Wednesday, November 13, 2013

making peace with ivf

It took Andrew and I a long time to make peace with in vitro fertilization (IVF). We had been trying to get pregnant for a couple of years. We'd had two losses. I know that a lot of people double, triple, even quadruple our waiting years, but we knew that the heartbreak had gone on long enough and we needed to take the next step - IVF. 

Moving forward with IVF requires all sorts of decisions, conversations and sacrifices. It's a major financial burden. It's a hefty physical undertaking. It's a serious time commitment. But it was the spiritual aspect of IVF that had us completely and utterly stuck. 

In our faith community, there's a healthy skepticism about reproductive technology. I count myself among those who wrestle with the implications of our country's big science and small God. So when we felt ourselves inching down the path that leads to IVF (a place we never, ever thought we'd be), we entered into a wrestling match of our own.

Obviously, this is our journey. Only ours. I am not making any recommendations here. I am not providing a theological lesson. I am simply explaining how Andrew and I made peace with IVF.  I have come across many people along the way who feel much differently than we do about these issues. It's such a personal thing, an individual choice, but one that’s important to dialogue about.

Our biggest concern with fertility treatments was whether IVF was sin. In the beginning, we asked so many questions -Are we not trusting God enough by moving forward with this? Does the procedure itself take God/marriage/love out of the equation and remove God's blessing? When embryos die as part of IVF, how close is that to abortion? These were very difficult questions for us to answer, so difficult that many of them went unanswered. But even with unanswered questions, we eventually came to a place where we felt very comfortable and at peace moving forward with it, and we have never once looked back. 

The freezing/cryogenics part of IVF was a tough issue for me to wrap my head around. It sounded really scary and weird at the beginning and was one of my biggest problems with the process, but I've become more comfortable with the idea over the last couple of years as I've learned more about it. I was fascinated to learn that some clinics have found that frozen IVF cycles can often be even more successful than fresh cycles! Also, some women respond much better to frozen cycles than fresh.

All of this is to say that freezing embryos doesn't necessarily mean that they are less likely to turn into viable pregnancies. If you research miscarriage rates, they’re all over the board, but they’re generally higher than we’d expect. That’s because many women think they're just having a late, heavy period when really, they're miscarrying. I have heard doctors say that the embryos that don't survive the thaw are the ones who may have been chemical pregnancies. I know they can't know that for sure, but it really makes sense to me. Also, even after a baby is inside of you (via IVF or a more natural method), there are all sorts of things that can cause problems - deli meat, car accidents, soft cheeses, overly hot showers, seat warmers in cars, laptops, etc. You do your absolute best to protect them, but there are threats everywhere it seems. For us, the cryogenic process was one of those potential threats. So, we felt like it was important to do everything that we could to protect our embryos (choose a reputable clinic with a good lab, decide ahead of time what we’d do with our remaining embryos, etc) and then pray for them like crazy. We knew we couldn't completely protect them. That part took a lot of faith.

One of my very best friends told me the most freeing thing during one of our conversations about spirituality and IVF. I was going on and on and on about the science behind everything, and she eventually just said, "Em, this is all gray area. God hasn't given any specific instructions about embryos, infertility procedures, etc. You have done your due diligence in educating yourself on the subject, and you've still ended up in the gray. There's just so much we don't know. This is one of those situations where you have no other option than to align your heart with God's and ask Him to show you the way. Ask Him to put a peace in your heart if He wants you to pursue IVF and ask him to put an uneasiness in your heart if He wants you to go a different direction."

So that's what we did. We had already researched like crazy and had tons of conversations to get people’s opinions about what we should do, and we kept ending up in that gray area where there are no clear answers. So we stopped focusing on the science and the debate surrounding IVF and put that energy toward our relationships with God. We spent extra time reading Scripture. We talked to God all the time. We made sure that our hearts were as aligned with His as they'd ever been, and we begged Him to take away the peace that He had already placed in our hearts if He didn't want us to do IVF.

At one point during our decision-making process, I pictured myself in heaven having a conversation with God. I imagined Him telling me that the IVF that brought us Harriet was a sin. This probably sounds a bit heretical to even say, but I imagined myself stating my case to Him. I imagined myself describing the way that I put myself out there and pursued Him like crazy and sought His heart and mind on this issue. I imagined myself asking Him why He didn't take away that peace. I just couldn’t imagine God frowning on us for doing something that we had decided to do after such soul-searching and while really, truly, fully pursuing holiness in this. That imagery of having that conversation with God gave me an even more intense peace about it.

Lastly, when we finally decided to do IVF, we created very firm parameters around it. We decided that we would give every single embryo the very best chance at life, whatever that looked like. We decided that we were uncomfortable with the idea of selective reduction. We felt like God had been very faithful in leading us to this decision, and we wanted to be just as faithful in our part of it.

I was talking to a friend about the spiritual aspects of IVF this past summer, and she made an excellent point, one I’d never considered before. She said that what is sin for one person isn't always sin for another person. So the fact that we did IVF and have a peace about it and some friends of ours have decided against IVF for spiritual/ethical reasons doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is going against God’s direction. Maybe, for whatever reason, God calls certain people to something else, so pursing IVF would be wrong for them. It took me a while to wrap my head around this concept but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me. I can think of examples of other things in life that would be a sin for me but wouldn't be a sin for other people, or vice versa. Like some people can have a couple drinks and it's just fine, but other people have been called to complete sobriety so even one drink is a sin for them. Maybe IVF is the same way.

As far as books and other resources on this topic, I haven't come across much. I think that the ethical/spiritual part of IVF is something that people stray away from for fear of offending people and/or being judged. I really wish that there were more resources out there. I did read one book about the ethics of reproductive technology. It was very black-and-white about the issue and discouraged readers from doing anything in that gray area. Is that probably the "safest" way to go? Some would say yes. They would ask why you'd even want to walk that line of "is it sin or is it not?" To us, the science and academics behind all of this stuff just wasn't cutting it. We needed to feel and experience God's answer in our hearts/souls/bodies rather than keeping it all in our head. So we went a different direction than the book recommended...and I'm fine with that. To me, that felt safer than just having a blanket, black-and-white answer...but many would disagree with that. Again, I wish that there were more resources out there for people who are wrestling with these questions. If you know of any, let me know!

To those of you who are in the midst of this decision, my heart is with you. It’s a tough thing to feel that the thing your heart longs for the most might be in conflict with the One who holds your heart in His hands. I wish I had concrete answers to the many questions that arise around IVF and spirituality, but I don’t. All I have is my own story. Hope it was helpful.
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