Infertility and the Role of the Church

By Rachel Marie Stone 4-22-2015
Background landscape by Alex_Po / Shutterstock.com
Background landscape by Alex_Po / Shutterstock.com

If you’re on social media and have a certain number of contacts of childbearing age, chances are good that there are times when it seems that every other post is announcing a pregnancy, the results of a gender-revealing ultrasound, or a birth.

Chances are also good that you don’t see many status updates about infertility, about the difficult “two-week wait” between ovulation and the time that a home test can announce an early pregnancy — or a woman’s monthly period can let her know that her wait isn’t over.

This week — April 19-25 — is National Infertility Awareness Week. For 2015, the theme is “You Are Not Alone.”

That’s an important message for people struggling with infertility.

“It’s a very private struggle,” one woman told me. “It’s a struggle not many people are privy to, so you put on a smile and act like all is well when really you’re in a constant state of grief.”

“It isn’t only about the second bedroom remaining empty or the ache of your empty arms when you see a friend cradling her newborn. Our culture — from our tax policies to our churches — revolve[s] around families with children. When people experience infertility, they grieve what’s missing from their personal lives and are also shut out from the social experience of parenthood,” says Ellen Painter Dollar, a writer who focuses on reproductive health and ethics.

Yet infertility affects more people than you might think: 1 in 8 — 7.4 million — U.S. women of childbearing age have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy to term. Infertility — defined clinically in male-female couples who don’t become pregnant after a year of unprotected sexual intercourse — is caused by many different factors and confluences of factors. Sometimes, perhaps as much as a third of the time, no identifiable cause can be found.

Mae, who has blogged about her experiences with unexplained infertility, said that, for her, it’s the “unexplained” part that’s hardest.

“Every test that we have taken has come back normal,” she said. “There’s no logical reason that we shouldn’t be able to have a child. Not having a ‘reason’ or a clear path to ‘fixing’ this is what makes it tough.”

Anna, who has been married less than a year, recently discovered that she likely has a clearly defined and untreatable condition — premature ovarian failure. It’s too early to tell, she said, but though she’s still young, it’s possible that “it’s already too late.”

Another woman, Diana, told me that she listened to a lot of James Dobson radio programs in her 20s. “He said things like ‘love must be tough, parenting isn’t for cowards.’ Why didn’t he say, ‘God’s grace is with you?’ His admonitions terrified me; I thought I needed to be older before I had children because parenting is too hard.”

In her later years, she struggled to become pregnant, suffering miscarriages and infertility. She feels “broken,” she said. “I blew my fertile years.”

Lanie and Stephen tried for two years to become parents. “Because we were healthy and in our mid-20s, our doctors assured us all we needed was time,” Lanie said.

After several failed attempts at IUI (intra-uterine insemination with Stephen’s semen), Lanie’s doctor recommended in-vitro fertilization, which they pursued after much thought and counsel. The couple now has four healthy children.

“We kept this so private because Stephen is a pastor,” Lanie said. “The Christian community can be very judgmental of any type of fertility treatment. We had to be careful about sharing this decision. We were trying to protect our hearts, but also Stephen’s job.”

Lanie said that she was mostly surprised and pleased, however, at the supportive responses of her family and close friends.

“There were certainly those who felt like we should just wait on the Lord and allow him to give us a child naturally in his own time … but they were not going through what we were. And that is so much easier said than done.”

Another woman, Delia, recounted the pain of such spiritually insensitive comments during her lonely struggle with secondary infertility.

“No one at fertility support groups can relate, because you already have one child,” she said.

Church hasn’t been a safe space for her, either. “Some people believe you should be satisfied with the number of children the Lord gives you — including none.”

In a forthcoming book — Reconceiving Infertility, biblical scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss argue against simplistic theological judgments concerning fertility and infertility.

“From the ancient past to our own present, the inability to conceive has always been a source of anguish and confusion […] The biblical text does not provide easy answers but affirms that there are no easy answers.”

Baden and Moss told me that, in their view, “the Bible does not come down on any single position regarding fertility, but rather provides multiple ways — sometimes quite distinctive and even contradictory — of understanding infertility from a faith perspective.”

Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University who has written about her own experience of infertility, told me that she views parenthood as “one of the most important of human callings.” But she, said, “I believe more in God’s sovereignty. While I feel the absence of the gift of children in my life, God has brought many other gifts that I could not have received if I had been called to motherhood.”

Still, Ellen Painter Dollar cautions, we should avoid imposing meaning on other people’s experiences of infertility.

“Eventually, childless couples may choose to adopt or to take on new ministries that their childlessness makes possible, but they will reach those decisions in their own time, without our callous and uninformed attempts to rush them along,” she said.

Perhaps the most faithful response to the common and yet lonely experience of infertility might be to try and live by the simple affirmation of Infertility Awareness Week — “you are not alone.” Job’s friends, after all, did well when they simply sat with him in his grief, and said nothing at all.

So this week, and each time you see those baby announcements, think of the people who wish they had such news to share, who can’t quite bring themselves to speak their pain aloud, and find ways of letting them know they’re not alone.

(To protect privacy, at the request of the individuals concerned, some names and identifying details have been changed.)

Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food . She has contributed to Christianity Today, The Christian Century, Books & Culture, Flourish, and The Huffington Post, among other publications. She blogs at RachelMarieStone.com.

Image: Background landscape by  / Shutterstock.com

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