By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 17, 2008
Etched into David Hanson’s memory is the image of his wife, Catherine, having just delivered their sixth child by emergency C-section, being wheeled on a gurney away from the Catholic hospital in the state where they then lived to a nearby clinic that offered the sterilization procedure of a tubal ligation.
“It’s shocking to think that 24 hours after giving birth, she was going through the parking lot still wearing her surgical drapes,” he said.
The decision that he and his wife made for her to undergo the sterilization procedure came out of fear for Catherine’s health and after “a lot of pressure … about having such a large family,” particularly from their neighbor, who was the surgeon who performed the operation.
“It was hard on us to think about what harm might come to Catherine,” if she had another child, said David. He acknowledged the selflessness of his wife who “continued to have children without complaint.”
“We kind of resigned ourselves to it. I feel like it was my fault for being open to that. I was feeling like things were out of control.”
Catherine was unable to undergo the procedure at the Catholic hospital because tubal ligations, like vasectomies, are sterilization procedures that are contrary to church teaching since they permanently close the conjugal act to the possibility of procreation. In line with natural law, the church teaches that intrinsic to “the marital embrace” are two inseparable aspects: the unitive and the procreative. Translated another way, as many people who teach on this topic describe, sexual intercourse, a privilege of and gift to married life, is for “bonding and babies.” It speaks “the language of permanency,” Pope John Paul II wrote in the “Theology of the Body.” It’s a permanency that promotes a faithful, stable environment in which parents can raise their children.
When either the unitive or procreative aspects are separated from the conjugal act, disorder enters the relationship, which affects the marriage, family and society at large. Since sterilization separates the procreative aspect from the unitive this is why the church teaches against it. At the same time, the church supports natural means by which couples can space their children or refrain from having more children after prayerful consideration. It asks married couples to trust in God’s plan for their family.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church expounds, “‘Let all be convinced that human life and the duty of transmitting it are not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true evaluation and full significance can be understood only in reference to man’s eternal destiny.’” In other words, God has his plan that is beyond human understanding and couples, in faith, are asked to remain open to it.
For Catherine, who gave birth to six children in seven years, the sterilization procedure later came to mean that “society had prevailed.” She recalled thinking that her daughter’s “traumatic” birth was perhaps a sign to have the procedure.
“The doctor was in a hurry to do this tragedy. He rushed, and I regretted it. … At the time it happened all we cared about was our daughter. It didn’t hit me. We justified it. Where sin is involved there is justification.”
Then their youngest daughter turned 4.
“All of a sudden no one was crying,” Catherine remembered. “I kind of missed it and thought ‘no one needs me.’ It surprised me.”
Only after more than 10 years would Catherine and David begin to consider a reversal of the tubal ligation.
“We went on with life with six children to raise,” David said. “Catherine was busy homeschooling. I was busy with business. Things kind of went on. At that point we began to fit into the culture.”
Four years later the family moved to Georgia and only slowly did the couple begin to come to terms with the tubal ligation.
“It started to change when we came to Atlanta and met people well versed in the teachings of the church,” David said. “Now we see what the real teachings are. In a real sense, a lot of people don’t know or don’t want to know or want to keep the church out of their bedrooms.”
With a fuller understanding of church teaching, Catherine wished to address her tubal ligation, to remove “the obstacle to grace,” and sought the sacrament of reconciliation. David also underwent a “conversion” and the couple pursued the reversal procedure being led eventually to Dr. Mark Stegman, an obstetrician-gynecologist who practices at the Center for Women’s Health and Wellness in Camp Hill, Pa.
“Some people are called to reverse it,” Catherine said, adding that they discerned to take this “step in faith” when she was 40. Fortunately she learned that she was a good candidate for the reversal since she was not peri-menopausal.
The procedure was not something to take lightly, David said.
“In (Catherine’s) heart she turned to the Shepherd, so to speak. … I felt like it was something I wanted to do, too. As a man, though, it was not up to me what to do. She made the choice for the reversal on her own. It’s serious major surgery. Any time you go into surgery there is a lot of risk, but she was determined that this was what she wanted to do. My only role was to be totally supportive of that. The risk was all on her rather than me.”
Regaining her fertility involved a more than five-hour surgical procedure, called a reinastimosis.
