After getting married, newlyweds always dream and hope that the Lord will bless their family with children. But a year, five, ten years pass and the long-awaited pregnancy does not occur. What should a couple do in this situation? Beyond all doubt, they should keep praying. But do they need to do anything else and should they have recourse to modern medicine? And are all popular contemporary assisted reproductive technologies, such as extracorporal (in vitro) fertilization, acceptable for Orthodox Christians? Pastors of the Russian Orthodox Church answer these questions.
“The main thing for Orthodox Christians is a pious life”
Igumen Luka (Stepanov):
“The Lord does not tell us “to do something” if we are childless. Being a natural consequence of spouses’ sexual intercourse, children bring joys and problems, plans and disappointments, self-sacrifice and the comfort of mutual love to their parents’ lives. But the main thing in life is to obtain eternal salvation. This is not basically dependent on the presence or the absence of children, but means, given all our human predispositions for the birth of children, that our priority must be trust in Divine providence, whose course defines all our earthly circumstances, which are not dependent on us.”
Archpriest Oleg Stenyayev:
“Many saints were born of elderly parents. They were literally “obtained by prayer” of many years. Moreover, they did not inherit passions, particular to young age, from old parents.”
“In vitro fertilization technology is a gross interference in the mystery of child-bearing”
Archpriest Pavel Gumerov:
“If the Lord does not grant children, then a family should hope and wait patiently, not losing heart. Today many people are not very healthy, that is why there are often no children even after several years of marriage. It is necessary to pray and fast in this case. Spouses should pray to the Righteous Joachim and Anna, or to the Right-Believing Peter and Febronia of Murom. Believers can also make pilgrimages to Mt. Athos and other holy sites. Prolonged childlessness can mean a sort of test of the spouses’ feelings, how strong their mutual love is. If a person achieves everything very easily, if the Lord grants him all “for nothing”, then he usually does not appreciate it that much. And if people are bound by some mutual trouble, then they get closer to each other, their love gets stronger after overcoming this misery. As for in vitro fertilization (IVF) which is recommended as an assisted reproductive technology, in reality it is a gross interference in the mystery of conception and child-bearing. And we are aware that the Jubilee Council of Bishops of ROC in 2000 forbad Orthodox Christians to resort to this technology, though some slyly interpreted it as a blessing to have recourse to other kinds of artificial insemination. But the Council declared point-blank that all kinds of extracorporal fertilization that presuppose preparation, conservation and subsequent destruction of embryos are unacceptable from the Orthodox Christian point of view. In vitro fertilization always presupposes destruction of embryos—that is, killing them.
Let us recall what this technology is like. First a woman’s superovulation is stimulated in order to release as many eggs as possible (up to 20). Next, several of them, the strongest ones, are selected, inseminated by the husband’s sperm and placed into a special incubator for several days. After that several eggs are transferred into the woman’s uterus while the rest are frozen – these will later be used either by the same parents or by other couples. So it is a kind of a “conveyor” of the “reproduction” of children. And an immense amount of money is made on this business: just one IVF attempt with all its procedures in Moscow is worth a minimum of 150,000 rubles (c. 2,354 USD). And I know, for example, people who made ten to fifteen attempts without result. IVF does not guarantee the best result at all! This is building your business on someone else’s tragedy rather than treatment of infertility.
And now let us imagine that all the embryos transferred to the uterus begin to develop. Several of them were implanted so that at least a part of them might develop. What happens if all begin to develop? The “extra”, or “undesirable” embryos are “reduced”, that is, they are removed surgically – in other words, an abortion is performed. Thus IVF involves destroying fertilized embryos that are already living babies with souls. In the end a person who resorts to IVF resorts to an abortion! There is also a sly trick: some medical centers offer “IVF for Christians”. They offer stimulating a partial superovulation, getting a small number of embryos and using all of them instead of transferring a larger number of embryos into uterus and removing a part of them. But the heart of the matter is the same here! The idea of IVF is absolutely godless by its nature. A person thus takes the liberty of acting as God the Creator and interfering in the processes inside a mother’s organism that should always remain a mystery. Another question: Why should impregnated eggs develop in an incubator for several days? It is done in order to detect any pathologies, especially genetic defects. A law was signed by our Health Care Minister, which reads that if there is a risk of developing pathologies an embryo should not be implanted. Such embryos are killed. Not to mention the fact that IVF causes a greater number of miscarriages and undeveloped pregnancies, and more premature babies are born. Unfortunately, there are almost no statistics regarding the health of “in vitro babies”. Why? Because it is a business, a “corporate conspiracy”. There is information, but it is not disclosed. However, some information is becoming known. Thus, according to the famous geneticist Yuri Petrovich Altukhov (1936-2006, an Orthodox Christian), up to twenty percent of in vitro babies have mental pathologies! There is another problem: as an egg enters the womb, it is met by a million sperm cells and only one, the strongest of them, fertilizes it. But IVF can be done using even a very weak sperm cell from the husband. If the sperm material is of a poor quality, what will such children be like? So, an Orthodox answer is the following: praying and waiting. And if the Lord does not grant you a child, then you should do what Russians (and other peoples) did from time immemorial: to adopt a child from an orphanage.”
