Forgoing contraception and having difficult, meaningful, frustrating conversations about love and eternity with your spouse month after month after not convenient. Having a baby 11 months after the last one was delivered, or facing down months and maybe even years of abstinence due to a medical diagnosis is not convenient. Learning to practice temperance, self control, and chastity within - yes, within marriage - is not convenient.

But convenience doesn't guarantee happiness. Or rather, it doesn't guarantee joy.

Using NFP will not make you happy. It will not earn you a free ticket to heaven or a front-row seat at a papal audience. It's not a panacea for marital woes, and it's definitely not some baptized, back-assward Church-approved method of contraception.

It's more than that. But also less.

NFP is, first and foremost, a tool. It's something the Church, backed by scientific research, offers to her children as a means to understanding the mysterious and often confounding gift of human fertility.

Contraception, on the other hand, is the deliberate dismantling of fertility. Rather than seeking to understand, it shuts down, short circuits, or disables it.

NFP and contraception have something in common in that both can be used to avoid pregnancy. But only so much as both an umbrella and a nuclear bomb can shelter you from the rain. One works within reality, the other creates an alternate reality. And it's not pretty, though it might be very effective at keeping you dry.

NFP isn't Catholic contraception. But as long as those of us who bow our heads and bend our knees to the teachings of Christ and His Church on the matter try to compare it as such, whether in our mirrors or in conversions with each other, we're going to come up short. 

Contraception offers apparent freedom and happiness to couples longing for love. But it doesn't deliver. It can't. It cuts off love at the root, making small what could grow into something grand and majestic. 

NFP isn't a failsafe, foolproof guarantee against marital unhappiness. But it isn't self destructive, either. It's actually morally neutral; we inform the morality by our own use of it, and the choices we make.

So let's have this conversation, shall we? Let's admit that yes, living the Church's teachings on sex and marriage is difficult, insanely difficult in some circumstances. Especially in this culture, in this moment in history, in this climate of me-ness and mine-ness and all the nesses. But let's go further. Let's let people in for a glimpse at the messy, the chaotic, the honest, and the beautiful. Because for everything this culture lays claim to, beauty is not a credible option. We are starved for beauty, searching for meaning, and desperate to find - and to be - love.

And marriages that are truly open to life have a depth and a sincerity to them, even in the difficult moments, that is wildly attractive. That's the real reason people can't stop talking about it. Sure, some people are legitimately disgusted by the sight of more than a couple children trailing a simliar-looking adult in a crowded shopping center. But they're the minority. 

People are naturally drawn to what is true, good, and beautiful - so let's draw them in. And let's not be afraid to look them square in the eye and say, yes, you're right, my hands are full, and somebody just pissed on my foot in the Chipotle bathroom a few minutes ago...but I'm still going to keep them.

Click here for the rest of the series.