It’s July 2008 and I’m strapped to a surgical table as a fertility doctor siphons three dozen eggs out of my ovaries through a long needle. Blood is coming from between my legs, as the needle repeatedly perforates my vaginal walls en route to my ovaries in search of viable eggs. In the next room, my husband is masturbating so fresh sperm can be used to fertilize the eggs.
When we’re done, my ovaries hyperstimulate and I pass out. My abdomen and chest begin to fill with fluid; the anesthesia doesn’t stop the severe pain that fills my body. I struggle to breathe. The doctor stabilizes me, but it still takes nearly a week to recover from the brutal procedure.
The doctor had retrieved 38 good eggs, of which 31 are fertilized. Over the next week, 16 of our embryonic children die and are discarded. Thirteen are cryogenically frozen, mostly two to a vial. Two fresh embryos are transferred to my uterus.
Yes, the cost is high for what we’re doing, both financially and physically. But it will be worth it, I tell myself. Because surely at least one of these embryos will give us our heart’s desire–a beautiful child of our own.
Justifying Our Choices
My journey into in vitro fertilization (IVF) actually began in the 1980s, when my mother used donor sperm and intrauterine insemination to conceive me and my twin sister. When we were 12, we discovered that the man we thought was our father was not. I was disturbed that we were created by my mother and a stranger, and have always felt as if only part of me was “real.”
Fast-forward to my own marriage in 2004. We wanted children right away, but a year of trying had resulted in no pregnancy. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, an endocrine disorder that inhibits regular ovulation. Doctors put me on the same ovulation-stimulating medication my mother had used to conceive me–Clomid. Four unsuccessful cycles later, we moved on to artificial insemination, though we did at least use my husband’s sperm. Still no baby.
In desperation, we graduated to the expensive and complex process of IVF, where my eggs and my husband’s sperm would be taken out of our bodies, joined in a petri dish, and the resulting embryos would be inserted into my uterus.
Even before we started down the IVF road, there was a voice inside of us whispering that it was wrong. But that voice was drowned out by louder, more persistent voices, like the doctors’ who said we had little to no chance to conceive without it. Friends and family, too, supported anything that would end the suffering of our infertility. Then there was my own desire for a child, shouting down the doubts and assuring me that God would want me to be happy and that as a woman, I deserved a child. And really, how could science that helps create life be a bad thing?
So we signed the contract and started the IVF process. To prepare, I took hormone injections and pills to stimulate my ovaries for egg retrieval. Though most eggs were fertilized simply by exposing them to sperm, some needed sperm forcibly injected into them with a needle. These newly formed, microscopic human beings were then graded for quality and we were encouraged to discard “low-grade” embryos that had little chance of survival. But because we couldn’t fully stifle our doubts about the wrongness of IVF, we insisted that all our viable embryos be preserved.
Suffering and Loss
After the first transfer in July 2008, we were thrilled to discover we were pregnant with twins, due the next April. But at 21 weeks gestation, our twins–Madi and Isaiah–were born prematurely and only lived for one hour each. During those brief, heartbreaking few hours, we held them, bathed them, dressed them, and baptized them, holding onto their tiny, fragile bodies as long as we could.
For the next year, I floated numbly through life. I believed the twins’ death was God punishing me for my past sins. My husband remained silent. Through it all, my heart was torn about the route we’d taken, as well as the fact that we still had 13 frozen children whose lives were on hold.
Eventually we felt ready to try IVF again. In October 2009, our only singly vialed embryo, Jeremiah, was thawed and transferred to my womb. We did not get pregnant.
In February 2010, we did another transfer. The embryologist came into the room beforehand and said that “one expanded and one did not.” We knew then that our son, Luke, had survived thawing, but that our daughter, Lucilla, had died and been discarded. In the end, Luke died, too, and we did not get pregnant.
Three months later, we thawed another vial and both Elijah and Ezekiel survived. The situation was complicated, however, because the death of the twins at 21 weeks had shown I had an incompetent cervix. This made carrying even one baby risky. We decided to transfer only one of the boys, because I would likely lose both if they developed properly after being transferred to the womb. Elijah was transferred and we were ecstatic when he was born in 2011.
His brother, Ezekiel, didn’t make it. But he was so, so resilient; he was initially frozen, thawed, refrozen, and re-thawed, yet survived to be transferred in January 2012. We did not get pregnant. Three months later, Olivia didn’t survive the thaw, but we were able to transfer Isaac.