“We must accept the Lord’s will”
Priest Valery Dukhanin:
There are the incomprehensible mysteries of the Providence of God Who cares for His people. When Rachel, wife of Patriarch Jacob, rebuked her husband: ‘Give me children, or else I die’, he answered: ‘Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?’ (Genesis 30:1-2). A child is a gift of God. And if the Lord does not grant you children, this means that it is according to His Providence, which we should accept instead of losing heart and thinking that our life has ended. Venerable Paisios of Mt. Athos paid special attention to this. He knew examples when people who longed for a baby resorted to IVF or adopted other parents’ children but later became convinced that the Lord had cared for them (not granting them children) for their good.
One should know where to stop and should not try to have a baby “at all costs”—it is better to heed the voice of Divine providence. If the Lord does not send us children, then it is to Him we should turn. There are many examples when children were granted after zealous spiritual labors: prayers, fasts and works of mercy. The Lord tests parents as to whether they are ready to accept a baby as a gift of God rather than a “product” of medical technology innovations. Of course, the causes of childlessness may vary. Sometimes it is a result of parents’ sins that they committed in their youth. According to research, seventy percent of women in Russia who cannot conceive a baby suffer from the consequences of abortions. Some types of contraception affect the reproductive function as well. In this case a person made himself unable to have children. It is really an absurd situation: first you do all your best to make yourself unable to have children and then you are ready to go to all lengths—even surrogate motherhood—in order to have children. First of all, such people need to repent, to wash away the spiritual causes of barrenness, and then to wait for the Lord’s will.
Though there can also be a different situation. Pious spouses lived according to God’s commandments all their life but were unable to conceive due to their poor health. In this case they need to resort to the help of medicine and use all acceptable methods, entrusting the result to the hands of God. Each case is individual. An experienced confessor sees that it is better for one person to be alone, without children, and for another person it would be best to have children and get absorbed in sacrificial love for them. Some people would not benefit from adopting a child from an orphanage as they lack elementary patience, tenderness and affection, while for others an adopted child becomes a true beloved family member and the Lord blesses such families. I know unmarried women who never had a family and who adopted children (usually two children: a brother and a sister) from an orphanage and became excellent mothers for them.
Let me tell you a story. One of my acquaintances named Eugenia married at twenty-five and she had no children with her husband for following five years. She visited many doctors and went to a family planning center which was packed with suffering barren women. Eugenia saw that examination, diagnosing and treatment involved spending tremendous sums of money, but all in vain, and then doctors suggested IVF. Familiarizing herself with IVF procedure, she realized she would never resort to it—there was a protest inside her though she was still not a churchgoer. The fact is that IVF is a flagrant manipulation of human life: embryos are prepared, fertilized and then transferred into the mother’s uterus, while the “unnecessary” ones are destroyed—in other words, an abortion is performed. Eugenia learned about miraculous healings at church when people after many years of infertility became able to have children. Thus she concluded that children are sent only by God. Through her infertility the woman converted to the Orthodox faith, and her husband was baptized too. Eugenia confessed and took Communion, began to read the canons of repentance and prayers for children.
Finally she heard that there was a holy well with a bathing hut near the St. Paphnutius Monastery in Borovsk (a town in the Kaluga region to the south-west of Moscow) the water of which had healing properties. They made a pilgrimage to Borovsk where she bathed and two weeks later she already had a positive pregnancy test result. And the woman had not been able to become pregnant for five years! After visiting the holy well Eugenia had a dream in which she was carrying a basket with a baby inside it. She asked the baby, “What is your name?,” and it answered: “Daniel.” Although during examinations and ultrasound scanning she was told that she was expecting a girl, Eugenia gave birth to a boy whom she named Daniel.
Once while Daniel was at nursery school she suddenly felt unwell and started bleeding. It turned out that she had been pregnant but there was a miscarriage. Doctors said that she was having a complication, that some surgery was needed, otherwise she would not be able to have more children—only if through IVF. Her confessor prayed and told her not to have a surgery and blessed her to give birth to a girl. A month later she became pregnant to the doctors’ great shock. She finally gave birth to a girl whom they named Anastasia. And Eugenia became absolutely convinced that children are granted us by God alone and it is to Him that we ought to turn first of all. Generally speaking, any undertaking is only good when it is in line with the will of God. And the will of God cannot be revealed that soon. If spouses with due zeal address their requests to the Lord in their prayers and get their confessor’s consent in regard to their desires, then the will of God will surely be revealed and they will understand what to do: to wait for a miraculous help from God, to undergo medical treatment, or to adopt a child from an orphanage.”
