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05/15/2006

Congratulations! Now pack up your desk.

A Wisconsin teacher has been fired from her job in a Catholic school system for doing IVF.  In September 2004, Kelly Romenesko, a lifelong Catholic, requested time off for egg retrieval and embryo transfer.  Her supervisor warned her that she might be in violation of her employment contract, which required that she uphold the teachings of the Catholic church.  The church's position is that IVF is "morally illicit and in opposition to the dignity of procreation and of the conjugal union."

The Romeneskos, who had been unaware of the church's opposition, went ahead with treatment, using their own gametes and working with a doctor who does not destroy embryos or perform selective reductions.  Only days after Kelly Romenesko announced her pregnancy to her supervisors, she was fired from her job.

According to her, "I was astounded. I was shocked. I was crying. I couldn't believe it, and I said, 'Is this the only reason I am being fired?' and they said yes."  She maintains that others in the system, including a board member, have used IVF to build families with no repercussions.

An attorney for the school system says that while other employees may violate church teachings about contraceptive use or vasectomy, supervisors don't ask questions about personal moral issues.  He contends that Romenesko made it impossible for administrators to ignore the violation of her employment contract when she announced her intention to do IVF.  In other words, she left the school system no choice.

Romenesko brought an action against the system for what she felt was sexual discrimination, charging that she was fired for getting pregnant.  An investigator found no grounds for the charge, finding that the system had acted within the law in the firing.  Romenesko, who has twin daughters and now attends a Lutheran church, has appealed that decision.

Now, I'm not a Catholic.  Maybe that means I shouldn't put forth an opinion on doctrine.  Or maybe this serves as a good illustration of why religion doesn't speak to me.  Either way, I think the church is, to put it diplomatically, profoundly out of touch as far as its stance on IVF goes.  Sorry, but as an infertile woman, I can't think of the phrase, "dignity of procreation," without laughing.  Even if you stipulate that sex can be dignified — "Close your eyes and think of the Lincoln Memorial.  No, not at cherry blossom time." — after trying naturally for month after month, then on into years, what started out as a good-faith effort starts to feel tiresome, defeating, and sometimes even pathetic.  Go ahead.  Ask the pope what he thinks about ever-larger globs of Astroglide, a good stiff drink, and an unvoiced groan of "Not again." Hoo, boy, that's some gilt-edged dignity right there.  IVF didn't rob us of our procreative dignity; in my opinion, it restored it by letting us discontinue the monthly farce.

And as for the conjugal union, I am all about respecting that, inasmuch as I am all about respecting anything, which, well, let's just leave that alone.  The important thing here is that I do treasure my marriage and the happiness I've found within it.  And you know what? Our pursuit of a child through IVF and its hair-raising aftermath, marriage still intact, mutual respect unabated, is stronger evidence of our commitment to that union than any quick roll in the sheets could ever be. 

You know, it just occurred to me that maybe by "conjugal union" the church simply means "doing it," in which case all bets are off.  But if the church means "doing it with a feeling of joy in your partner, instead of quailing at the very thought of it because you're just so fucking tired of disappointment," I can testify that by freeing us of the burden of our copulatory obligation and letting us instead...conjugally unite...when the sincere feeling took us, IVF was just the ticket.  So put that in the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and smoke it.

Considering all that, I'm surprised and chagrined to say that I can find little fault — because you know I am a fault-finder of some talent and renown — with the Catholic school system's actions.  I believe they did, in fact, have some latitude, and I believe they might have pursued less drastic disciplinary action.  (I personally like "none whatsoever," but then I am not known for running an especially tight ship.)  But once Romenesko, who'd promised to live in accordance with Catholic teaching as a condition of her employment, chose not to do so, the school system had every right to fire her.

So, no, it's not illegal.  It's just damned depressing.  Infertility can be terribly alienating, and I'm impressed and admiring of anyone who can break through that isolation to tell others of their condition and treatment.  And no one should ever be made to feel shame or doubt about the way they choose to create their family.  Feeling as strongly as I do about these things, it is upsetting to acknowledge that if Kelly Romenesko wanted to keep her job, she should have stayed in the closet.

I'd like to know what you think about all this.  Catholics especially, please.

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