A Spiritual Awakening
While waiting to see if I was pregnant with Isaac, I went on my first spiritual retreat. I went skeptical and defensive; I wasn’t going to share what I was going through with anyone. But God gave me a “spiritual spanking.” The poignant lyrics to a song caused me to break down crying and I experienced an intense spiritual awakening. That night, I went to reconciliation for the first time in years.
I had yet to own my sinfulness, however, because in my mind, I was still denying the truth—that I had killed my children through the violent and undignified process of IVF. By the end of the retreat, however, grace had finally washed away my pride and I experienced a full and overwhelming gift of faith. Overnight, my life went from being about what I wanted to being entirely about the love of God. Two days after I returned from the retreat, we discovered that Isaac had died, too, and I was not pregnant.
After seeing my transformation, my husband went on the same retreat in May. He had several profound spiritual experiences of his own, where he felt the Lord lift the guilt from his heart. God assure him that our deceased babies were safe and loved and would be waiting for us in heaven.
But faith didn’t solve the problem of what to do with our still-frozen children. We could leave them frozen, discard them, donate them to scientific research, or adopt them out. We felt all those options were disrespectful to the children and we feared they were offensive to God, too. We’ve since learned that the Catholic Church hasn’t fully clarified what is the most morally prudent and loving route to take when dealing with frozen embryonic children and theologians are all over the map on the issue. Some say every child created deserves a chance at life and ought to be implanted, as we did; other theologians suggest embryonic babies should be baptized, thawed until they pass away, and then buried. Hopefully the Church will soon define the best course for frozen IVF children, but until then, couples in our situation can only seek counsel through their spiritual advisers and through the Holy Spirit, in prayer.
We went into the first of the final three transfers in August 2012. Though I had been through the process before, this time was different; sadness consumed me as I sat in the clinic waiting room. I felt God’s pain from all the lives discarded by doctors and parents, who often create embryos only to throw away the “surplus” to save storage fees or get rid of lesser quality ones. I saw the cold beginning and end of so many of my babies’ short lives–first in a petri dish, then in and out of a freezer, and finally discarded like trash.
Vincent survived thawing and was transferred to my womb. Raphael hadn’t survived, however. We’d learned from our priest that if a baby didn’t survive, we had to save his body and bury him properly in holy ground, just as we would a born child. So this time I told the embryologist we wanted the “bodies” of any babies who didn’t survive the thaw to take them home to bury.
I remember it so clearly–the embryologist walked out of the lab, cradling the vial containing Raphael. She had a very solemn look on her face and was very respectful. I knew she was Catholic, too, and I can’t help but wonder how that experience affected her. Vincent didn’t survive transfer, either, though, and we did not get pregnant.
Four months later, we transferred Bethany; John didn’t survive the thaw. I was able to keep John’s body in a vial as we had Raphael’s. We did not get pregnant.
The final transfer took place in February 2013. Mary Laura Claire was transferred, and we carried her brother, Gabriel Jesus, out in a vial as we had his two brothers before him. We did not get pregnant.
When our twins had died, we’d had them cremated and placed their remains inside small pewter hearts that had been sewn into “Build a Bear” animals. We kept them on a shelf in our bedroom for five years. As we grew in faith, so did our knowledge that those babies, too, deserved to be buried respectfully. Five months ago, we went home to New Mexico, and buried our twins with their three embryonic brothers.
After nine transfers and 30 babies, our IVF journey had finally come to an end.
Realizing the Truth about Life
Earlier this year, I went on a retreat for post-abortive parents, since I felt that what I’d done to my babies through IVF was similar. I felt mixed vibes from others there, possibly because most people don’t understand the complexity of IVF. But if life starts at conception, then you can have sorrow and regret for denying your children life through IVF, the same as you do with abortion.
At one point, I was sitting outside. The sun was warmly bathing my face, but inside I was in turmoil. In my mind, I saw two ribbons–one expressed was the violence, darkness, and sinfulness of humanity, while the other showed the beauty and sacredness of human life. I suddenly understood just how sacred every single person is to God. I realized how selfish my decisions had been in allowing my babies to be violently injected into my uterus after they’d endured the indignity of freezing and thawing. Yes, the violence paralleled that of abortion.