“You shouldn’t be guided by emotions only: you need to show discretion and prudence”
Priest Dimitry Shishkin:
“Undoubtedly, absence of children in a family is a reason to begin a more serious and sober Christian life and pray hard for children. One should show great patience here, and the Lord sometimes rewards for this constant patience and good works, so couples may have children even after three, five and more years of infertility. This is a real joy and abundant mercy! And parents who manage to conceive a baby in such conditions know perfectly well the high price and meaning of motherhood and fatherhood. But they should not rest on their laurels and make something like an idol, “the center of the universe” of their priceless child. It even can be called a crime against God because the Lord grants you a child so that you should raise him a Christian, not a selfish person who thinks that the whole world revolves around him. That is why it would be better if families had many children…
But if a family has no children in spite of their efforts in piety and prayer for many years, then sooner or later they will ask, “Where is the limit of waiting?” And where is the will of God? Should they wait on with patience and humility, turn to medicine, or adopt a child? It seems to me all should be done with reasoning and spiritually, that is, with prayer and advice of the family’s confessor, because there are different people, different circumstances. Some should show special humility and patience (their faith allows them to do that); others, on the contrary, should go to doctors, undergo examinations and accept their medical aid – since doctors were created by God, this profession exists for our good and it is not a sin to seek their aid. But here discernment is needed: we are well aware that some modern assisted reproductive technologies openly contradict the Lord’s commandments. So one take maximum care here and not “step over the line”. Some families, according to their inclinations and predispositions, are in turn called to adopt the unhappy children who are left bereft of mothers and fathers to love them and care for them. And we know such families where there are several adopted children and they make a genuine large family together with their foster parents. It is a good, holy undertaking, but you should not be guided only by (often passing) emotions—discretion and prudence are needed too; remember that your decision to adopt is a great responsibility, so “stepping back” will be akin to the sin of betrayal. May the Lord keep you from all this! That is why you need to ask your confessor’s advice in this situation, to pray hard and to take a sober view of things.”
“To do all only with the help and blessing of God”
Priest Igor Silchenkov:
“Put on the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11), Apostle Paul says. Hope and wait with patience, pray and fast (but only with the blessing of a priest). And, of course, one can adopt children from an orphanage. “And whoso shall receive one such little child in My Name receiveth Me” (Mt. 18:5), the Lord says. However, it is not a good idea to resort to IVF because it contradicts our very nature. The Lord gave us another, natural method of conception and bearing children and it fits us the most. It is no good “speeding up events” and resorting to IVF because that is an interference in God’s Providence. All good things, including children, are sent to us by God and only in their good time, when it is the best moment for us. On account of our self-will and sinfulness we are often unwilling to understand and accept it. So in haste we are trying to do the same things that the Lord Himself does for us. And our own results are always incomparably worse than the Lord’s. For, our Heavenly Father is holy and blameless, while we are ourselves weak, blind and sinful. So do not undertake anything on your own, but do all things only with the help and blessing of God, which, first of all, can be found and received in the Church and through the clergy. In the Old Testament, the Prophet Abraham and his wife Sarah did not have children for many years, but the Lord granted them a son—the Holy Prophet Isaac. And by then they had reached the age when people cannot have children physiologically any more. And the Righteous Joachim and Anna had been barren for many years until God provided them a child—the Most Holy Mary Mother of God: “More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim”, as the Holy Church glorifies Her. And Righteous Zacharias and Elizabeth were blessed with a long-awaited son—St. John the Baptist. “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11), the Lord proclaims. And it was because they lived according to the will of God all their lives, they put the will of God above their own human will and their human desires.
And we should try to imitate them in this. And then we will give birth to future saints too; we will live in holiness and see numerous miracles of God. And we will see the main miracle—that God is the endless, perfect, merciful, self-sacrificing and saving Love. This Love leads us to the eternal and endless bliss in the Heavenly Kingdom together with all the saints who have pleased God through the ages. Amen.”
Priest Maxim Gorozhankin:
“If the Savior does not grant us children, we need to turn to Him with a fervent prayer. And the Church knows numerous examples when God answered sincere prayers and blessed parents with the conception of a baby. If childless spouses were never married in church, then it is important that they do so. All the prayers of the sacrament of Church wedding contain petitions of bestowing children on a couple, and the grace to rear them.
A pilgrimage to relics of one or another saint of God may also be to the benefit of married couples. But they should not think like this: “Now we will go to Blessed Matrona of Moscow to pray, and when we have our child we will stop going to church.” There is some temptation here as well. So if we turn to the Lord, our prayer should be something like this: “Lord, grant us a child by Your grace; and we will devote our lives to You and will raise our baby in the Orthodox faith.” If people think this way, the Lord will not abandon them without His mercy and will answer their prayer.”