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Answers to Your Questions about IVF

In October, Catholic Sistas ran a heartrending and powerful story about one couple’s experience with in vitro fertilization (IVF). In today’s post, author Jenny Vaughn* answers some tough questions posed by readers about her experiences.

Have you heard of or considered Natural Procreative Technology (NaProTechnology)?

Yes. But we didn’t find out about NaProTechnology until after our retreats. At that point, we still had four frozen embryos in vials. So we focused on our frozen children first over attempting to get pregnant naturally.

IVFAfter we didn’t get pregnant from the transfers, I went on a strict diet for polycystic ovarian syndrome, which helped my body to begin cycling. We learned the Creighton Method, and consulted with a NaPro doctor for procedures that might help. The doctor suggested ovarian drilling and wedging, but I was overwhelmed by the invasive procedures I had gone through with IVF and didn’t want to do more. The Creighton Method made me a bit OCD about my mucus and some of the wording in the manual bothered my husband and me. So we decided that NaPro wasn’t for us.

I went to a naturopathic doctor who put me on inositol (a B vitamin), reinforced my diet, and introduced me detoxing techniques such as hydrotherapy and castor oil packs on my liver. I am about eight months into this regimen, and am now having periods every month for the first time in my pubescent life. Other than these changes, we’re leaving the growth of our family up to God.

NOTE: NaProTechnology is a women’s health science that aims to help couples conceive by resolving the underlying health problems that hinder conception. All procedures and practices are in accord with the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of human life and the conjugal act between spouses. NaProTechnology can assist women in resolving a variety of reproductive health issues, not just infertility, and more information can be found at the NaProTechnology website

Did you consider adoption before IVF? Have you considered adopting since finishing IVF?

Prior to IVF (while we were doing the intra-uterine insemination), we decided that if we had a chance to have a biological child of our own, we were going to do ALL we could to make that happen before adopting. Looking back, I now see that as selfishness–we wanted our own children and felt that if we adopted it just wouldn’t be the same. We feared we wouldn’t be able to love an adopted child as we would our own. We are planning on getting involved in foster care when our son is older and can understand why children are coming and going.  If God leads us to adoption down the road, we will follow His will.

How did your family respond to your conversion?

Some of my family seem to agree and understand somewhat what has changed in me and why. Others do not agree; one of my cousins just gave birth to a baby that she and her husband purchased as an embryo (along with two of his sibling-embryos).

My mother was VERY resistant as I shared with her what God was showing me about the sacredness of fertility and human life. “How can you reject the procedure that gave YOU and your children life?!”  she would ask repeatedly. She felt that I should be grateful and accepting of these procedures.

But as we discussed things more over the course of a year and she learned about the violence of most artificial reproductive technologies, as well as the slippery slope that they lead people down, she began to open up to the truth. Now she completely understands and agrees that artificial insemination and IVF go against God and His will for us. We talk about it openly and she prays that God helps me to share this story for the benefit of others. My sister and I have just reconnected in the last year, too, after a long estrangement and my experience of IVF was what triggered that reconciliation. Like my mother, she has understood and supported me.

How would you approach a person who is considering IVF (or has done IVF) to help them see the truth about it?

This is a hard question because I remember how resistant I was to anyone who spoke against IVF.

The tombstone for our deceased twins and their three embryonic brothers.
The tombstone for our deceased twins and their three embryonic brothers.

When talking to those who are just considering IVF, you may have take a more forthright approach, because there’s so much at stake. But you also have to consider your relationship with the person. My cousin and I were able to have a fairly candid conversation before she transferred the embryo she and her husband purchased last year. I simply told her I did not agree with her decision and that it broke my heart that we can participate in the commoditization of babies, who are so innocent and vulnerable.

If you perceive the person is exceptionally resistant, you may need to be very gentle. Mention that you read a story online about a couple that went through IVF (like mine) and encourage them to read it. Ask what is prompting them to take that route and if they have considered alternatives? Have they spoke to their priest? Do they believe life begins at conception? If so, encourage them to read how their babies will be treated.

For those who have done IVF, ask them to share their story with you. Let them share and ask questions about why they decided on that route. How many BABIES did you say were made?  Ask them if they named them or buried the ones that died. Talk to them and acknowledge ALL the children that were created in the IVF process. Ask how they feel about the procedure now that they are on the other side. Allowing parents to speak of their journey and about the lives created is a non-confrontational way to encourage them to open their hearts to see things more clearly. There’s no point in browbeating them about the wrongness of the process, which would most likely just cause them to shut down and disconnect.

