By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
(This is the third in a series focused on Respect Life Month, which is the month of October.)
For couples struggling to conceive a child, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) has been a medical standard for the past 30 years. The Catholic Church has long spoken out against this method of conception due to the fact that it destroys embryos in the process and replaces the marital act. However, because of its prevalence in the medical world, some Catholic couples are led to believe they are out of medical options after a doctor recommends the procedure.
Officials from the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Neb., report that IVF is not a miracle procedure, and more effective options exist. Dr. Kristina Pakiz, associate medical consultant, said couples “do not have to feel trapped in a corner where they are told they will never have a child without in-vitro fertilization. The truth is that there is superior gynecologic healthcare available to them.”
She said IVF has a success rate of about 30 percent and increases the risk of high-risk pregnancy and birth defects. About five in six embryos created in the process will die. IVF does not address root causes of infertility — only a detailed workup that helps diagnose and treat infertility as the product of an underlying condition can do that. When infertility is seen as an underlying medical condition and treated accordingly, success rates increase.
Dr. Karla Polaschek, medical director for Women’s Choice Center in Bettendorf and pro-life OB/GYN practitioner at Medical Arts Associates, in Moline, Ill., said many doctors are aware of alternative treatments and procedures, but may be skeptical or less comfortable with them based on the current medical model. Additionally, she said IVF is part of a profitable industry; treatments cost $10,000 or more per menstrual cycle, and medical research companies depend on donated embryos (with the parents’ permission) for research. She said these issues turn an embryo into a commodity, posing a moral dilemma for Catholics. “There is money to be made… (but) a baby is not a consumer good. It’s a child!”
Jamie Rathjen, director of Fiat FertilityCare Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, suspects that there is more money to be made in treatments like IVF as opposed to solutions that treat the underlying condition. Additionally, she conducted a survey of 15 Cedar Falls-area doctors, and most revealed that such treatments were not emphasized during medical school training. Rathjen, an advocate for procedures that diagnose and treat the underlying issue, said doctors tend to be receptive to Church-approved methods and technologies once they understand them as viable options. Three Cedar Falls-area medical professionals are now seeking additional training.
These alternative treatments often utilize Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods to chart fertility cycles and detect problems. Beth Budelier, NFP teacher and parishioner of St. Paul the Apostle in Davenport, explained that it is common for couples with low or marginal fertility to conceive within six months of learning this method.
For women who do not ovulate or have other issues which cannot be detected or confirmed through charting of fertility signs alone, ultrasounds and hormonal testing can be useful. Treatments can range from a healthy diet to fertility-enhancing medications such as clomiphene and letrozole to reparative surgery. Dr. Polaschek has seen almost universal success with a procedure called ovarian wedge resectioning for women with ovulation issues.
Still, she said, some couples may not be able to conceive even with the most statistically effective treatments, depending on their condition and age. Even as women statistically seek motherhood past the age of declining fertility, IVF does not offer a viable solution. The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology reports a success rate of less than 5 percent for a 42-year-old woman.
Anything that helps to increase a couple’s natural fertility — as opposed to replacing it or creating life outside of the body — is acceptable in the Church. Father Thom Hennen, religion teacher at Assumption High School in Davenport, theologian and diocesan vocations director, said that couples are welcome to try what is permissible, all the while being open to whatever life may or may not come. “At all times there has to be an abandonment to God’s will.”
Dr. Polaschek recommends that Catholics seeking infertility treatment familiarize themselves with treatments acceptable to the Church, and resist being persuaded into using illicit treatments. Even if a doctor is not explicitly pro-life, he or she may know of alternative methods or be able to make a referral. If a doctor does not respect couples’ wishes, they can look for a new doctor. They can also call the Pope Paul IV center for referrals.
Lists of pro-life doctors are available at www.onemoresoul.org and www.fertilitycare.org. Currently, no doctors from the Diocese of Davenport are listed, but practitioners are available in Moline, Ill., Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Sioux City and Des Moines, Iowa.
Dr. Polaschek offered a message of encouragement to doctors, encouraging them to look beyond IVF while trying to help couples achieve pregnancy. “We (can) use more of their natural bodies, use more natural ways versus going to (IVF) right away,” Polaschek said.