Friday, July 13, 2007

Divine intervention

In the comments to my recent "Lucky" post about sextuplets, Nico brought up the question of God's will. As it happens, I've had a half-written post on that very subject sitting in my queue for about two months, ever since I got into a tiff on the subject over at Amalah's. Seems like a good time to dust it off and finish it up...

When we were trying to get pregnant, I pretty much skipped the babydust-forum stage, because we catapulted so quickly into the deep end of the infertility waters. So, I'd forgotten just how many people tell you to try acupuncture, or Chinese herbs, or Randine Lewis and her stupid infertility diet, or that perennial favorite, God's will.

It's been on my mind a little bit, because I was just at La Leche League the other day telling a twin-mom-to-be how I cope with the inevitable do-they-run-in-your-family question. I told her that while I'm very open about infertility with acquaintances, I often hedge my bets with random strangers by saying "we're very blessed". This has the advantage of being true, while leaving out that one of those blessings is a good reproductive endocrinologist. It's not that I particularly care if they know, but people do say ugly things about infertility, mainly because they don't know any better.

I live way down in the Bible Belt, and around here, everything from failing ovaries to falling arches gets chalked up to The Man Upstairs. When one of Amy's commenters (whom I am sure is a very nice person, undeserving of my ire) trotted out the $DEITY theory of infertility, it punched a big old button of mine, and I've been stewing about it. I'm probably engaging in the infertility-blog equivalent of arguing about abortion, not to mention preaching to the choir, but hey, that's why I have this blog-type thing, right?

I'm a Christian, if not a very good churchgoer, and I do believe that God has a master plan for us all. What my dad's death taught me, to be later hammered home by infertility, is that His plan isn't necessarily all puppies and sunshine. Bad things happen to us that are more than just learning experiences. Maybe God *doesn't* mean for you to have a baby, and it's not so that you can devote your energies to world peace, or give a home to an adorably malnourished orphan, but a loss you'll mourn the rest of your life.

I was raised Episcopalian, and you can probably guess that I read too much C. S. Lewis at a tender age. I take the viewpoint that sometimes, God really does want us to suffer. Yes, He loves us each and every one, but that doesn't mean He isn't sometimes a right bastard about it, at least from this end of things. Not every cloud has a silver lining; not every loss is an opportunity in disguise; sometimes there just isn't a happy ending.. Grief and loss are real, nasty, traumatic things, and you don't just get over them, or get the karmic equivalent of a lollipop after the doctor's office. To suggest otherwise is, I think, demeaning to the experience of pain.

So in the large sense, yes, I do think that being handed the burden of infertility is a manifestation of God's will. Being omnipotent and omniscient and all, He could have made things turn out differently. Anyone who can make an immaculate conception happen can certainly kickstart a pair of stubborn ovaries, yes? If I didn't get pregnant very easily, it was because God wanted me to go through that very unpleasant experience, for reasons of His own which may or may not ever become apparent to me.

However, saying that I was meant to experience infertility is not at all the same thing as saying I was meant to remain childless. When someone gets cancer, and is cured by chemotherapy, do we talk about how God really meant for it to be his time? Was it a thwarting of God's will when my preterm labor was stopped at 32 weeks, or should my babies have been born and died, as were the aunts I never knew? For that matter, should I have died as a child from one of my numerous serious strep throats, and never lived long enough to think about babies in the first place?

Why is infertility different, other than that most people have very little idea of how ART really works? I'm not saying there aren't good-faith arguments to be made against it; I obviously don't agree with the Catholic position, but I do respect that it's a legitimate attempt to construct a well-reasoned position. However, it's a rare person who brings up the God's-will argument and then backs it up with anything besides the mere existence of infertility.

I actually think God has an incredibly large role to play in infertility treatment. Who decides whether a given egg fertilizes, in utero or in vitro? Who causes it to implant and develop into an embryo? Who is responsible for combining the chromosomes in a fashion compatible with life? Who determines whether a chromosomally normal embryo's heart begins, continues, and occasionally ceases to beat? Who determines which babies will be born prematurely, and which of those will survive? Hint: it's not your friendly neighborhood reproductive endocrinologist.

The RE's vast Frankensteinian powers boil down to this: getting all the necessary ingredients together in the right place at the right time. He can get the eggs out of the ovaries, get the sperm in the vicinity, point a couple embryos in the direction of the uterus, and hope they stick. To call that "creation of life" is about like saying that dumping eggs, flour, butter, and sugar in a bowl together creates a cake. If you're not the religious sort, you can ascribe it to chance; but I am, and that's where I see God at work, in the spaces between the science.

To bring this back around to the sextuplet situations, I actually do agree with the parents who said that it was God's will for them to conceive high-order multiples. As I previously noted, the odds of sextuplets are tiny, even when conditions are right for it to happen. Who decides which mothers will come out on the ugly side of the odds? Really, there are only two answers: the randomness of the unordered universe, or the hand of the Divine.

