WIT welcomes Kristen Daley Mosier as a guest poster. Kristen is in the midst of coursework for a PhD at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. She completed an MDiv in Seattle from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2012. Her studies include theological anthropology, doctrine of creation, and liturgical theology. Working through a trinitarian lens, her research traces lines of connectivity among human persons, with the intent of situating humanity within creation. She is particularly interested in exploring how ecclesial/liturgical communities unite with the rest of nature in worship. Among her next projects will be a sacramental theology of creation with a heavy emphasis on the role of the Spirit in and through material creation. Side projects range from examining George Eldon Ladd’s kingdom theology through a decolonial lens to overlaying Saint Augustine’s Confessions with Jacques Derrida’s Circumfessions. Kristen recently moved to the Chicago area after living in the Pacific Northwest for most of her life, and is discovering just how much one’s natural surroundings develop her vocabulary for creation.
I have heard it said that motherhood is a blessing. And while every child is a miracle, some arrive after longer periods of anxiety and uncertainty. We often don’t hear about struggles with infertility until peering into the soft face of a child who very nearly wasn’t. The story of how any particular miracle baby arrived can range from a random change in luck or timing to Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART), costing thousands of dollars. In my church community, when a family encounters difficulties in starting a family, the common response is simply to persevere in prayer, and seek the most natural methods to help the process along. Thus, when I shared with a few close friends that I couldn’t get pregnant, there were sincere offers for prayer and stories of people they knew who gave up, or started the adoption process, or just stopped trying—only to find themselves expecting a little bundle of joy. No doctors. No drugs. No technology.
A few years ago I found myself among the 15% dealing with “unexplained infertility,” and was uncertain what to do or even where to look for information. About all I knew was that with science we can take bits of our own dust and flesh, add some spittle-like semen, and with the right set of instruments, allow life to emerge in a foreign medium before returning the tiny form to a mother’s womb. (At least, that’s what it would look like for IVF and ZIFT, but not necessarily GIFT or IUI.1) To help navigate the confusion of ethical questions and acronyms, I started reading Ethics and Economics of Assisted Reproduction: The Cost of Longing by Maura Ryan (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2001). With the advances of technology we are no longer simply asking if we can identify the exact moment life begins, but have begun foraging into questions of provenance with genes, legal responsibilities, and whose baby is this, anyway? As Ryan notes, “Recognition that a newborn could begin life with five parents (egg donor, sperm donor, gestational mother, and two rearing parents), each of whose legal and moral relationship to the child is not a priori obvious, calls long-held assumptions about family and parenting into question” (46). For myself, I knew early on that I did not want to go through intensive reproductive therapies largely because I did not have a way of understanding the technology theologically. Faced with the possibility of a complete inability to get pregnant, my first question was, simply, what’s wrong with me? Followed by, how will I know I have tried everything I could, within my own limits? My research has been messy and emotional on a good day, which seems appropriate when considering questions about what it means to be human and female, humanity’s role in (pro)creation, and how science influences our decisions or even our prayers.
For some women the ability to have a child is entangled with their very being and purpose. “Feminine” and “woman” tend to be defined in direct connection with procreation. I am female because I can gestate; but when I cannot get pregnant or carry a new life into the world, am I still fully a woman? If my body does not function the way it’s ‘supposed’ to, what happens to my social value as a woman? As a feminist, I recoil at the thought that not becoming a mother becomes a limitation in and of itself. Men are not immediately judged by their status as “father” in the same way that childless women are perceived. When it comes to fertility the burden of proof typically falls on the woman who is expected to do everything she can to get pregnant (with little attention paid to men’s bodies beyond a sperm count). Then when she cannot, the blood draws and imaging procedures begin to see if anything is discernibly “wrong.” Some Christian women have even turned to the eastern practice of acupuncture as a less invasive therapy—in other words, women would rather receive regular treatments of small needles stuck in their skin than go through the blood draws and drug therapies of the western medical profession. Fertility drugs typically intensify emotions and cause more discomfort and pain than a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle. Under the care of specialists, constructing a treatment plan can feel like developing a military strategy for the battle ahead, yet the ‘field’ of operation is her own body. How is a woman to navigate complex decisions regarding infertility when the value to love and nurture her body takes secondary priority to conquering the disease of infertility.
The range of options seem to jump from minimal intervention–cycles of prayer, measuring basal body temperature, and going through ovulation kits–to intensive treatments requiring timed medications and surgical procedures. There appears to be a sudden leap from encouraging nature to do her work to, in a sense, shoving her out of the way and taking over the process. If we do place life at conception, what does it mean for that spark to occur outside a uterus? What is lost when a woman’s body suddenly has to adapt to something it didn’t actually generate? Women seldom claim any awareness around the ‘when’ of new life…but their bodies know, and respond. Through reproductive medicine, we have come to learn that there are intricate balances of hormones that support each step of the process from ovulation to conception to implantation and cell development. Finding how far is far enough when pursuing infertility treatments is a significant challenge that requires a community of friends who will pray and lament and sit through every up and down–most especially because the maddening thing about ‘trying to conceive’ is that every month is a new cycle of possibility and failure. Even doctors will admit that the fertility treatments are little more than trying to improve your hand when the cards are dealt. Too often we simply don’t understand what, exactly, we have been dealt in terms of how our (individual) body is reacting.
The mystery of dust and spit uniting and forming life seems bigger than a petri dish. So, what if we look at ART as an answer to the earnest prayers of today’s Hannahs and Elizabeths and Sarais? With the help of science there are material realities we can learn and discover that shift the conversation from a model that starts with the drug/remedy, to one that starts with the person. What is good for one body might be ineffective for another. Perhaps the greatest challenge when it comes to infertility is just how particular it is—how, incarnational it is. Measuring FSH levels2 provides very little information in light of the whole scope of conception, implantation, and pregnancy. What is it that we are trying to learn about a woman when she cannot carry a child into the world? What role will we assign to her partner in all this? And in what way do we understand God to be present? ART brings up questions around when divinity meets materiality—God and creation. As we explore ethical implications of infertility treatments, we need to maintain a trinitarian sense of interrelationality in all things, including what it means for humanity to be co-creators with the Triune God.
- Brief explanation of acronyms: In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is when eggs are fertilized outside a woman’s body, then the resultant embryo(s) are transferred back into her uterus. Zygote intrafallopian transfer (ZIFT) means that a fertilized zygote is returned to the woman’s fallopian tubes. Gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) occurs one developmental stage prior to the zygote. And intrauterine insemination (IUI) is when the best of the best swimmers are strategically placed in the uterus during ovulation. More information about these different processes can be found at http://resolve.org/family-building-options/. ↩
- Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is a blood test conducted on the third day of a woman’s cycle to assess her “ovarian reserve,” or, how many good eggs are left in the basket. Higher levels are typically seen as women approach menopause. ↩
Kristen, thank you for sharing this thoughtful reflection on your experience. I was most impressed by your desire to understand this new technology theologically and I think your questions here formulate a promising theological understanding that will help others, not just those who are infertile but others whose female identity and self-understanding are seemingly compromised by not bearing children. I am struck again by how impoverished a resource our language is to affirm women’s experience in not even having names for women who are sexually mature & active but not bearers of children, while we have plenty of words to describe women’s identities through other aspects of their sexual expression. In closing this reply, I express the wish to say something helpful like “Hang in there!” or that what you’re going through & have gone through will be useful…but I expect those kinds of things aren’t as helpful as we’d like them to be. Again: I’ll just thank you for sharing and for thinking well and deeply about this.