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Volume 13, Number 1

Original Article
Infertility: Origin of Judgment and Sources of Healing

Walter W. Benjamin, PhD

I have had four miscarriages. My husband and l were devastated by each one. The body of the well-groomed woman in her mid 30s shook and tears streamed down her face as she said, "We would do almost anything to have our own child."

I had been speaking to a state meeting of RESOLVE on the moral ambiguity of in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer, and surrogate mothering. Her outburst gave me a glimpse into the personal purgatory that many infertile couples experience. RESOLVE, a rapidly growing, nationwide organization, offers counseling, referral, and support services to infertile couples. Presently, infertility affects 15% of all couples and it is estimated that by the 21st century, about one couple out of every five may be unable to have their own biological children.

Infertility may be due to many factors: postponing childbirth, environmental hazards (radiation, etc.), stress, genetic or somatic abnormality, sterility induced by improper contraceptives, permissive sexual mores, gonorrhea, and others. Also, some conservatives suggest that the women's liberation movement might be responsible for increasing male sexual dysfunction. Whatever its etiology, infertility-defined as the inability to achieve pregnancy after trying for one year is a devastating experience. The term, a dreadful one for those so affected, often affects every phase of a couple's existence.

In spite of the reproductive rights brought about by the decision in Roe vs. Wade* and the increasing acceptance of fertile partners who remain childless by choice, infertile couples still have difficulty fitting into the American model of families. Often they are made to feel isolated. With dread they approach Christmas, birthdays, and other culture rituals where babies and children are at center stage. Physically, women may have such psychosomatic complaints as headaches, gastrointestinal dysfunction, or such cognitive difficulties as an inability to concentration arid poor job performance.

Psychologically, infertile couples may have a "premorbid" view of the self and the world. Spiritually, there is a form of "cosmic shock": "How could a good God allow this to happen to us?" Their grief often follows the five steps set out by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:

Denial: "We just need to relax more" or ''Take a second honeymoon;"

Anger: "Why is God tormenting us? Certainly we would make better parents than those promiscuous teenagers who can get pregnant at the drop of a hat;"

Bargaining: "I promise to leave my job and stay at home if I get pregnant;"

Withdrawal: "I just can't face people anymore; it hurts too much;" and finally,

Acceptance: "We have not failed over that which we have no control."

Couples experience a variety of conflicting emotions: they ricochet from one feeling to another-envy, cynicism, self-pity, pessimism, hopelessness, depression, jealousy, isolation. Each month there is the "yo-yo" experience. Started with hope, the onset of menses brings devastation. Baby-making becomes an obsession; intercourse turns into a ritual of timing, temperature, and technology. The world is viewed solely through the prism of pregnancy. After months of failure, there may be emotional flattening. To see an unwed, teenage expectant mother in a T-shirt decorated by a downward arrow pointing to "BABY" stimulates anger... and it's not nice to be angry. Alcoholism, divorce and suicide may threaten. Friends offer advice that varies from novel positions for sex to pills, exotic foods and far away "miracle" clinics. They mean well, but they hurt.

In the best-case scenario, the couple passes through the grief process with counseling and bonding with other infertile couples. They give up the "dream child" myth, recognizing that there are no "dream" children or "dream" father/husbands or mother/wives. They get on with life and, in time, accept the hurt of the idyllic family that can never be.

The intent of this paper is to look at the manner by which religion has both hindered and helped to bring understanding and healing to the infertile couple.

The Religious Roots of Punitive Attitudes Toward the Infertile

Sexuality and Cosmology

Ancient religions may be viewed as audacious, if prescientific, attempts to create paradigms for understanding a mysterious universe. Their myths helped humans understand the origin and function of sexuality, fertility and the ebb and flow of seasonal cycles. The classic paradigm held that the sky was male, the earth was female. Rain, a semen symbol, fell into the womb of mother earth and, in the spring, with the rising inclination of the sun, earth was regenerated again. The Hebrews, however, repudiated fertility myths and affirmed that their deity, Yahweh, the God of history and Torah, was asexual. They understood the Holy One to be beyond coercion by those who practiced sympathetic magic (sacred prostitution) to stimulate the fertile energies of the gods. Judaism's long-time rival faith, Canaanite Baalism, promised its devotees good crops and progeny if only they replicated the action of the gods.

Later, the early Christian church fell under the influence of Greek philosophy. Stoicism, with its emphasis on natural law, identified the ethical as that which was in harmony with cosmic patterns. The stoics believed that a divine principle, logos spermaticus, permeates all of creation and that the duty of rational persons was to discover these natural patterns and conform to them. The primary goal of sexuality at all levels of creation is the generation of new life. While intercourse might have legitimate secondary purposes such as mutuality, love, and physical enjoyment, couples should not cancel or frustrate the central purpose- procreation.

