LOUISVILLE, Ky., April 4 (RNS)--After seven years of marriage and five yearsof trying to have a baby, Wendy Fryar finally heared a tiny heartbeat within her--only to then suffer a third miscarriage.

"I can remember being on my face in the living room with uncontrollable sobbing," said Fryar, who lives in Louisville. "There was the deepest, darkest place, a hole in my soul."

Her husband, Randy, tried to comfort her. But she told him: "Youcan't help me. Nobody can help me but God."

Infertility, which some experts estimate affects one in six couplesof childbearing age, usually is thought of as a medical problem, not areligious or spiritual one. But the private pain of infertility and the lengths to which many couples will go to try to have a baby, sometimesinvolving techniques on the cutting edge of medical technology, canpresent a complicated set of spiritual and ethical questions.

Sandra Glahn, a Dallas author who spoke at a recent conference on infertility and spirituality at Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that of all the women she's known struggling with infertility, only one "didn't question at some point whether God was punishing her--and she was an atheist."

Glahn and her husband, Gary, endured years of infertility, sevenpregnancy losses and three attempts at adoption in which the birthmothers changed their minds before they adopted their daughter,Alexandra, in 1995.

"There were seven" miscarriages, she said, crying at the memory. "And at some point you ask questions like, `What was it theologically that I was supposed to be learning?'"

Glahn said she disagreed with those who told her "that if I pray and I don't get what I desire, I don't have faith," or that not having a child was simply God's will for her. She said she thought of many reasons why God allows suffering--to transform us and bring us to faith, to make us more sensitive to the pain of others--"but the only one that satisfied me is, it is a mystery. God's ways are so far beyond us that it is not going to make sense."

Dr. William Cutrer, a Christian obstetrician and gynecologist who specialized in the treatment of infertility before becoming an associateprofessor of Christian ministry at the seminary, told the conference hesees significant moral and ethical issues being posed by some techniquesphysicians use to help infertile couples conceive and bear children.

Cutrer--who teaches bioethics, spiritual formation and pastoralcounseling--said he does not accept the argument made by some Christiansthat "people of faith are against any assisted reproductivetechnologies" or that "medical intervention is playing God."

But he said that both physicians and infertile couples must draw theirown conclusions about "when this human life is a person"--atconception, at birth, or some point in between--and about whetherother moral issues are involved, such as violation of the maritalrelationship between a husband and wife.

For example, some faiths, such as the Roman Catholic, teach that sexbetween a husband and wife must be part of procreation. He said he doesnot share that view but noted that for those who do it poses moral problems with in-vitro fertilization or artificial insemination.

Cutrer urges patients to fully understand any procedure they'reconsidering and to be sure it "honors the dignity of human life, even atthe one-celled stage...From that moment on, in my view, we havehuman life."

Cutrer said he has no moral difficulty with many basic techniquesused by infertility doctors--including hormone therapy, ovulationtesting, or surgery--to fix problems that may be hindering conception. Hedoes have reservations about the methods some clinics use to collectsemen samples from husbands, such as having "a room with magazines andmovies to entertain and delight so the man can get his specimen."

But Cutrer said samples can also be collected from a man who is arousedsimply by the idea or presence of his own wife.

Although he did use donor sperm early in his practice, Cutrer laterdeclined to do so. "I'm not so sure it's sin" if a woman becomespregnant with donor sperm, he said. "I do not think it's adultery,"because adultery involves the mind, not just science.

However, because "what used to be sealed records are quickly becoming open records," he said he's troubled by the idea of the identities of anonymous sperm donors becoming known to their offspring.

Jennifer Gerber and her husband, Rick, have been infertile for atleast four years. "I don't see how someone who doesn't have faith couldgo through something like this and not be utterly in despair," she said.

Sometimes the frustration and longing are so intense "I can walkthrough a mall and I see a child and I'm in tears," she said.

But "Idon't believe that infertility is a curse." Instead, "it might be God'sway of drawing me closer to him."

As much as she wants a baby, Gerber said, "sometimes God's answer iswait."