The similarities were further brought home to me when I read over the IVF and cryopreservation contracts for the first time a month later. I felt brokenhearted and ashamed as I read the dehumanizing language describing that most sacred process of creating human life. Our babies were described as “cryopreserved material,” “concepti,” and “orphaned specimens.” Another section gave the clinic permission to take “Title” (ownership) of our embryos if we stopped the process, as if our children were commodities like cars. This consumerist mentality, combined with the emphasis on “cost effective treatment,” is what makes it acceptable for IVF children to be donated for research, abandoned, discarded, and even aborted through “selective reduction” when too many embryos stay alive after transfer.
The contract also stated that, “It is rare for an embryo to not survive thawing.” Half of our babies didn’t survive thawing. And, “Occasionally, an embryo is not found in the vial due to the nature of embryos to stick to the vial or pipette.” What incredible dangers we’d exposed our children to! Only one phrase in the entire contract spoke to the humanity of our children by calling them babies.
Being created in a lab and then frozen violates the dignity of these tiny human beings. Thawing and discarding is killing. Reducing women to incubators and men to sperm donors is also undignified. Children have a right to be the fruit of their parents’ loving union, not products to be bought, sold, donated, or trashed.
There are still days when my sorrow about our children and the IVF industry itself becomes nearly unbearable. It’s hard to accept that we consented to what we did, but the desire for a child is so primal and powerful and we understand the desperation that drives couples to IVF. I take consolation in what God said to Habakkuk: “WAIT! I am here through it all! And I am establishing a work in my people that you cannot imagine! Be ready and willing when I call you.” I offer this story of our family’s journey through IVF, with its perils and heartbreak, as my expiation and my fiat–“Father, You are my only source of strength; my very existence. I am your instrument; do with me as you will!”
::Stay tuned for the podcast! You will hear from Jenny Vaughn directly about her journey with IVF.::
41 Replies to “My Journey through In Vitro Fertilization”
Thank you for sharing an intimate and unvarnished view of IVF. Praise God for your conversion! May your words profoundly enlighten those who need their eyes to be opened. God bless you and yours!
Just a tiny correction to the caption at the bottom. She had 3 children survive to birth. Only one made it full term and is a surviving sibling. Beautiful story that puts a face to the theological and scientific truths of IVF.
We corrected that on the caption, Jaclyn. Thanks! -Misty, CS Staff
Jenny. your courage to speak out and tell other s about ur story is admirable . we overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony s! I LOVE you. Thank you for being bold & speaking out. I pray other s find comfort & God healing power through your story.
Your words and your witness will help heal others who read this. May Our Lady of Grace bring you consolation and peace.
If you ever wish to professionally record a podcast with your story, I’d be happy to help you record it for distribution. You can contact me through firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more podcasts for Catholic women at AmongWomenPodcast.com.
Jenny: Thank you for your bravery in sharing your story here. It’s heart breaking to read, but necessary for us to truly understand the impact IVF has on real lives, real people, real babies. Thank you for sharing it with us at Catholic Sistas. I hope God will bless you immeasurably for your bravery and honesty and your faithful witness to the Truth.
I worked in the fertility industry for 8 and a half years. Once I began to grow in my Catholic faith, I could not remain a minute longer. In all the accounts of living this horror, yours has to be the most intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually honest I have ever read. God will surely bless you for this if it can help one woman stop and consider before she makes the life changing, and life ending, decision to undergo IVF.
I have been infertile all my life. I know first hand that pull of desire to bear your own. I only got so far as to take Clomid for three cycles, I couldn’t do any more. But it was enough to make me regret even that for many years.
God be with you through your life – please continue to share your story. There are so many women (and men) who don’t get it until it’s just too late.
Thank you for being vulnerable and honest and sharing your story. I shared it on Converstaion with Women’s facebook page. I would love to repost it on http://www.conversationwithwomen.org but our policy(for a number of reasons) is to only post anonymous stories. Please consider submitting another version of this story anonymously.Our faithful Catholic stories are so important in this culture of ours that is inundated with stories that lie. Personal stories help people bring doctrine from their head to their heart. Your story is VERY important.
God has opened Jenny’s eyes to the reality of what IVF really in the spiritual world. A world we can’t comprehend. We love to have our ears tickled and look at things through rose colored glasses. May Almighty God bless her and keep her safe and strong as she delivers His word through her in an un-receiving world, inside and outside the church.
God, open the eye to our hearts. Bring repentance and healing to all of us who have experienced any form of IVF.
