MINNEAPOLIS — After nine months of strict bed rest during her third pregnancy, Theresa Cotnoir and her husband, Eugene, decided to do what everyone else in their families had done for two generations — get sterilized. Encouraged by a priest who claimed it was the lesser of two evils, both Theresa and Eugene underwent sterilizations in 1995.
Several months later they realized the lesser of two evils was wrong.
After praying, fasting and asking God what to do, the Cotnoirs discovered One More Soul, an apostolate dedicated to spreading the truth about the harms of contraception and the blessings of children.
One More Soul, based in Dayton, Ohio, referred the Cotnoirs to Peggy Powell, who manages the organization's Sterilization Reversal Hotline in Minneapolis. She told them about two doctors in Texas who performed reversals for a reasonable cost as part of their mission. The Cotnoirs decided it was cheaper to travel to the Lone Star State than to get reversals in their home area of Woonsocket, R.I.
“The Church doesn't recommend we have [sterilization] reversed for forgiveness; we go to confession for that,” said Theresa. “But we had ruined our bodies, and by the grace of God the opportunity was there to fix it.”
One More Soul launched the national hot line in 1997 to provide spiritual and practical support for people seeking reversals.
Powell has answered 350 calls from people of all generations experiencing the pains of guilt and remorse in the wake of their decision to become sterilized. She not only lends an ear, but also has a growing database of doctors she can refer people to, depending on their location and financial circumstances.
“What I'm seeing a lot of is conversion,” said Powell. “Many Catholics are coming to understand the full teaching of the Church. They want to be right with God. They've gone to confession, but something within keeps making them want to reverse [the procedure]. I just tell them it's God touching their heart.”
Some survey figures show that some 80% of married couples, including Catholics, are contracepting. Sterilization — tubal ligation for women, vasectomy for men — is one of the most commonly used forms of artificial contraception. Peggy Powell said that, prior to their second thoughts, many of her callers had either chosen to ignore Church teaching on sterilization or, like she and her husband, Rick, simply did not know about it.
Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) wrote, “the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary” (No. 14).
It was only after they realized that sterilization was wrong that the Powells felt guilty about Rick's 1981 vasectomy. They went to confession, and also prayed before abortion clinics in reparation for the times that they had not allowed the possibility of life. In 1991, Rick had his vasectomy reversed and the Powells now have a 3-year-old daughter.
“You realize afterward what a gift it is that you gave up,” said Peggy Powell.
Father Daniel McCaffrey, from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said many people are confused about the Church's teaching on contraception and sterilization because they lack knowledge of their faith, and it has not been taught or preached about from the pulpit. With encouragement from his ordinary, Archbishop Eusebius Beltran, Father McCaffrey travels around the country giving parish missions and natural family planning weekends where he speaks about contraception and sterilization.
“I don't think I've found one person, even at the age of 80, who has ever heard a sermon on sterilization,” said Father McCaffrey. “Yet to go into our bodies and mutilate the sacred powers of procreation, through which God brings new life into the world, is to seriously offend against the Fifth Commandment.”
Father McCaffrey added that, while both contraception and sterilization cut the procreative element out of the marital act, sterilization is particularly offensive to God because of its finality.
“There will always be hard cases, and those hard cases will always be thrown at the Church,” he observed. “But hard cases do not make good law, and the Church realizes that. Just because these immoral means are available doesn't mean that we can use them to help us get through an unfortunate situation we're in.”
Moral theologian Germain Grisez, author of the seminal work on moral theology, Living a Christian Life, told the Register, “There is not a general, unconditional obligation to get [a sterilization] reversed.” In his book, he writes that the financial burden of the expensive procedure, the age of the patient and the dependability of the procedure can mitigate or even eliminate the obligation to undergo it.
But he adds, “Some couples will rightly judge that they still should have one or more children if they can, and that they can and should accept the burdens of an attempt at reversal” (Question G, No. 1f).
Eugene Cotnoir doesn't claim ignorance, but he does attribute his decision to get a vasectomy to spiritual sloth and not searching for the truth. “It comes down to a lack of trust in God,” he said.
One More Soul has asked a number of couples like the Cotnoirs and the Longs to write the story of their awakening. The accounts will be compiled and published in a book slated for 2000 release. Peggy Powell said part of the goal is to provide a resource for individuals who have been sterilized and want to be restored to fertility. She hopes the book will help educate people who are considering sterilization about the spiritual, emotional and physical ramifications — and encourage them to prayerfully reconsider.
Barbara Ernster is based in Fridley, Minnesota.
One More Soul can be reached at (800) 307-7685 or online at www.-OMSoul.com. The National Sterilization Reversal Hotline is at (612) 755-7706. Father McCaffery of NFP Outreach can be reached at (888) 637-6383.