In 2011, Emily Herx was teaching English at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was also having trouble getting pregnant, so she began in vitro fertilization treatments. When she informed her supervisors, they were initially supportive, permitting her to begin treatments. But when she requested more time off for her second round of treatment, she was referred to the school’s priest and, later, the local bishop. Eleven days later, she was fired. In response, Herx filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school and the Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend. Earlier this month the judge in the case decided that Herx’s firing did not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act—the U.S. government classifies infertility as a disability—but the trial will continue to determine whether there was gender discrimination in play.
The Catholic Church’s rigid stance against abortion and contraception is well known. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI described the “transmission of human life” as a “sacred duty.” In Catholic thought, it is incumbent upon us to create life, not to prevent or destroy it. What is less well known is that this same logic is arrayed against women who seek to become pregnant through certain reproductive technologies such as IVF, in which a significant number of embryos are fertilized, many of which are then typically destroyed. Embryo destruction in the course of fertility treatments is, like abortion, murder in the eyes of the church.
There is no denying the real and pronounced clash between church teaching and IVF as it is usually practiced. That said, some of the church’s concerns could be alleviated if a couple committed to using all of the fertilized embryos resulting from treatment. Admittedly, from a Catholic perspective, there would still be ethical issues: instrumentalizing the embryo, for example, or colluding with a fertility industry that can be seen as commodifying women’s bodies.
In a statement released by the diocese in 2012 in response to Herx’s lawsuit, church officials said: “The Church promotes treatment of infertility through means that respect the right to life, the unity of marriage, and procreation brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act. There are other infertility treatments, such as in vitro fertilization, which are not morally licit according to Catholic teaching.” In other words, sex should take place in the context of marriage, and procreation in the context of sexual intercourse. As for the treatment of fertility through “means that respect the right to life,” that’s the Catholic Church saying that it’s OK for women to chart their menstrual cycles.
The Roman Catholic Church is protected legally in the U.S. by the First Amendment and by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and, of course, it has a right to protect its own mission and message. (The church confirms that this is exactly what it was doing in Herx’s case: “It is undisputed the decision not to renew Herx’s contract was religiously based,” an attorney for the diocese wrote in court documents.) But at times, the rush to safeguard established positions can lead the church down some rather tortuous roads. This appears to be one of those times, as the bright line between acceptable and unacceptable has become blurry with the constant advent of new technological advances in fertility treatments. It is unclear whether the priests involved in Herx’s case, for instance, and the Catholic Church in general, understand the specifics of modern infertility.
According to her suit, Herx was told by Bishop Kevin Rhodes that IVF was “an intrinsic evil, which means no circumstances can justify it,” because it frequently involves the destruction of embryos. This is typically true—but not in Herx’s case. Herx has stated that she and her husband used every embryo they created and that she informed church officials of this from the beginning. Here the church’s tendency toward a black-or-white position runs afoul of complex reality. From what Herx has said, the clerical response to her fertility treatments seems to have been blanket condemnation. Herx’s claim states that the priest she consulted “relied on uninformed assumptions about fertility treatment in general” and that he “did not understand the medical treatments actually administered.” The clergy involved in Herx’s firing seemed to have been responding more to the very idea of infertility treatment than they were to the medical processes involved.
They also seem to have been responding to a concern for their own reputations. According to Herx’s complaint, her employers had no objection to her fertility treatments before they began to be more widely known. The priest who called Herx a “grave, immoral sinner” evidently also suggested, according to Herx, that she should have kept quiet so as to avoid bringing scandal on the school and the church, saying that some things are “better left between the individual and God.” And that was before she filed the lawsuit or went to the press.
But could she have kept quiet? Sweeping personal struggle and sadness under the carpet is not so easy in a culture that celebrates families and fertility. Though not often expressed, the default position of the church is that childlessness is an intentionally chosen state, and a sinful one at that. The most prominent recent expression of this came from the usually sensitive Pope Francis. In June, Francis delivered a sermon in which he castigated married couples “who don’t want children, who want to be without fruitfulness,” saying that they have been blinded by a “culture of well-being” into thinking that “it’s better not to have children. … That way you can see the world, be on vacation, you can have a fancy home in the country, you’ll be carefree.” Leaving aside the socio-economic assumptions about childless couples made by His Holiness here, the practical problem is that the statement implicates everyone who is without children and tars all childless couples with the label of “selfish.”
Infertility is an invisible disability. However, the social context of the Catholic community almost demands that it be made visible, if only so as to avoid the papally authorized stigma of having chosen a childless lifestyle. Francis’ softly worded caveat about those for whom “children do not arrive” makes no difference unless infertile couples out themselves to everyone they encounter.
While there are plenty of couples, like Herx and her husband, who elect to undergo IVF treatment despite the church’s judgment, there are studies that suggest that many Catholics steer clear. Admittedly, one of the issues with all social-scientific research into infertility is that the data pool is self-selected: Not everyone who is childless seeks medical help, and this can skew the results somewhat. But when factors like income level and cost of treatment are controlled for, certain groups—notably high-percentage Catholic population groups, like Hispanics—are far less likely to utilize reproductive testing and technologies.
In practical terms, then, the Catholic attitude toward infertility most closely resembles that of Christian Scientists: In both cases there is no medical remedy available to the true believer, only faith in prayer and in God’s healing power. But what happens when, despite all the faith one can muster, one remains infertile? What does this say about a person’s worth within a community that explicitly describes childbearing as a duty?
Perhaps most problematically, the church’s uninformed attitude toward infertility perpetuates the negative gendered stereotypes that surround childless women in general. In the past, the “blame” for infertility fell squarely on the shoulders of the would-be mother. Today, the assumed decision not to have children is also attributed to the would-be mother, and childless women are often seen as cold, selfish, and ambitious (the latter a term that is negatively culturally coded for women). As long as childlessness is constructed in this way, women will continue to be more negatively socially impacted by infertility, in the same way that women in general experience more social discrimination for choosing to be childless.
Neither in theory nor in practice does the Catholic position seem to appreciate that infertile women are caught between the church’s dogmatic emphasis on procreation and the official prohibition against fertility treatments. The reality is that infertility is complex and varied in its origins, in its lived experience, and, increasingly, in its treatment. That reality needs to be recognized by those powers that claim any sort of authority in the lives of women.