I just cried through that entire post. And I’m not a “crier.” God bless you, Jenny.
I have been reading & listen to Pro- life for the last 18 years. Your testimony touched me emotionally and spiritually.I believe every your your shared. Through your testimony I now understand whyGod put the burden in my heart to pray for souls of unborn babies. I thank you and pray God may speak to the hearts of many more in the days to come. God bless you.
God bless you for sharing your journey!
As a convert I have struggled with some of the Catholic church’s teachings, the teaching on IVF being one of them. To sum up my thoughts on Catholicism and IVF “what’s the big deal?” This post helped me to see what the big deal is. It converted me to this teaching, without a doubt. I have since shared it with a few friends and my husband. Thank you for sharing your story. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for you.
Sorry for your losses. Truly I am. I do believe your children are in heaven as our child is after a missed miscarriage. But let’s be honest, if each of those children had made it to live birth you would not feel as you do. It makes sense that you carry guilt because as a mother we feel responsible for not getting pregnant. However God already knew if those souls would make it to earth long before you ever took your own first breath. Something to consider before you try to convince others that IVF is akin to abortion. Not even close
Consider the following for both abortion and IVF:
– Does the woman feel entitled to have her life a certain way- entitled to a child or entitled freedom from a child?
– Is there fear, anxiety and other emotions prompting the decision?
– Is there selfishness involved on the mother/parent’s side?
– Are violent, painful and undignified treatment(s) inflicted on the woman?
– Are the moral rights of the father violated? Procedures undignified?
– Is violence inflicted on the child … up to and including DEATH- at some stage of development (embryonic or fetal)?
Anyone knowledgeable of both “choices”, would recognize that IVF absolutely parallels abortion. Jenny Vaughn discusses this in greater detail in an article with the Texas Right to Life.
I believe most women in either situation feel, fear, anxiety, some selfishness and ultimately grief and regret. Both procedures involve, violent, undignified and painful methods in order to obtain the end results. Closer than most realize.
Thank you for sharing this. I’m a previous egg donor who then went on to have trouble conceiving and was told that my husband and I would need IVF/ICSI ourselves (though we opted to instead work on underlying issues and eventually were able to conceive). So I’m very familiar with the world of the fertility industry. I also very much understand the emotional toll infertility can have on a couple, and how IVF seems so simple when you are so very much wanting to have a child. As the years have passed, I’ve found myself deeply regretting my decision to have been a donor, but at the same time not regretful for the lives that I helped create. It a very conflicting place to be.
As a donor-conceived individual, are you familiar with The Anonymous Us Project? It’s a website where members of the third-party reproduction community (donors, donor-conceived persons, parents of donor-concieved children, etc) can share their stories. http://anonymousus.org
Thank you for sharing your story.
Just came across this. Thanks for your story. It is so hard to know how to understand the complexities of fertility and IVF and how as christians we are to face them. You have truly had unique experience and I hope you continue to speak from it. I have one child conceived after several years of trying. I desired a large family and hoped we would have another soon after but God spoke to me and said “I will give you a full household but not of your own children.” Honestly I still don’t know what that means, my husband does not want to adopt. But I am grateful for that moment, it was enough for me to feel sure that God was there that he knew our desires but He had something different. It is still painful to accept His will over my desires. But that moment has given us strength and really kept me from pursuing further fertility treatments that I so desire. The longing for children is so powerful. Praying that you continue to share this with others.
One of my readers pointed me to this article. Powerful witness, Jenny! And God rest the eternal souls of your 30 children.
I just wrote an article from a broader Christian view called “Good Intentions: Why IVF is Wrong”. Together, the two articles offer a really unique view at the inside of the IVF process. If anyone would like to read it, you can visit Conceiving Hope on facebook or go directly to the post at this link: http://conceivinghope.blogspot.com/2015/04/good-intentions-why-ivf-is-wrong.html
This made me cry. I had an idea, but I had no idea. I’m so sorry for your losses, Jenny. I thank God for your healing and willingness to speak out.
Couples who wants to undergo IVF must really have the complete information of the process, cost and what to expect. There are so many factors to consider and to anticipate since “some” couples had it successfully after many try.
Nice story… I was feeling as if i was with you while you narrated this… thanks again for sharing
I am glad to read such an informative post. I’d be more grateful whenever you post some more informational post here on your blog. I’ll better keep an eye for it. Thanks for sharing such a great post.
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