Conversion in the IVF Laboratory
Dr. Anthony Caruso describes his journey from fertility specialist to pro-life doctor
In 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Donum Vitae (Instruction on Respect for Human Life), where the Church officially forbade the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), stating: “The child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage. The good of society requires that children come into the world within a family and that the family be based on marriage, the only setting worthy of truly responsible procreation.”
Many Catholics, including some pro-life advocates, fail to realize that Church teaching forbids the practice of IVF as a means of creating life, even for infertile couples. In vitro requires the removal of eggs from a woman and subsequent fertilization with sperm in a laboratory setting.
The message of Donum Vitae and subsequent Church writings eventually convinced Dr. Anthony Caruso, a Chicago-based fertility doctor who attended Loyola Medical School, to abandon his practice of IVF and embrace the Church’s teaching. Register correspondent Christopher White spoke with Caruso about his conversion as well as his current work to educate all Catholics on what it means to build a true culture of life.
What was your upbringing like? Were you raised in a Catholic family?
I was born in Maine and moved with my family to Boston when I was 2 weeks old. My upbringing was within a good Irish-Italian Catholic family. I remember frequently going to Mass as a child, sometimes on my own during the summers. In the fifth grade, I was invited to join the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge. We were trained in sacred music and Gregorian chant and sang all over New England, but our main church was St. Paul’s. There, we assisted with high Mass every week (the Mass was in English, but there was English and Latin polyphony, and chant was a frequent part as well). So, I guess, a big part of my early formation was through sacred music.
When I moved to high school, the Catholic teaching was a little more modern and based greatly on social-justice issues (violence in America, the nuclear freeze, etc.). And even in my Catholic college we were encouraged to deconstruct our religious beliefs and consider that man created God, using Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche and “liberation theology” authors.
While liturgical music continued to draw me to church, I slowly started to get too busy — and church began to fall a little to the wayside in medical school. I fell in love and married a woman who, at the time, was the youngest pastoral associate in the Chicago Archdiocese. While I would never say that we fell completely away from the Church, I can’t say that we were fully active participants in the sacraments.
What inspired you to seek a career in reproductive medicine?
This story begins with high school. The world’s first IVF baby was delivered in 1978 (in the U.K.) just after my freshman year of high school. I was looking for a job and responded to an ad from one of the laboratories at the Massachusetts General Hospital for a lab assistant. It turned out to be the lab of William Crowley, one of the early American pioneers in IVF. While I was not well received, those two events probably planted the seeds for my interest.
However, the real inspiration was when I was a medical resident. As a part of the training, we were sent to Rush Medical Center [in Chicago] for our rotation in reproductive endocrinology. The world that I entered was amazing to me. The patients were so nice, and the nurses and people so caring, that I was drawn to the practice. Then, one of the first-year fellows quit abruptly, and I was asked to take on more of the functions that he would have done. It was like a dream come true, and when I returned from training,, I decided that was the direction that I would turn for my career.
When was the first time you ever encountered the Church's teaching against assisted reproductive technologies?
I think that there was always a time that I was sensitive to restrictions in the Church’s teaching, but was always of the opinion that the ends justified the means. About 10 years ago, though, I was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and asked what I thought about same-sex couples undergoing therapy. This was a long time before the debate was as popular as it is today, and I responded that the people that he was referring to were just like everybody else, God’s children. At that time, I was heavily involved in my parish. I was on the school board and the pastoral council. After the article was published, I was called into the office of the pastor, Father James Dvorscak, and asked about the article and my response. At the end of that discussion, I was asked to step down from the pastoral council.
What was your initial response?
I wish that I could say that I was indignant or angry, but not really. I, again, thought that the ends (the children) were worth the means and that most people agreed with me.
Slowly, however, you begin to have a conversion and eventually embraced Church teaching against IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies. What was that process like?
The experience I just related turned out to be the first step in God’s plan for me. My wife began teaching in the theology department at a Catholic high school close to my home. One of her colleagues was a devout Catholic, and we used to have very pointed discussions about Donum Vitae and its implications on the Church. In 2000, I even went to the conference that celebrated the 90th birthday of the “Father of American IVF,” Howard Jones. However, in 2007, I believe, my wife went on a summer European trip with some of the high-school students. One of the stops was Rome. She came back from there inspired, and we started to go to church more.
In the fall of 2007, my mother-in law died, and in the spring of 2008, my father-in-law died suddenly, which moved us toward a more authentic view of our faith. In December of 2008, Dignitas Personae was published, and I read about it in the National Catholic Register. I was simply amazed at [former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] Cardinal [William] Levada’s insights and how the presentation of the Church teaching was very clear. Unbeknownst to me, my wife had written to both [Chicago Archbishop] Cardinal [Francis] George and to [now Seattle Archbishop] Bishop [J. Peter] Sartain asking for their help in finding an alternative for me. Soon thereafter, I had an interview to be the chief of reproductive medicine at Loyola University.