In modern society a residual feeling persists among many that those couples who are unable to achieve pregnancy are in violation of natural law. Traditional Roman Catholic ethics was shaped by this stoic ethics of nature, and viewed abortion, sterilization, coitus interruptus, masturbation, and artificial birth control as contrary to preexistent cosmic patters, right reason, and nature.


Although officially ecclesiastical councils repudiated Gnosticism (salvation via esoteric and secret knowledge) as a heresy, its rigid dualism of flesh (bad) versus spirit (good), entered the church by the back door. It was widely held that "marriage populated earth while virginity populated heaven." The Christian pilgrimage had two tracks: one low, broad and earthy; the other high, narrow and spiritual. The laity followed the "prescripts," the clergy the "counsels." St. Benedict's Rule set forth the three monastic vows: poverty (the renunciation of the world's standard of value); obedience (the renunciation of self-will); virginity (the renunciation of the life of the flesh).

Sexual intercourse had been vitiated by the Fall and was no longer amenable to reason. Although Adam and Eve were commanded to be "fruitful and multiply," many ancient theologians held intercourse before "the Fall" was solely for procreation and that psychic/biological disharmony resulted from that first cardinal sin. Those ancients weren't dumb-they simply wanted to pose a cause of the disequilibrium within our passions, mind, and spirit. Human sexuality was corrupted by uncontrollable passion-more like a forest fire than the gas burner of a stove that could be regulated by the will. St. Augustine held intercourse to be a "low good" and a "bovine" act. Since only a chosen few could attain to the spiritual estate, the majority were reminded that they were allowed to enjoy the "low good" of sexual pleasure only if they paid the price of the consequence of their pleasure-the bearing and nurture of children.

Sheol and Levirate Marriage

Because the belief in personal immortality developed late, Judaism had a deep concern for biological continuance. Rabbis viewed Sheol, the abode of the dead, as a shadowy place of undifferentiated existence at the center of the earth. Thus, Hebrew patriarchs may have concluded that children were the only dependable form of immortality. The Book of Proverbs teaches the doctrine of the Two Ways: the righteous are rewarded with long years, wealth and many children; the unrighteous are punished with an early death, poverty and barrenness.

Having more than one wife, as did many Hebrew patriarchs, provided insurance that one's genetic line would not end. Levirate marriage, also, may have arisen from the terror that equated death with nonbeing. Husbands who died without children could hope that some of their genes could continue through proxy children created by the later union between a brother and their wife.

Sacred Canopy

Peter Berger, the noted sociologist of religion at Boston University, contends that all faiths have established sacred canopies that shape, maintain and mystify the reigning moral and institutional norms of society. These canopies give divine sanction to Martin Luther's "Orders of Creation"-State, Work, Church, Marriage. By becoming socialized into the norms of the Orders, one may achieve personal integration and harmony; if one does not, the self is threatened by alienation and personal disintegration.

Luther, because he repudiated the ideal of the cloister and the medieval doctrine of the "higher" and "lower" callings, often is cited as the creator of the Christian family. He held that the celestial Trinitarian paradigm of Father, Son and Holy Ghost was the heavenly template for the terrestrial trinity of father, mother, child. One Godhead = three persons; one family = three necessary parts. Moreover, a Christian homemaker must fulfill her own domestic trinity: marriage, church, children. Ironically, although he lifted marriage to a spiritual estate, Luther reinforced Christianity's primordial bias against infertility. The unfather and unmother cannot replicate their "trinity." Therefore, they are made to feel estranged and even condemned because the sacred canopy does not offer them the shelter of socialization.

We must now turn to theological doctrines that offer affirmative and healing to infertile couples.

Holy Materialism

Western religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam affirm the goodness and holiness of the physical. They are incarnational and sacramental faiths. The universe is not a flawed creation of a Gnostic "lower god," who is corrupted by being involved in the creation of corruptible matter. These faiths do not teach that our bodies are vessels of the demonic. Physical elements-bread, water, wine, oil are media of the Spirit.

Infertility often touches issues of self-esteem and self-image and can evoke negative feelings about femininity, masculinity and sexual attractiveness. Yet, infertility is not identical to sexuality. Sexuality is not defined by the physiology of our reproductive systems. Femininity, masculinity and virility are independent of, and exist in another dimension from, both fertility and infertility. Infertility has to do only with bodily mechanism. Sexuality, on the other hand, is the wholistic integration of the body, mind, spirit and gender through which we project the self within a community.

