The Quiet Liturgy of Fertility Treatment | Sojourners

The Quiet Liturgy of Fertility Treatment

Pregnancy test on calendar with ultrasound background. Image via Reuters. Credit: Jes2ufoto / Alamy
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Earlier this year, while walking out of a doctor’s appointment, I noticed a brief email from a church member where, in between the greeting and salutations, they wrote: “[I] prayed for any evil spirits in/around your body to leave in the name of Jesus.”

When my husband and I started fertility treatment, we intentionally stopped going to church. Due to various traumatic religious experiences, we had been floating for over a year and we remained undecided on whether belonging to any religious organization would be part of our future. Then we went to a church service on Father’s Day weekend. Belting pop songs about the joy and goodness of God was already too much. But then they asked all fathers to stand and it broke us. Around this time, we alerted a small group of people that we were beginning fertility treatment and taking a break from church service. It was then that I received this email; we knew we could not go back.

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Throughout my adolescence, my menstrual cycles had been abnormal in regularity, length, flow, and pain. Ultrasound waves found ovaries showered with follicles. Soon, blood tests were abnormal and I received a diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) — a hormonal imbalance that causes the ovaries to produce lots of follicles, but not necessarily ovulate. PCOS can also affect one’s physical appearance, weight, mood, and energy levels. I also received a note in my medical file that endometriosis — a condition where tissue usually found in the uterus grows in other areas of the reproductive system and some nearby organs — was “highly suspected.”

At the time I was trying a medication often given to clot blood after surgery to help with the excruciating pain that endometriosis caused. I had been to the emergency room once, where I was placed on a cot, given lots of ibuprofen, and sent home. Over time, ibuprofen began to create stomach ulcers and I was told I could no longer take it. So, after years of self-advocating to both my doctor and OB-GYN, they finally took me seriously and prescribed me narcotics.

After six months of negative pregnancy tests, we were launched into the world of fertility clinics. Throughout spring and summer, we went through three medicated intrauterine inseminations, where ovulation was monitored, then induced, followed by sperm being directly inserted into the uterus through a catheter (IUI). They all failed, resulting in emotional and physical pain. We could not be comforted. Our support needs were changing as our lives began to be shaped by the calendar of fertility treatment. Fertility treatment is often an unaddressed or controversial topic in Christian organizations, but it is a liturgy of grief, hope, and waiting.

Growing up Catholic, our local church’s Mass was inclusive of many emotions. There was the joy of the Eucharist, the solemnity of silent confession, and the community of the sign of peace. These practices were oriented around the liturgical calendar. Each service was in a season and had meaning. When doctors first began monitoring my cycles, it brought me back to the liturgical calendar. The menstrual, follicular, and luteal phases, the seasons of hope, waiting, and grief. Just as every mass had meaning, so did each day of my cycles.

Recently, I came across a 2014 article in Christianity Today by Christian author and English professor Karen Swallow Prior, titled, “The Hidden Blessing of Infertility.” In the piece, Prior initially describes her discomfort with the label “infertile,” stating that she does not struggle with it since God has filled her life with “so much abundance.” I immediately braced myself for the rest of the article, which, in summary, argues that fertility treatment is about reproduction while God’s plan is about procreation. Procreation, she writes, can only take place “in the mystery of two bodies becoming one flesh and producing another body.” In other words, IVF treatment is contradictory to God’s plan because its focus is on having a child (reproduction) instead of having sex to have a child (procreation).

IVF is a difficult medical treatment with a rigorous schedule and minor surgery required in order to have a chance at conceiving. To suggest that undergoing this procedure is unbiblical, based on how the semen and egg meet, is dismissive. Putting anti-scientific and eisegetical thinking aside, fertility treatment is a sacred walk of grief, hope, and waiting. Even in the isolation and the rigorous treatment schedules, wonder is present. Thinking about this in Lenten terms, there are things I have to give up like evening plans with friends in exchange for medication shots. In ultrasound appointments, I get to see hidden shadows in my body and watch the medicine help things grow.

As we now begin our IVF journey, I feel unsettled in communities I once called home. Though no one has gone as far as calling it a “desecration,” a word Prior used to describe IVF in a 2019 tweet, my husband and I become tense when we begin discussing our treatment with anyone for the first time. We left all of the Christian institutions we were raised in; we wanted to process this season we are living in without shame.

Thankfully, with our friends and family, we have community and support here in Boston. The other night, one friend walked into my kitchen and began doing the dishes. Being hospitable toward infertile friends and family members does not have to be heroic. There is often not much to say as we sit in our seasons of grief.

Listening, helping with chores, cooking food, studying the process of IVF, and providing rides to appointments can create the feeling of care that emotionally grounds us. As a neurodivergent individual with unpredictable chronic pain, I love how my disability community supports each other through care webs. Care webs, a radical concept I first heard about in Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, are a response to the many broken systems around us in which an organized care plan is formed by depending on others, who often are also disabled, to give specific things they are able to give.

Care webs are necessary for the survival and flourishing of many disabled individuals. Whether it’s picking up groceries or a text to a friend to take their medication, it makes all the difference. If you have friends or family members experiencing infertility/going through the liturgy of fertility treatment, ask if they want to share their calendar. Going through each emotional day of the cycle alone is isolating, but with support there is a community all feeling the emotions together. Know what each day means and what season they are in, ask how you can support them, be consistent, and make them comfortable.

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Like Holy Week, my cycles have bookmarks, rituals, and wonder. I am gazing at ultrasound screens, enamored by the growing black circles that build my eggs. Every morning and evening, at the same time each day, I take my pills or shots. Each medicine is consecrated with care. Our calendar of infertility treatment means we always know what day it is; stretches are dark, consuming, painful, and we mourn and we hope together.

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