While the idea of the practice was just taking shape then, the chair of the department was very interested. Though the position was offered to someone else, we stayed in touch and were working towards creating a position that would bring the idea to life. Then he was removed from his position and that ended. I knew that something had to be done and started working more closely with the archdiocesan offices. I befriended the director of the Respect Life Office and was offered help from the cardinal’s liaison for health, Father William Grogan. He introduced me to the administrations of two hospital systems, where the idea was presented.
The response was that the idea was good, but it didn’t seem viable at the time. I then met a doctor, Dr. Robert Lawler, at the introduction of a local priest, who introduced me to the CEO of another Catholic hospital who was interested, but we could not make all of the pieces fit.
I wish I could say that the end was sudden and glorious, but I was simply let go by my last job mostly due to economic issues. However, I was in line to take over the presidency of the local association of fertility providers and resigned at my first meeting. This strained the relationship between me and some very good friends in the field.
Since leaving your former practice, what have you done?
Since I could not find an opportunity to start the [pro-life fertility] center, I was able to find a position as an obstetrical hospitalist at another Catholic hospital in the region [Alexian Brothers]. I monitor the patients in labor, evaluate antepartum tests and patients and play a role in the education of the medical students that rotate through. In February of 2012, however, the HHS mandate was released, and new opportunities arose.
First, I was asked to help in opposing the creation of a fertility center within a couple of blocks of a Catholic church in one of the Western suburbs of Chicago (Naperville). Then I was asked to speak at the first of the Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies in Chicago [which the Register covered]. I was involved in an amicus brief that was involved with a Supreme Court case (Astrue v. Capato) that dealt with Social Security benefits for posthumously conceived children [based on a case where a mother conceived twins using the frozen sperm of her deceased husband. After their birth, the mother attempted to claim survivor benefits for the children].
I have been speaking about IVF and contraceptive issues around the Chicago area — and specifically on how they feed into the development of a culture that commodifies life. I also write for a blog at ChicagoInfertility.com. Soon, I will be traveling to Costa Rica to help the government in their struggle against the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
I still am hoping and praying that we will soon be able to establish the St. Anne Center for Reproductive Health. This would be a center in Chicago that would offer infertility treatment within the framework of Catholic values. Mostly, though, I am trying to build my interior life in order to better live within the current culture and to see more clearly what God’s will is for me. I know, at least, that all that has been accomplished has only been through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Do you think that most lay Catholics know or understand why the Church opposes IVF? Don’t most Catholics just consider such technologies as compassionate and, for some, even pro-life?
Frankly, I am not sure that most lay Catholics even realize that the Church finds IVF illicit. The Catholic Catechism is not a primary text of most religion classes. In fact, most people I know did not realize that contraception was wrong either. With the surveys that show the low attendance at Mass, and the relatively low number that believe in the Real Presence or in confession, it is not too surprising.
I do believe that many people see IVF the same way I did until my reversion. Whenever advanced reproductive technologies are discussed, the primary subjects are the children and the couple or a woman’s “right” to have a child. They see it from the perspective of the outcome only. They do not see the process as a complete breakdown of the marital bond.
I frequently remind people that the original IVF clinic in America, the Jones Institute, was protested by the same pro-life groups that protested the abortion clinics. After Elizabeth Carr was born [in 1981] — and shown on TV with her tufts of hair and fully formed fingers and toes — the conversation changed overnight. Sometimes the response to my story is that people think that I see something amiss in the children created through IVF. This is where the circular argument starts. It appears difficult for some to see that the children are indeed children of God but the process that brought them into the world is where the problem lies.
Would you say that some doctors see other people’s infertility as a business and are using it as an opportunity to make money?
As someone who was in the field for 15 years, I can confidently say that while the infertility industry is a business, like all health care is, I have rarely met or observed anyone whose primary purpose was to make money. The vast majority of specialists in the field mean well and want the couples to succeed. They look at the successful pregnancy outcomes as the primary key.
It is the subject that is discussed, compared and studied most often. In fact, when there are proposals made that look to be primarily profit-minded, they are largely rejected by most specialists, at least initially.
What would you say to a couple who are struggling with infertility and want desperately to conceive, but also want to maintain faithfulness to Church teaching?
The first thing that I would tell them is that they need to trust in God and his plan. If the couple has tried to conceive for at least a year, they should have a complete evaluation, seeking to find the basis for the couple’s infertility. Once found, a medical or surgical plan should be carried out.
Medical therapies that maximize the ovulation window or can potentially improve sperm counts can be used. If these therapies fail, then they should be good candidates for adoption or foster care, or to turn towards other directions that God may lead them.
Christopher White writes from New York.