“It had been more than 13 years since my tubal ligation. Even with the information about the original procedure, Dr. Stegman had no idea what he would find,” said Catherine, adding that the doctor wore a microscope-type apparatus used for microsurgery on his head in order to reconnect the tubes. “One tube took over three and a half hours, but that was the side that Maximilian came from—a miracle.”
Two years after the reversal surgery, Catherine conceived their seventh child, Maximilian Michael, and had “the most uneventful pregnancy.”
“At 42, I was a dinosaur,” she said with a laugh. Shortly after Max was born, Catherine became the topic of discussion among the staff on the hospital floor.
“A parade of nurses would come in, some crying,” she said. “Some were in tears because they also had had a tubal and regretted it. I always tell people now, first, you don’t have to have a tubal. Kids aren’t the worst thing that can happen.”
She remains grateful “every day” for Max and added that her husband often looks at her and says, “Can you believe we have him?”
Max is now 9 and most of their other children are grown.
“Our kids weren’t a menace,” Catherine said. “They were the best thing in our lives.”
David believes the same.
“Children are the greatest gift God gives us. If you look at everything else, it’s so temporary. Children are our only legacy. They’re the only thing we leave in the world,” he said.
Their journey has confirmed that “God is very gracious.”
“I feel that I am totally responsible for Catherine’s sterilization,” David said. “I know that she would’ve continued to have children as long as she was able to. But I lacked the courage to trust God with our lives. Looking back, I know that everything would have worked out. … In spite of our unfaithfulness, (God) blessed us with another child.”
He considered 2 Timothy 2:13. “God is good and he loves us unconditionally. Even when we are unfaithful, he is faithful.”
“It’s hard to understand God’s mercy,” David said. “Even when we sin, a very grave one, he is very merciful. He blessed us with our seventh child. That speaks volumes. He is not vindictive, He does not punish us. If someone were to treat us poorly, we’d expect to let him have it. But that’s not the way he is. He blessed us with Maximilian Michael.”
Stegman remains a personal friend of the family and Max’s godfather. Looking back, Catherine reiterated Stegman’s take on the unfortunate approach society takes toward women: “A woman’s fertility is the only thing that’s treated like a disease.”
“(With a tubal ligation) most often the wife suffers,” Catherine said. “The husband suffers, too. One thing I hear a lot, especially from women, is that they’re pressured into it.”
David now understands the responsibility that a husband has to fully embrace his wife and her fertility, as well as his own.
“With sterilization that goes away,” he said. “There’s no thought about creating or being open to life. I think women become more like objects in that situation. A man loses respect for women. No longer is the garden being fruitful and growing. It becomes sterile.”
A deacon at the family’s church of St. Paul the Apostle in Cleveland, David believes “it’s more natural for women to want to fulfill their God-given talent.”
Men are “more culpable, more resistant” to accepting the call to remain open to life and are more likely to decide what the family can afford, he said.
“Most often it is the man who decides when enough is enough, and many women are pressured into either being sterilized or going on the pill. … My gut feeling, which comes from my experience with married couples, tells me that men are the instigators of contraception on the whole. They just want something easy and sure fire.”
David alluded to a pervasive “ignorance is bliss” and “‘don’t ask, don’t tell’” attitude found in pockets within the church.
“In places we’ve lived in the past, it was never talked about, never preached. We were never properly catechized.”
He understands the importance of his ministry as a deacon “to preach and proclaim the Gospel of Christ.”
“The first thing I realize is how short I fall,” he added. “But we must be who we are, be open and honest so God can use us. … If we hide our shortcomings, we become like the Pharisees.”
He noted that a significant number of Catholics participate in contraception, abortion and sterilization.
“We were a case in point. We didn’t live up to our calling. It’s a very delicate thing. We need to talk about it, we need to explain the teachings of the church, what the expectations are, what they mean and how to implement them in our daily lives,” he said.
From a medical perspective, Natural Family Planning is “much healthier than the pill,” David added.
“We need to educate at a younger age so that they understand the dignity of each person and the best path to take.”
In a recent homily he shared with the congregation his experience with sterilization and focused on God’s mercy.
“The truth is what it is. The bar is set high, and it’s not going to move. We must aspire to reach that, consider being open to life. We must talk about it.”
He added that church teachings are “not arbitrary.”
“They’re not there to suppress people. The teachings are what God wants us to do. We are created in the image and likeness of God and He wants us to live up to that image. He wants us to reach up and live up to our calling.”