Monday, June 20, 2011

Fertility and Faith

The following is the introduction to some writing I have done about fertility and faith.  Maybe someday it will be a book, maybe it will just stay blog entries. But it's offered for comments, shared stories, and suggestions.    

As an Episcopal priest in my twenties, I was surprised how frequently the subject of infertility came up in pastoral conversations with people in my church.   How was it possible that so many people had so much trouble getting pregnant?  After all, I had spent my teens being drilled with the knowledge that you could get pregnant from having sex just once, and possibly even from sexual activity that didn’t include “full” intercourse.  I spent my twenties trying very hard not to get pregnant in a series of relationships.  By the time my husband and I started the exciting and—at first—hopeful process of trying conceive, it felt like a relief: finally my body was going to have the chance to do what it had been built to do.   Even the knowledge that my own parents had struggled to conceive (I am an only child born 14 years into their marriage) didn’t prepare me to expect trouble. 

As month after month went by, I realized that there was a real chance I would be joining the women I had counseled.   As we moved from “don’t worry—it’ll happen sometime” to “maybe we should go see a doctor” to “I’m ready to try in vitro fertilization” I felt like I didn’t have much of a model for how to approach this or pray about it as a progressive 21st Century Christian.  In scripture, there are lots of women who struggle with fertility, but they always get a baby in the end.  There is no story in the Bible in which a woman desires to have a child and remains childless.

It is also always set up as a test of faith: if you have faith, you will have a child.  This isn’t how my understanding of God works:  you can have as much faith as Hannah or laugh as much as Sarah, but whether or not you get pregnant depends upon an infinity of variables that are so far beyond being faithful.  I also start from a different perspective than the Bible regarding the value of a woman’s (or couple’s) life being tied up with her status as a mother.  I understand why societies placed a high value on a woman’s successful production of offspring in previous centuries; but since I don’t accept that valuation in my culture today, the stakes felt like they should be lower today.  Regardless of the lack of biblical models, it is possible to be a person of deep faith and be unable to conceive, and I didn’t want to be embittered if motherhood was not the path God was calling me toward. 

But I struggled with my prayers.  They often felt selfish, or like I was bargaining with God, “Please God, if you’ll just let me get pregnant, I’ll never ask you for anything again….” And I was full of anger.  Not specifically directed at God, but it often poured out towards friends who seemed to conceive at just steamy look from their husbands. 

I also noted the lack of moral and ethical guides beyond the strict teachings of the Roman Catholic and more fundamentalist Christian churches.  If your starting point is that having children is a good thing, and a way of better loving God and your neighbor, but it is not the only way of loving God and neighbor, a host of moral dilemmas come up along the way.  If I’m going to spend $15,000 (or more) on trying to have a baby, what else could that $15,000 do? In the midst of our fertility struggle, my husband and I traveled to rural Tanzania.  For $15,000 we could have funded half of the building of a residential high school for girls—or built wells for safe drinking water in several villages, liberating other women and girls from the daily labor of walking miles to get water. 

The comedian Lewis Black refers repeatedly to frozen embryos as “mini-pizzas” in a hilarious routine—but if you believe an embryo is something more than a mini-pizza, but something less than an actual person, how do you approach their creation and—possibly—destruction?  If I had a chance to create a bunch of embryos that would give me a better chance of conceiving at least one child, I wanted to create them.  I like having a backup plan—but how would I feel about backup embryos?

This writing is offered as a companion to women and couples who are struggling with fertility and faith.  My experience didn’t cover the totality of fertility treatments, nor are my religious issues the same as many other women’s, but it’s a starting place for women who are wondering how walk with God along this challenging road instead of walking alone or wrestling with God the entire way. 

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