So no, as a Christian, I don't think it's necessarily a violation of God's will to turn to infertility treatment, any more than undertaking any other medical procedure. God has his hand in all things, and he determines which pregnancies will develop, just as he does which treatments will work, which diseases will be cured, which therapies will be discovered. It's our responsibility to put the conditions for success in place, but He still controls the final outcome.

It's not always a particularly comforting thought, if you're the one who gets the lousy outcome, but it's what I believe to be true.


LeftLeaningLady said...

Very nice, thoughtful post. One of the things that has always bothered me about the "God's will" thing is that I have always felt that if it weren't God's will that we use the knowledge that we have, we would not have it. As you said refering to your strep throat. BUT (isn't there always one?) if a person or persons is going to use the latest, cutting edge reproduction technology, I don't feel they can turn around and say it was "God's will" that they have 6 babies. I think they owe their babies the best chance at life.. and carrying 6 of them isn't going to do it.
I believe everyone deserves a chance to parent if it is at all possible (and that is what that person wants), but with parenting comes responsibility. Selective reduction may seem cruel, but who is to say that is not God's will?

Jody said...

To leftleaninglady, I would just say that God's will might or not might be that the parents pursue the pregnancy as far as they can (who can know God's will? I'm sure they agonized in an attempt to discern it) but that a Christian might justifiably argue that, having taken the steps that couple took, it was God's will that they CONCEIVE that many babies.

I'm not sure. I tend to hold onto a global definition of God -- all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present -- and the trade-off is that God often looks, in human terms, like a real jerk. I try to tell myself that, from the perspective of the divine and of eternity, God probably makes as much sense to me as my parenting made to my babies (only far, far less so), but it's not always easy.

I loved Elizabeth Edward's response, some time ago, to her son's death and her cancer's recurrence: that God didn't promise her constant joy in this world, and she'd had to make her peace with the fact that his promises of eternal life and heavenly enlightenment would have to be enough to carry her through. I'm paraphrasing, now, but I thought it was a wonderfully thoughtful sort of Christian response to suffering.

Emma B. said...

LLL, I deliberately didn't bring up selective reduction in my post, because I do think it's a somewhat separate issue. For me, it falls into the category of free will -- God gives us a choice to make, and it's up to us to decide which path we take.

There are legitimate arguments to be made both for and against SR in the context of high-order multiples. I consider myself generally pro-life, but we would at least discuss SR of quads, more seriously with quints or higher. I don't know whether we would have actually done it, though, and I certainly don't think any outsider can say that we should or shouldn't have.

Each of us might feel called to act in different ways in such a situation, and we might eventually discern, later in this life or the next, that we chose wrongly. There are no guarantees, and all we can do is use reason and prayer to make the best decision we can.

Courtney said...

Interesting... Some good things to ponder. I like the reply, "We were blessed". That is something I often say. Sometimes when people asked if we had help I want to say, "Did you?"

LeftLeaningLady said...

Jody and Emma,

I was not trying to upset or irritate anyone. Of course, this is only my opinion.

My feeling is that IF it were "God's will" that a person conceive that many babies, they would do so without medical intervention. It is extremely rare, but it does happen. I do not understand how a couple can go throught the time, trouble, expense and trauma of assisted reproduction and then not do everything in their power to ensure that they have healthly babies. Again, I have not been there and I try hard not to judge others anyway, I just don't understand.

I do apologize for shifting the focus to SR when that obviously was not the point of your post. I have one child, conceived easily and birthed naturally and then, I was done. Not by choice. It just never happened again and there was no money for ART or even for testing to see if it was a simple problem, at times there was no insurance. I would have killed for at least one more child (I always wanted 4), but I never would have risked the child I already had for another. I understand that a person becomes attached to their fetuses and embroyos. But it would be much easier to mourn 3 or 4 embryos than it would be to mourn 3, 4, 5, or 6 babies.

Emma B. said...

LLL, no offense taken whatsoever. Like I said, this is my own take on it, and it's possible to make a good-faith argument for both sides of the SR issue. I think everyone agrees that being the mother of HOMs, and being forced to confront that choice, is very hard.

laura said...

I like the way you've thought this through. I agree with some, not all, of your thoughts, but appreciate your viewpoints. There is nothing I hate more than people making presumptions or forming very strong and quick opinions on fertility/infertility/multiples without having gone through a logical thought process...jumping to conclusions based on something they are told or they assume.

**On an unrelated note, I have a question about your day in the kitchen, if you'll take a look at my blog. thanks!

Nico said...

Hi Emma,

The point I was trying to make was what LLL said - I was also trying not to bring up SR because I know that issue gets sticky and I didn't want to start any wars. I keep trying to say more but then it turns into a book, so I'll just leave it at that.

Emma B. said...

Sure, Nico. I didn't mean to be picking on you, just that you provided me with a good jumping-off point for something I'd been wanting to talk about anyway.

Again, this is how I think about it, because this is my blog and I'm the one doing the posting :). I'm not offended by people who arrive at different conclusions -- this is morals and ethics, not geometry.