Struggling with infertility and miscarriage is certainly a great burden for couples to bear, especially when they so deeply desire to have a child and live out their vocation to be open to life and welcome the gift of children from God. It is important to remember that despite infertility, couples "can have a married life that is filled with love and meaning." (see Married Love and the Gift of Life) As Blessed John Paul II has said, infertile couples are able to be fruitful when their married love is "open to others, to the needs of the apostolate ... the needs of the poor...the needs of orphans" and to the world. (John Paul II, Homily, 1982; quoted in Married Love and the Gift of Life)
The difficulty when one faces infertility is that its treatment (medical evaluation, protocols, procedures, etc.) must respect God's design for married love. "In an age of advances in reproductive medicine...some solutions offer real hope for restoring a couple's natural, healthy ability to have children...[while] others pose serious moral problems by failing to respect the dignity of the couple's marital relationship, of their sexuality, or of the child." (Life Giving Love in an Age of Technology)
The Church, with sincere compassion and empathy for couples struggling with infertility, offers guidance and hope through her teachings on how to understand and approach infertility in a way that reverences and protects the dignity of the human person and respects God's divine plan for married love. As the U.S. bishops affirm, "the male and female bodies are made to be able to procreate together. When infertility is apparent, the challenge is to diagnose and address problems so these bodies can function as they should—and there is no moral problem in doing this, any more than there is in other medical treatments to restore health." (Life Giving Love in an Age of Technology)
Today, there are a variety of moral approaches to treating suspected infertility. For example, learning how to pinpoint the fertile window to maximize the chance of conception with NFP use is very effective for some problems. "Hormonal treatment and other medications, conventional or laser surgery to repair damaged or blocked fallopian tubes, means for alleviating male infertility factors and other restorative treatments are [also] available...these and other methods do not substitute for the married couple's act of loving union; rather, they assist this act in reaching its potential to conceive a new human life." (Life Giving Love in an Age of Technology)
Below are several resources in which the Church provides theological and pastoral directives on how to approach the challenge of infertility in accord with the dignity of the human person and with reverence for God as the author and creator of life.
Documents of the Holy See
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997
This comprehensive treatment of the Church's teaching touches upon every facet of the Christian faith. While references to marriage and family can be found throughout the Catechism, in order to understand Catholic teaching on infertility, it would be helpful to first read about the "fruitfulness" of marriage at 2366-2372 and the "gift of the child" at 2373-2379. The subject of infertility and medical techniques can be found at 2375-2377. A discussion on the immorality of artificial insemination can be found at 2376. The suffering of infertility is treated in 2374.
Dignitas personae (On Certain Bioethical Questions) 2008, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this document grapples with a number of bioethical questions raised in response to modern technological advancements in the field of human fertility and infertility. Using the principles of Catholic moral teaching, the document brings clarity and truth to the debates surrounding both procreation and genetic manipulation.
Donum vitae (Instruction on Respect for Human Life) 1987, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this text is the predecessor to the above document, Dignitas personae. Written in the midst of significant medical innovation on assisted reproductive technology, this document defends the gift and dignity of human life (particularly in its earliest stages), against the onset of intrusive and immoral scientific innovation.
- Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology 2009, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, this pastoral teaching on marriage and infertility brings Catholic moral principles into the discussion on modern reproductive technologies. The bishops defend the dignity of procreation, reserving it to the conjugal union of spouses. The moral and immoral means of remedying infertility are clearly discussed
- Ethical Directives for Catholic Hospitals (Fifth Edition) 2009, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Now in its fifth edition, this document provides instruction for health care professionals regarding the mission and scope of their work. Addressing both pastoral and moral issues alike, the bishops provide guidance on the standards expected of those in Christian health care. The Directives include instruction on specific moral dilemmas encountered in the health care field including those that pertain to human fertility and life.
Resources for Catholic Couples
- Ruhi-Lopez, Angelique, and Carmen Santamaria. The Infertility Companion for Catholics. This book offers spiritual and practical support for Catholic couples facing infertility. Visit Ruhi-Lopez and Santamaria's website, Catholic Infertility Journey.
- Diamond, Eugene F. A Catholic Guide to Medical Ethics: Catholic Principles in Clinical Practice. Palos Park, Il.: The Linacre Institute, 2001.
- Evans, Debra. Without Moral Limits: Women, Reproduction, and Medical Technology. Wheaton, Il.: Crossway Books, 2000.
- Flowers, Lois. Infertility: Finding God’s Peace in the Journey. Eugene, Or.: Harvest House Publishers, 2003.
- Guarendi, Ray. Cincinnati, Oh.: Servant Books/ St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.
- Lund-Molfese, Nicholas C., and Michael L. Kelly (Eds.). Human Dignity and Reproductive Technology. New York, NY: University Press of America, 2003.
- May, William E. Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life (2nd Edition). Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Books, 2008.
- Saake, Jennifer. Hannah’s Hope: Seeking God’s Heart in the Midst of Infertility, Miscarriage, and Adoption Loss. Colorado Springs, Co.: NavPress, 2005.
- Schalesky, Marlo. Empty Womb, Aching Heart. Bloomington, Mn.: Bethany House Publishers, 2001.
Articles and Publications
Humanae vitae and the Cross of Infertility. Author, lawyer, wife, and mother, Elizabeth Kirk, JD provides a reflection on what Church teaching on married love and the gift of life has to offer to infertile couples. This presentation was given at the 2018 symposium celebrating the 5oth anniversary of Humanae vitae held at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
Springs in the Desert is a Catholic ministry devoted to helping women and married couples struggling with infertility. Founded by two women who received their graduate degrees from the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, this ministry is designed to help a couple "move beyond their grief to find the fruitfulness that God has planned for their marriage." See https://springsinthedesert.org.
"Begotten, Not Made:" Further Reflections on the Laboratory Generation of Human Life , by William E. May. Dr. May writes about the morality of in vitro fertilization and the necessity of the marital act to be procreative rather than reproductive.