There’s one exception to this advice and that’s clergy–if you are a moral authority, you have a duty to point out that this procedure is profoundly offensive to the children’s dignity and to God. You must do this sensitively and gently, and you should be prepared for anger from the person, but love demands that our priests be willing to guide our errant souls to repentance for these sins, so that we may be reconciled with God.

During my own life-changing Confession, the priest told me, “All I know is that children conceived in this way…their rights are violated from the moment of their conception.” I was LIVID at him for saying that! I thought, “You are telling me–their MOTHER–that I would want these children so badly to do all of this, that I’m violating their rights in the process?!” Yet that experience triggered a deep and fundamental humbling in my soul that allowed God in. And He used it to start working on me in ways I couldn’t even comprehend and still cannot.

Sometimes, no matter how gentle or diplomatic you are, a person’s feelings will be hurt and they’ll be defensive and offended. But the discomfort of conflict is a small price to pay if we can save babies lives by helping people understand how their decisions impact those around them, even those yet to be conceived. Jesus was not always gentle or concerned about feelings, especially for a righteous cause like casting out the money changers in the temple.

Practically speaking, it’s a good idea to remind people if they believe life begins at conception, then embryos are babies and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Emphasize the gory details if necessary–a woman having her vaginal walls pierced with a needle so that eggs can be aspirated from her ovaries is not dignified…embryonic babies being frozen and then housed in a laboratory is not respectful. Being sucked into a syringe and shot out into your mother’s womb–or even a stranger’s uterus–is violent, not to mention undignified. If these details are shocking to the person considering IVF, encourage the person to become more educated on how the procedure is done. Let the horror speak for itself.

*Jenny Vaughn in a pseudonym to protect the privacy of the author’s husband and son.

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Getting a Grip on My Fertility

In a community where 3 kids make a family large, I have received my share of the classic dumb ‘big family questions’: “are you done?” “do you know what causes that?”

We’ve been greeted with congratulations upon news of pregnancy…and other less positive responses. We have announced a new baby to more than a few disapproving or at least “better you than me” shocked faces …sometimes even from relatives.
It doesn’t matter that my husband was one of 6 or that his Mom was one of 10…5 kids (plus 3 in Heaven) can be shocking and excessive, even to relatives, to people at Church and school and to strangers in the check-out line.The truth is, sometimes I have been overwhelmed too! We have had times of eagerness on the other side of the pregnancy test…and we have had a couple surprises too. What we can’t seem to express to most people is that we’re just trying to do what we think the Lord is calling us to do. We want to do our best to follow Church teaching and welcome and guide the children He has entrusted to us.

No one said it was easy! From our first year of marriage, we’ve had irregular cycles (sometimes 50 days long) and fertile symptoms that even the most seasoned NFP teacher can’t seem to explain. In our journey, we have tried the Creighton method, (a standardized modification of the Billings method), as well as a combination of the Sympto-thermal method.

 

We’ve tried the Lady Comp
 
 and the The OvaCue Fertility Monitor® from Zetek
 
 which I think looks like this now:
 
