LOUISVILLE, Ky., April 4 (RNS)--After seven years of marriage and five years of 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: "You can't help me. Nobody can help me but God."

Infertility, which some experts estimate affects one in six couples of childbearing age, usually is thought of as a medical problem, not a religious or spiritual one. But the private pain of infertility and the lengths to which many couples will go to try to have a baby, sometimes involving techniques on the cutting edge of medical technology, can present 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, seven pregnancy losses and three attempts at adoption in which the birth mothers 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 associate professor of Christian ministry at the seminary, told the conference he sees significant moral and ethical issues being posed by some techniques physicians use to help infertile couples conceive and bear children.

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

But he said that both physicians and infertile couples must draw their own conclusions about "when this human life is a person"--at conception, at birth, or some point in between--and about whether other moral issues are involved, such as violation of the marital relationship between a husband and wife.

For example, some faiths, such as the Roman Catholic, teach that sex between a husband and wife must be part of procreation. He said he does not 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're considering and to be sure it "honors the dignity of human life, even at the one-celled stage...From that moment on, in my view, we have human life."

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

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

Although he did use donor sperm early in his practice, Cutrer later declined to do so. "I'm not so sure it's sin" if a woman becomes pregnant 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 at least four years. "I don't see how someone who doesn't have faith could go through something like this and not be utterly in despair," she said.

Sometimes the frustration and longing are so intense "I can walk through a mall and I see a child and I'm in tears," she said. But "I don't believe that infertility is a curse." Instead, "it might be God's way of drawing me closer to him."

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

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