Navigating IVF and Infertility When You're a Believer

Busting Myths Around Religion, Infertility, and Fertility Treatment

Couple on a beach praying
Your faith should be a source of support when you're struggling to conceive -- not an additional source of stress. Glow Wellness / Getty Images

If you’re a religious person, infertility may come with two unique pains. One is that religious families are more likely to have more children. For example, Catholics, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews are all known for their large families.

Having no children or “only” one or two in a community where most families contain an average of four or more kids can feel especially isolating.

The second pain the religious may experience makes the first even more difficult to handle: the implication that if you truly believed in God, you wouldn’t need treatments.

And, for some, that the fertility treatments you need are immoral.

Does pursuing treatment suggestion a lack of faith? Is infertility a “sign from God” that you aren’t meant to have children, or that you are somehow spiritually less and undeserving?

What about those for whom IVF is forbidden?

Some believe that conception should never occur outside of the body, or fear that embryos created during IVF will be destroyed or indefinitely frozen. This is especially a problem for Catholics and some Christians.

Do you have options? Can a truly religious person pursue fertility treatment?

Obviously, I can't speak to God and get answers. However, I can dispel some misunderstandings regarding fertility treatment options, provide some food for thought on the topic, and provide a Biblical example of an infertile women seeking help to get pregnant.

Infertility as a Curse from God

There are those that believe that infertility is some sort of religious curse or punishment.

The fact of the matter is that we have no idea why bad things happen to good people. (I think we can all agree that infertility is something that happens to many good people.)

The Bible has quite a few examples of infertility affecting righteous individuals, including Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah.

If your infertility is a punishment, then that would be like saying Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were being punished, and I don't believe the Bible implies that their infertility was a punishment.

It certainly caused them all heartache.

Also important to note is that the fertility challenged women of the Bible did not accept their infertility. They prayed and begged God for children.

If they thought this was simply a matter of God deciding they were not meant to be mothers, why pray?

Rachel even sought an herbal fertility treatment:

"During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, 'Please give me some of your son's mandrakes.'" -- Genesis 30:14

Mandrakes were an ancient fertility treatment. Rachel felt so strongly about needing them that she exchanged a night with Jacob for the fertility herb.

Unfortunately, the mandrakes were not helpful for Rachel, but this is still a good example of a righteous biblical figure seeking fertility treatment.

IVF and Conception Outside the Body

IVF, in vitro fertilization, means fertilization that takes place in the lab. Some have religious objections to conception taking place outside of the body.

However, if this level of assisted reproductive treatment is necessary, there is another option - GIFT.

GIFT stands for gamete intrafallopian transfer. With GIFT, the woman's eggs and man's sperm are placed together directly into the fallopian tube. Hopefully, the sperm will fertilize the egg or eggs, and pregnancy will occur.

With GIFT, conception takes place in the body -- not in a lab.

The success rates for GIFT are not nearly as good as they are for IVF, it is a more invasive medical procedure, and you may need to search for a doctor experienced with this rarely used treatment.

However, it is an option, and one you should know about.

If fertility drugs or other treatments are not successful for you, and you are against IVF, talk to your doctor about GIFT.

The Question of Extra Embryos: 4 Possible Solutions

Let's talk a bit about those who don't have a problem with conception outside the body per se, but they do not want embryos frozen or intentionally destroyed.

You can speak to your doctor and specifically ask them not to create more than one or two embryos at a time.

Your chances of getting a good quality, strong embryo may go down, and so you may need more cycles of IVF for success.

This may mean more stress on your body and a larger financial burden.

Also, depending on the reason for infertility, this option may be unlikely to work.

With all of that said, for some couples, this is a real option to consider.

You can also consider donating any extra embryos to another infertile couple.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about this option before you start treatment, as certain tests and paperwork may need to be done before the embryos are created.

You can also choose to transfer any frozen embryos until you have used them all up. (If you get pregnant with one transfer, you would just use the next ones for the next pregnancy.)

Another thing you must know: embryos are never created and then destroyed intentionally without your consent. (Dead embryos may be thrown away, but you can always talk to your doctor if you want them disposed of in a special way.)

They will be your embryos, and you can choose what to do with them once they are created.

In fact, if some embryos are too weak to lead to a pregnancy or have already died, but you are against them being thrown in the trash, ask your doctor about transferring them anyway, either in that cycle or a future cycle.

They will then leave your body with your period, just like they would if you had conceived them naturally.

The Bottom Line

No one really knows what God thinks, and bad things happen to good people for reasons we do not understand. No one can say whether what happens is "meant to be" or not.

Accepting fertility treatment is no different than accepting help for any other medical problem. If you would accept herbs, drugs, or medical treatment for your non-fertility problems, there's no logical reason to turn it away for infertility.

Remember that Rachel of the Bible took a fertility herb of her time.

Remember that 85 to 90% of infertile couples can be treated with drugs, surgery, or other low-tech treatments, and IVF may not even be necessary.

If IVF is recommended, you have options, like GIFT, single embryo creation, embryo donation, and continuing to transfer frozen embryos until you have used them all up.

There are options for fertility treatment that may help avoid whatever religious or ethical problems you have.

You also can build your family via adoption, a path many infertile couples (religious and not) have chosen. The choice not to pursue fertility treatment is as legitimate as the choice to pursue it. It’s important we respect each other and the choices others make for themselves.

The bottom line: your spirituality does not need to stand in the way of building your family.

More on infertility, spirituality, and religion:

More things you should know:

This article was originally inspired by RESOLVE’s 2011 Bust a Myth challenge, part of that year’s National Infertility Awareness Week.

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