 and the Fertility Tracker Ovulation Microscope
 
 which is a cute little microscope that I think we’ll be using for science projects.
I gave each monitor (Lady Comp, Ovacue) a chance, but I’m always suspicious when it asks for information about previous cycles. Is that all we’ve got? Is this a return to the rhythm method? Did I mention that my cycles range from 27-50 days? My body defies the normal pattern of ovulation…and I sent both monitors back when they assumed differently.
The Fertility Tester works soley on observation of patterns in saliva. It’s a neat concept and appeals to my scientist-of-a-husband, only until we realized that salty foods or a varying diet have an impact! Given that I am NOT the scientist type, interpretation of observations doesn’t boost my confidence.Check out another comparison of fertility monitors, in relation to OvaCue.
In the end, I have to say that Naprotechnology has impressed me the most. We were even part of the Ceiba study.  I still don’t have all the answers I’d like, but this seems to be the most specific (and scientific) method we’ve tried.See this cool NFP app that helps chart without the stickers and loose papers.  It allows you to add specifics and even email your chart to your NFP teacher!  It’s not free, it’s $2/month, but I was probably spending that in little stickers and charts (until I started making my own =).  It’s nice to have the info easily accessible on our ipad, for easy daily check-in and chart access when we travel.
I have to say that the Naprotechnology  method of teaching NFP, observing fertility symptoms and recording them, including the structured schedule of meetings, specificity of questions asked, explanation and descriptions of symptoms have increased my confidence in NFP. The sessions are not free, but the teachers are formally trained and can lead you through more diligent observations with specifics I had not learned about through the other methods.  Teachers of this method often suggest that other health issues have been discovered and monitored through the knowledge and practice of this method of NFP.
I will admit that we are cautious…and abstinence plays a substantial role in our practice of NFP, particularly amid ANY ambiguous symptoms or along any margin of the fertile time.
Sometimes I question how conducive substantial abstinence is to a healthy marriage.
I too, remember the talk at my marriage prep course from eager NFP advocates: “abstinence makes the heart grow fonder” and all that…but I’m not so convinced!  What about “out of sight, out of mind”?  I think that it can go either way.
With kids and stress and the busyness of life, another layer of logistics (this time a biological calendar) sometimes seems to impose impossible constraints.I know that there are many out there who would happily welcome the 3rd, the 6th or the 10th child. I know the Lord would stretch my heart to welcome another, but I don’t think He’s working on me in that way right now. It’s true that sometimes I feel pretty stretched with the 5 I have now.
I trust the wisdom of Blessed Pope John Paul II and I know that I have yet to understand all that the Theology of the Body can teach me. Fear of fertility doesn’t exactly fan the flame of intimacy and I’m not convinced that frequent and extended abstinence does either. I know that I have intimacy issues to pray and work through and they are just as important as getting a grip on my fertility.Am I doubting my trust in God?  Do I wonder if He will send me more than I can handle?  Is this the underlying issue affecting intimacy and undermining my confidence in NFP?
Lord, I choose to trust in You.

For an awesome website that suggests that I’m not alone in this struggle,
check out Real Catholic Love and Sex and here is a Catholic NFP community for more information and support: Living The Sacrament

::Monica is a wife, Mom of 5+ kids, a designer, an architecture school survivor, an author and a crafter who likes to infuse Catholicism into regular crafts and activities that kids like to do. She enjoys writing about Faith-filled activities and family traditions at Equipping Catholic Families.

Monica and her husband founded a family apostolate called Arma Dei, designing and publishing Catholic paper craft kits, books and quizzing cards available at the Arma Dei Shoppe.::
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Holding Fast to My Feminine Dignity

For millions of women, fertility is inextricably linked to pain—painful menses, painful intercourse, and of course, painful childbirth. From a theological perspective, being a woman often comes with ample opportunity to unite our sufferings with Christ, who also suffered to bring new life into the world. Truly we can say, “[In] my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).

For most of my life, I was one of those women. Menses had always been an excruciatingly painful affair since it began at age 11. As a teen, the first few days of my period were debilitating and I would spend days curled into a fetal position on the couch. Going on the Pill at age 17 lightened my periods and took away most of the pain, but other side-effects prompted me to abandon hormonal contraception for natural family planning (NFP) in 2001.

It wasn’t until after the birth of our third child in August 2004, however, that the pain became increasingly worse. The pain initially only came with menses, but soon began occurring mid-cycle, then once a week, and then almost every day. Some days, I was so wracked with pelvic pain that I could not stand up straight. Needless to say, this seriously compromised my ability to care for our three young children.

When I sought help through my general practitioner, she offered the usual treatment—the Pill. I refused (several times), so we tried anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, and even high-dose narcotics to help me get through the day. Nothing helped, though the narcotics did inspire me to make a six-decade rosary one evening at church.

It was a conversation with another NFP instructor that finally illuminated my problem. Cycle irregularities had prompted me to work with a Creighton method provider and during one consultation she offhandedly mentioned I might have endometriosis. Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the uterine lining is found outside that organ. The misplaced tissue develops into lesions that respond to the menstrual cycle’s hormonal fluctuations. The hormones cause the lesions to act just as they would inside the uterus—they build up and shed. The internal bleeding causes the surrounding tissues to become inflamed, leading to severe pain or no pain, depending on the woman. In extreme cases, recurrent inflammation leads to scar tissue, which can cause infertility if the lesions are on the ovaries or fallopian tubes.

A quiz through an endometriosis website showed I had an alarmingly high number of symptoms for the disease. Armed with a possible name for my pain, I sought medical treatment for it. Our city had been consistently ranked by numerous magazines as one of the top U.S. cities for healthcare, so I had confidence that such resources would afford me access to excellent medical care for my condition.

