Should Catholic Schools Be Able to Fire Teachers Over Fertility Treatments?

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A priest explains the Church's stance on assisted reproduction -- and the internal politics that cost an Indiana woman her job. 

bishop3.jpgA bishop grasps his cross at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Balitmore, Maryland. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Emily Herx was a popular literature teacher at St. Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, until she used her medical leave for in vitro fertilization. Herx lost her job and says a church official called her a "grave, immoral sinner." When she appealed to Fort Wayne Bishop Kevin Rhoades, he told her IVF was "an intrinsic evil, which means that no circumstances can justify it." The federal government saw things a bit differently. Herx filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and won -- paving the way for a civil lawsuit.

That's the short version of the story. But according to Reverend Richard Sparks, the full truth is a lot more complicated.

Sparks is a priest at Old St. Mary's Church on the South Side of Chicago. He knows the nearby Fort Wayne diocese, where he almost served as a pastor back in the 1970s. He also holds a Ph.D. in bioethics, which means he spends a lot of time tiptoeing through theological minefields. But he believes the Herx case was less about Church teachings than about politics.

Sparks spoke to me over the phone about sexuality and "personhood," Augustine and Aquinas -- and the "Rick Santorum-like Catholics" who are steering the Church further and further to the right.


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Let's get one question out of the way first. The Catholic Church is led by celibate men. How can priests understand the issues married people face when they're struggling with infertility?

There's this notion that celibate priests don't understand sexuality. But in my experience, some of the people who are the harshest and most conservative are married Catholic scholars. Certainly, on this issue, married theologians like William E. May, Germaine Grisez, and John Haas have been much stricter than most Catholic priests would be. We priests deal with a lot of parents and families and have a lot of empathy for them.

What's the Church's basic opposition to in vitro fertilization? Is it mainly the issue of creating extra embryos?

That's a big part of it. When you're dealing with extra embryos in a laboratory, then it does bump up against the abortion question. You've combined sperm and ova in a lab; now you have a zygote or an embryo. Is it fully human? Do we now have a new life -- not just the parts that could become a life, but a new, ensouled person?

Can you explain what you mean by "a life"? Does the Church grant a three-day-old embryo the same status as a baby living outside the womb?

The Church has skirted that question very carefully. You don't find the Church absolutely declaring that from the moment of conception we have a person. They do say, in a sense, that from the moment of conception we should err on the side of having a human. We should act as if we have a human.

Where does that idea come from? The Bible doesn't say that life begins at conception.

A lot of this comes from our natural law tradition. From Thomas Aquinas forward, the Catholic Church has argued that our positions are reasonable, or at least defensible by reasoned argument, especially on moral issues.

So we ask, when do we have a unique individual? Is it when you have brainwaves? That would be 40 days out. Is it with the first movement, or quickening? That's several months out. Is it when it can live outside the womb? That's in the last trimester. The Catholic position is that from the moment of conception -- the moment his DNA combines with her DNA -- you can argue that you have a unique individual.

Now, there are some Catholic theologians who argue that the embryo doesn't become a unique individual until it's actually implanted in the uterus. That would allow for a lab to create all those embryos and zygotes -- they're not individuals until they implant, 10 to 12 days from conception. And a more liberal theologian like Charles Curran would say that an abortion right after a rape might be acceptable.

So many pregnancies end in miscarriages, especially very early ones. Does the Church view miscarriages as actual deaths?

We have not traditionally had funerals and coffins for spontaneous miscarriages. Does that mean we didn't say they were persons? No. But we kind of let that one fall between the cracks. If parents wish to remember them, they're welcome to remember them. If they want to give them a name, that's all right. Rick Santorum did that. But in the case of Emily Herx, what you see is the conservative side of the Church trying to tighten boundaries that were sometimes left a little bit vague.

Emily Herx told her school that she wasn't going to destroy any embryos during her IVF treatment. So why was there a problem?

There's still an issue. In terms of procreation, the closer one is to sexual intercourse, the less the Church is going to have a problem with it. So if you're doing fertility treatments that help you conceive while actually having sex, that's mostly all right. The further you move from that -- and toward the laboratory actually playing a role in conception -- the less the Church approves.

And then there's the issue of using borrowed sperm or ova, which adds another layer of distance. The further things move away from sexual intercourse, the more it raises the question: Are you manufacturing a baby? Is this an extension of lovemaking? Or is the laboratory doing something to replace lovemaking?

The whole idea of conceiving a baby outside the womb is so modern. It's hard to imagine these issues coming up in any form in the early Church.

Yes. But when it comes to sexual things, the Catholic Church has always held that the sperm belongs with the ovum, the male genital part belongs in the vagina. From that, you can deduce almost anything.

A lot of babies are conceived in circumstances that don't seem particularly holy -- a one-night stand, or even a rape. In contrast, two people undergoing fertility treatments would seem to be especially committed to each other and to their future family. 

Precisely. Sometimes Catholic theologians can be very insensitive about that. They'll talk to a couple who have loved each other, have gone through pain together, and might be struggling with issues about their masculinity or femininity, and they'll say, "Moral theology says you don't have the right to have a child." That might be correct on a blackboard. But to say that to a couple is like telling them what selfish, evil people they are. They're loving people who want a child badly -- and they know the Church wants people to have children, so they can't understand why they aren't getting more empathy.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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