Multiple Births Bring Dangers; Church Teaching Urges Caution
Tidings.com July 27, 2007
When Brianna Morrison gave birth to sextuplets at Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis June 10, only 22 weeks into her pregnancy, the children weighed between 11 ounces and 1.3 pounds and were considered to be at the extreme limit of viability.
Within two weeks, three boys and one girl had died. In mid-July, a boy and a girl --- Sylas and Lucia --- remained in neonatal intensive care at Children's Hospital of Minneapolis.
Pregnancies resulting in multiple babies are increasing as more couples, like Brianna and Ryan Morrison of St. Louis Park, turn to fertility treatments or in vitro fertilization to conceive. However, such methods often lead to complications, as the Morrisons have experienced.
The Morrisons, both 24, said their Christian faith is sustaining them through their grief. The couple rejected "selective reduction" --- aborting some of the fetuses so that the remaining have a better chance at healthy growth and survival. On their Web site, Ryan Morrison said aborting fetuses was never an option for them, as they consider each baby a "miracle given to us by God."
Ten hours after the Morrison sextuplets were born, Jenny Masche gave birth to another set of sextuplets in Phoenix. Jenny Masche suffered acute heart failure several hours after the birth, but is recovering and all six of the infants survived.
The Morrisons used fertility drugs to achieve pregnancy; Masche and her husband, Bryan, used artificial insemination. The health complications associated with multiple births have resurfaced difficult questions regarding how to treat infertility.
The most common methods to assist couples trying to conceive are assisted reproductive technology and controlled ovarian hyperstimulation, according to the March of Dimes.
The first of the two methods involves procedures, such as in vitro fertilization, in which sperm and eggs are united in a laboratory and then implanted in the uterus.
Controlled ovarian hyperstimulation treatments include injectable medications that stimulate a woman's ovaries to accelerate egg growth and maturity. It often is combined with artificial insemination, in which sperm is placed directly into the uterus by a doctor.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that reproductive techniques that disassociate sex from reproduction --- such as artificial insemination --- are morally unacceptable, even if the sperm and eggs are from the husband and wife, because they disrespect the gift of sex and the dignity of the child to be conceived.
However, controlled ovarian hyperstimulation can be used alone, without combining it with reproductive techniques that disassociate sex from reproduction. This use has not attracted the attention of church documents or moral theologians, said Paul Wojda, a bioethicist and theologian at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
"The general rule here is that as long as technologies don't replace the natural function but help it to achieve its intended function, it's morally permissible," he said in an interview with The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.
Hyperovulation medication attempts to assist a natural process to do what it naturally does, he said.
It's important to remember that couples do not have a right to a child, said Father Peter Laird, a moral theologian who teaches at St. Paul Seminary. "Children are gifts," he said. "Couples that suffer infertility suffer a great cross. That's no easy reality."
Although not morally problematic in themselves, controlled ovarian hyperstimulation treatment methods may not be prudent for a variety of reasons, including the health of the mother or the babies. "Catholic principles tend to argue for a more conservative approach," Father Laird said.
While greater care has been taken in the United States in recent years to avoid pregnancies involving multiple fetuses, such cases mostly involve in vitro fertilization, which is morally impermissible, Wojda said.
Not only does in vitro fertilization disassociate sex from reproduction, it is also often complicated by "excess" embryos that are never implanted in the womb. Embryos deserve the full respect of human dignity, and the church teaches that to discard them or use them for research violates that right.
"Catholic couples who are having infertility problems really need to do their homework," Wojda said. "They really need to find the right fertility doctor and make sure that they're getting the best information possible on their infertility, its causes and the risks involved in using hyperovulant drugs.
"They can't simply assume that any old fertility doctor is going to be on the same page as they are as far as what's acceptable and unacceptable" from the perspective of church teaching, he said.
Couples struggling to conceive should learn natural family planning, which teaches couples their bodies' natural fertility cycles and maximizes the possibility to achieve pregnancy, Father Laird said.
"God has, by design, allowed for a proper way of spacing or planning births," he said, in that a woman is fertile during only a portion of her natural cycle, while men are always fertile.
"The more that a couple learns about these truths," he said, "the more a husband will be able to respect his wife and respect her body and (the) uniqueness of his body." ----CNS