I soon discovered that the “excellent healthcare” the city was so famous for did not extend to women’s health. Each of the five physicians I saw offered only two choices: birth control pills or a hysterectomy. A little research shows that these treatments would pose serious additional threats to my health. Even more problematic, however is that neither course respects my inherent feminine dignity. A woman’s fertility is a precious gift from God that deserves to be valued and protected, especially by those called to “do no harm.”

As a woman, I’m acutely aware that a great potential resides within me that may one day blossom into a very real and beautiful new person. Even when my husband and I have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy, I treasure the lifegiving capability that Our Lord has so lovingly entrusted to me.

That we are made to give love and life is at the heart of the Church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality, and family planning. The solutions offered by local physicians—to suppress my fertility or to eradicate it altogether as a mere “possible” solution—reveal a profound disregard for the intrinsic value of my womanhood. One doctor epitomized this when he cavalierly said, “If you want more kids, just hurry up and have them. Then we’ll just put you through menopause at 40.”

When I shared my frustration with my Creighton instructor, she recommended I contact Dr. Thomas Hilgers, director of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Hilgers spearheaded a new reproductive science called NaProTechnology, which helps doctors evaluate and manage reproductive and gynecologic health problems in ways that work cooperatively with the female reproductive system. Dr. Hilgers reviewed my charts and history, and concluded that I probably had endometriosis. He invited me to visit the Institute for treatment. Because I would be traveling a long distance, he was willing to schedule all diagnostic tests and reparative surgery over four consecutive days.

The same day I received Dr. Hilgers’ letter, I providentially called the Center for Women’s Health in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. I discovered that all physicians at the center practice medicine in accord with Church teaching; they don’t prescribe contraception or perform procedures that violate the dignity of women. I contacted the center’s new gynecological surgeon, Dr. Mark Stegman, about my situation. In the early 1990s, Dr. Stegman had had a conversion after reading Humanae Vitae. He left his practice in Michigan for a fellowship with Dr. Hilgers at the Pope Paul VI Institute. Learning that Dr. Stegman was trained in NaProTechnology and that he was an approved provider in my insurance network gave me great hope.

Dr. Stegman called me at home two weeks later. He’d read my charts and description of symptoms, and concurred about the likelihood of endometriosis. He offered to schedule outpatient surgery. To reduce the time away from my family, he offered prescriptions for a preoperative sonogram and lab work to be done locally. He also accelerated the date for surgery so that the procedures would be applied to that year’s insurance deductible. This saved my family several thousand dollars.

Although his office was closed when I arrived in Camp Hill on December 26, Dr. Stegman met with me for several hours that evening to explain every aspect of the procedures I was to undergo the next day. At one point he got out a medical textbook and showed me pictures of endometrial lesions. He explained that the majority of laparoscopy training for gynecologists is limited to tubal ligations. Very little time is spent teaching gynecologists to diagnose and treat specific disorders such as endometriosis. Complicating matters is that only about 30-40% of the lesions look similar to the pictures in medical textbooks, Dr. Stegman told me. This explains why doctors trained in NaProTechnology often find endometriosis in women after other gynecologists have performed laparoscopies and declared them free of lesions.

The next day, I arrived at the hospital near Dr. Stegman’s office. Prior to the operation, Dr. Stegman asked to pray with me. He asked the Holy Spirit to guide him in my surgery and then put me in the care of the Blessed Mother. When I awoke, he confirmed that he had found and removed endometrial lesions. I returned home the next day and was back to my regular routine in a week.

It’s been seven years since my surgery and I have remained free of the debilitating menstrual and pelvic pain that plagued me for nearly 20 years. After my surgery, I had several visits with a physical therapist to strengthen my pelvic floor muscles, since most of the lesions had been embedded within the muscles surrounding the cervix. It was gratifying to learn that my resistance to hysterectomy was well-grounded, since no lesions were found in the uterus. Removing my womb would not have helped my condition, but would have unnecessarily robbed me of my fertility.

I was blessed beyond measure to discover NaProTechnology before allowing a doctor to injure or destroy my fertility. I’m currently pregnant with our sixth child and it’s frightening to imagine that these last three children likely would not exist if I had taken a more traditional treatment for my condition.

We must continue to pray for the conversion of physicians who do not practice in accord with Church teaching. Through our prayers, sacrifices, and witness, perhaps in time they will learn that there are better ways to alleviate the suffering of their female patients…ways that are not only healthier for women, but that will respect their God-given feminine dignity, too.