The biological nature of each person is untouchable in the sense that it is constitutive of the personal identity of the individual throughout the whole course of his history. Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man, consequently, amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man as “one in body and soul,” as Vatican Council II says. — St. John Paul II
I have a dear friend in Lafayette, Louisiana, Dr. Damon Cudihy, who is a radical witness of the lay vocation lived out under the form of husband, father and Ob/Gyn. He demonstrates daily how the synthesis of faith and life is not only possible but beautiful to behold, though its beauty has, for him, only been wrought by a steady dose of costly grace. I admire his kindness, his work ethic, his brilliant mind, his even-handedness and his joyful love of Christ, the Church and the people who cross his path every day. You can see more about his work here.
My main reason for referring to Dr. Cudihy today is to bring to your attention his recent response to an article by a theologically degreed Protestant Christian, Suzanne Burden, called, When We Close Our Wombs (see here). Her main point is summed up in the article’s final paragraph:
…most women will face many choices regarding their reproductive system in their lifetime, and many will face a decision about whether to end their fertility for health or personal reasons. Whatever choices we make, we should do so with reverence, care and the support of spiritual companions. As we do, we agree that our reproductive systems are a good gift from God. And we affirm that decisions about them should be filled with intention, care and the Christian hope that God will continue to bear his good fruit in us whether our wombs are open or closed.
When I read it, I wrote Damon and said, “Would you comment on this?” He graciously did and, though his comment has not yet (as I write this post) been approved for viewing on the “her-meneutics” website where the article first appeared, I thought I would post it here for your edification.
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My heart goes out to you as it does to all my patients who suffer with infertility and the heart wrenching decisions to undergo procedures which result in their permanent sterility. As a gynecologist who has dedicated his professional life to addressing the problems of female infertility, painful periods, and heavy menstrual bleeding, and as a fellow Christian, I’d like to offer a unique perspective for both you and your readers.
The symptoms of infertility and pelvic pain (menstrual-associated or otherwise) are the most common symptoms of endometriosis. Despite the fact that this condition is typically treated with birth control pills, the best treatment for the pain and the only treatment that restores (or preserves) fertility is surgical removal of the endometriosis. Unfortunately, however, in the age of using birth control pills as a cure all and of IVF as the answer to infertility, fewer and fewer physicians are able to provide a more specific diagnosis and treatment plan that actually corrects the abnormality.
Your situation sounds very similar to many patients I’ve treated over the years. More specifically, the combination of tubal sterilization and endometrial ablation. Since I don’t perform either of these procedures, they became my patients when they experienced a fairly common condition resulting from this combination known as “Post-ablation tubal sterilization syndrome (PATSS).” This condition of intense menstrual pain results of blood becoming trapped in the tubes because of the sterilization occlusion on one end and the scarring of the uterus (caused by the ablation) on the other. The best treatment for these situations is usually a hysterectomy (often, in retrospect, would have been the best treatment to begin with).
One of the medical principles I strive to follow is that of “first, do no harm.” Accordingly, when surgery is necessary, I do everything possible to do so in as minimally invasive a manner as possible. (Fortunately, modern surgical technology has allowed the once morbid hysterectomy to become one where the recovery period is much quicker and less painful.) Because fertility is a healthy condition, I would be causing unnecessary harm to a woman’s body if I were to perform a direct sterilization. By direct, I mean a procedure where the sole purpose is destroy her capacity to conceive children. When I perform a hysterectomy for a genuine problem (i.e. intense pain, excessive bleeding, etc), the sterility that results is indirect—one that we accept as an unavoidable (yet accepted) consequence to the best treatment for her medical problem (diseased uterus, etc). If a woman is in a situation where a future pregnancy in unadvisable for whatever reason, there are much better ways to avoid pregnancy that maintain a more complete respect for the woman’s body as created in the image of God. For married women, this simply entails learning one of the various methods of Fertility Awareness (often derisively called the “rhythm method” by those unfamiliar with its actual effectiveness). Among all creation, only humans have been granted free will. Regarding sexual intimacy, this is why mutual consent is universally recognized as absolutely essential–even among atheists. Using a Fertility Awareness Method to avoid pregnancy is as simple as learning to identify the fertile days in a woman’s cycle and avoiding marital intercourse on those days. While at first this may sound like an excessively scrupulous method to obtain the same end, if we thoughtfully and prayerfully reflect on it further we can see why this is the best way.
Sadly, a contraceptive mentality as contributed to our increasingly hedonistic society. When we fail to recognize children as the supreme gift of marriage, we see them instead as inconveniences, burdens, health hazards, or even enemies to be avoided at all costs. No wonder then that our federal government has now codified law that literally regards fertility as a disease—one that all insurances must pay to cure. (On the contrary, the legitimate problem of infertility is never covered by insurance.) Since we are a people following the one who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), we must be careful that our actions always reflect a reverence for our “bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.” (1Cor 6:19). In doing so we give witness to God’s plan for marriage and the essential good of children—even when, paradoxically, we suffer the cross of infertility. Since we believe that God designed our bodies and commands us to “be fertile and multiply,” we should joyfully accept children as a gift from the Most High and should be careful that any means used to avoid or postpone new life is completely respectful of our bodily integrity and the truth that openness to children is an essential purpose of marriage.
Damon Cudihy, MD