Sub Specie Aeternatatis

Western religions see everything "under the vision of eternity." If alive today, St. Paul might add "fertile or infertile" to his "In Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Roman." His fundamental message was sola gratia, unmerited acceptance, and he taught that good works without simple childlike trust are sinful.

Some observers regard the biological process of baby-making as a work of hubris; of exalting themselves above those not so biologically gifted. However, the core teaching of Western religions holds that persons are accepted because of their BEING. They are granted the status of Children of God, irrespective of their reproductive prowess. What count here are intention, motive, character, will, and the longings and dispositions of the heart: "Man looks on the outside but God looks on the heart."

"Wounded Healer"

Through the writings of such men as Thornton Wilder, Unamuno, and Albert Camus, modern literature has discovered the image of the healer who has wounds. For Christians, faith in Jesus Christ, the Wounded One with stigmata, has brought healing to those who believe that God identifies with the sufferer. But Christ's wounds were internal as well as external. He never fathered a child, he never had a spouse, he never had a hearth or home, his family rejected him, his disciples denied him, and many thought him insane. The Wounded Healer was judged by many as "incomplete." The infertile share with Christ a personal Garden of Gethsemane because both are outside the sheltering canopy of cultural norms.

Contemporary liberation theology, moreover, affirms that God's people are those at the margin of society. Usually defined as the politically and economically powerless or impoverished, under this model the infertile are marginalized by the entrenched family and social mores of our times. With one in six couples in the United States experiencing infertility, many incognito captives of failed procreation live in Thoreau's term, "lives of quiet desperation." They need to hear that God identifies with their psychic anguish and can free them from their bondage.

Rituals and Parenting

Traditional rituals celebrate and deepen the rites of passage-birth, puberty, marriage, death. However, new occasions should create new rituals. For example, sensitive pastors are creating services to aid the survivors as physicians discontinue life-support for a brain-dead loved one so that organs can be harvested. Others are developing rituals of acceptance for parents who have a gay or lesbian child. With the increasing numbers of unfathers and unmothers, churches need ceremonies that aid acceptance, thank medical professionals for valiant attempts, promote courage to face a childless future and remind them of the omnipresence of the Therapeutic Presence.

Because medical treatment for infertility can go on forever, there often is no closure on the wounds and grieving process. This absence of closure postpones acceptance. Like gay and lesbian persons, the infertile have a double burden: they not only have their own tragedy or difference to confront but they must minister to the wounds inflicted by the ignorance of others, often their families.

Each term I take my bioethics class to a Catholic hospice run by a community of sisters and governed by a Mother Superior. Democratically elected, she is the younger nuns' role model and guide. Moreover, Catholic priests are called Father. "Mothering" and "fathering" have never been restricted in Christian thought to birthing and siring. Although religious vows denied biological parenting to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena, down through the centuries these saints have had hundreds of thousands of spiritual children. All religious communities need to prize this tradition and thus expand the parameters of parenting.

Confession and Catharsis

The church should never minimize the loss suffered by the infertile. Parenting is a precious gift that nature gives to most couples. Sensitive persons are embarrassed over past ecclesiastical dogmas that "put God in a box": that seem to know too much about God's purposes. Often churches have, overlooked historical contingency and claimed to know too much concerning things mysterious and tragic.

While the physiological reason for the inability to conceive may be known, there is no universal moral or spiritual answer for every couple. In confronting tragedy, everyone raises Job's question: "Why do the righteous suffer?" In any area of inquiry, facts-possession of the "The what is" has never led automatically to the moral resolution of "Why it is. In the face of tragedy, the Church is at its best as sustaining presence rather than as an authority pontificating from an island of ideological isolation.

In Albert Camus' The Plague, Father Paneloux and Dr. Rieux witness the painful death of a teenaged boy brought on by plague. Out of their helplessness, Paneloux suggests "We should love what we cannot understand." In anger, Rieux, an agnostic, responds,

"No Father, I've a very different idea of love, and until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture." Then, in a gentler voice, he says,

"We're working side by side for something that unites us-beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it's the only thing that matters."

The church should join medical science to protest a "scheme of things" that puts infertile parents to torture. Social and traditional prejudices and hurtful words need to be exorcized. The unmothers and unfathers need presence not pronouncements. Because healing is more than curing, they need our understanding, comfort and support.

*On January 22, 1973, in its decision in the case Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court established that couples had the right to continue or terminate pregnancy. In context, this decision seemed to increase the tolerance of society to couples who chose to remain childless.
Correspondence and reprint requests: Walter W Benjamin, Hamline University, 1536 Hewitt Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104-1284, U.S.A.