Moral Women, Immoral Technologies: Negotiating Gender, Religion, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies

By Danielle Czarnecki

Pope Francis made headlines in February when he told an audience in St. Peter’s Square that, “The choice to not have children is selfish.” In a more recent homily, he acknowledged that some do not choose to be childless. But how does one distinguish a person who chooses not to have children from someone suffering from infertility? Unless one discloses their infertility—an already stigmatized condition—to others, those suffering from infertility would likely face judgment from those who equate childlessness with selfishness.

While the Catholic Church is vocal about its position on abortion, contraception, and the importance of procreation, it is remarkably silent about infertility. In my interviews with 33 Catholic women experiencing infertility, I found that this silence amplified their suffering. It is true that there are Church documents that discuss infertility, but it is rarely spoken about in Church communities. Numerous women I interviewed described having to walk out of mass in tears on Mother’s Day when their priests gave sermons celebrating motherhood—overlooking those who desperately want to become mothers, but are unable to.

Catholicism is the most restrictive world religion in its position on assisted reproductive technologies.  In 2011, a teacher at a Catholic school in Indiana was fired for using one such technology, in vitro fertilization. The Catholic Church’s opposition to assisted reproductive technologies is articulated in the instruction Donum Vitae (Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation). Marriage is a sacrament—a ritual signifying God’s presence—and procreation within marriage is a sacred act in which couples co-create with God. Children are considered a gift from God created when the corporeal and spiritual unite during intercourse. In the laboratory, the divine nature of procreation is ruptured, as scientists supplant God as the creators of life. In contrast to embryo formation within the womb, the laboratory environment is not considered respectful to human dignity or divine intention.

The Church is not entirely opposed to all reproductive technologies. Artificial insemination is not prohibited as long as it does not replace the conjugal act. The Church permits the use of a perforated condom to collect semen during intercourse that can later be used for insemination. In addition, NaPro (Natural Procreative Technology) is a Church-sanctioned infertility treatment that teaches women to monitor their cervical mucus and track fertility. However, the women I interviewed typically learned about NaPro from online infertility forums rather than from their Church.

The Catholic Church’s veneration of motherhood and family and its restrictive position on assisted reproductive technologies creates potential moral dilemmas for those who adhere to Church doctrine. They are members of a pronatalist society that supports the use of these technologies, but they are also members of a religion that emphasizes motherhood while restricting the technological means for achieving it. How do these women reconcile being outsiders who do not meet the expectations of their religious and secular communities?

My interviews with devout women show that they are in a double bind. They feel judged by their Church communities for not having children, and they feel isolated from secular society for considering ARTs to be immoral. Yet, despite religious traditions often compounding the larger societal pressure for women to be mothers, devout women value the limitations placed by the Church on the use of assisted reproductive technologies. In many ways, the religious restrictions provide a sense of meaning and stability as women grapple with profound uncertainty. Religion allows devout women to refuse technologies, but it also allows them to rework their sense of what it means to be a Catholic woman who is unable to have a biological child—a process I describe as achieving a moral femininity. Devout women attain this by drawing on biblical stories and Church teachings that allow them to embrace their suffering as meaningful and construct alternative maternal identities. In doing so they reconceptualize themselves as feminine women and mothers in ways that transcend biological fertility. Their rejection of these technologies becomes a testament of their devotion to God that results in a deepened piety. They become “moral guardians” working to protect the natural social order as ordained by God. Thus, while religion increases the burden of reproduction for devout women, it also provides the cultural resources to resist the financial, emotional, and physical difficulties experienced by women who use ARTs.

Danielle Czarnecki is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her article, “Moral Women, Immoral Technologies: Devout Women Negotiate Gender, Religion, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies,” is published in the October 29(5) 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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