An embryologist removes frozen embryos from a storage tank at the Smotrich IVF Clinic in La Jolla, Calif., in this 2007 file photo. CNS photo/Sandy Huffaker

Vatican workshop looks at helping couples overcome infertility

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • February 24, 2012

VATICAN CITY - The majority of the world's fertility specialists have spent so much time and effort trying to promote and perfect in vitro fertilization that they have wasted resources and time that could have been used to find ways to prevent and treat infertility, a U.S. physician told a Vatican audience.

"Infertility is a symptom of an underlying condition," and too many physicians do not even attempt to find the cause and treat it; they simply recommend in vitro fertilization, said Dr. Thomas W. Hilgers, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and director of the Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Neb.

Hilgers was one of 16 speakers at a workshop Feb. 24 sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life to discuss the latest research on the causes, prevention and treatment of infertility.

According to the academy, infertility affects about 15 percent of the population in the industrialized world and up to 30 percent of the population in some developing countries.

"We want to offer a contribution to try to reduce as much as possible this phenomenon, which makes it impossible for so many people to procreate a child and to satisfy their just desire for responsible parenthood," Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, academy president, told the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Hilgers said, "There are 9.5 million women in the United States who have some type of fertility problem. Of those 9.5 million women, less than 0.5 percent of them had a baby last year by IVF," a method in which a woman's eggs are removed, united with sperm in a laboratory, and then implanted in the womb of the mother or a surrogate.

The Catholic Church teaches IVF is immoral, first of all because fertilization does not take place through the sexual union of a husband and wife, but also because of the number of fertilized embryos that usually are destroyed or frozen.

"Women go to the IVF clinic with an underlying disease and they walk away from these clinics with the same disease," Hilgers told participants at the workshop.

Hilgers said his Natural Procreative Technology, presented at the conference, is the result of more than 35 years' work on treating the causes of infertility, including endometriosis, tubal adhesions and polycystic ovaries. NaPro Technology includes diagnostic methods as well as pharmacological and surgical treatments aimed at allowing couples to conceive naturally.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities and a member of the pontifical academy, said many people mistakenly believe that in the field of sexuality and fertility, the Catholic Church is against the use of advances in medicine and science.

"That's not it at all. It's about keeping the two essential meanings of sexuality -- the unitive and procreative -- together," he said.

Procreation "is more than just another bodily function. This is something with an inherent meaning and must be treated with respect and care. The treatments the physicians are speaking about here today -- hormonal treatments, surgery, changing behaviors that can interfere with fertility -- these are all things the church can enthusiastically endorse."

Workshop speakers presented treatments and cures that are scientifically and medically valid, "but they have been neglected in the secular world in favor of a great deal of hype over in vitro fertilization," he said.

Research is beginning to demonstrate some of the problems with in vitro fertilization, he said. "Pregnancy rates are really very low, live-birth rates are even lower, the great majority of embryos produced by IVF are discarded or lost and now studies are beginning to come out documenting increased risk of birth defects and other problems in the babies conceived that way," Doerflinger said.

"I would hope that not just Catholic doctors, but doctors generally, would look again at the advances in treatments that really restore a woman's healthy fertility, which the church is entirely in favor of," he said.

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