The first time Dr. Anthony Caruso saw life created in a petri dish, it brought tears to his eyes. Once one of Chicago's leading reproductive endocrinologists, he guesses that he helped more than 1,000 children come into the world.
But two years ago, he walked away from his practice and into a confessional at St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church to repent. Reproductive technology had gone too far, he said, and he could not practice the same kind of medicine anymore.
"We see babies in our Catholic faith as children of God," said Caruso, 48, of Lombard. "What doesn't get thought about is the process that brought the babies to be."
Caruso, now a doctor at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, has proposed opening the St. Anne Center for Reproductive Health.
It would be one of a handful of clinics in the U.S. that helps couples struggling to have children within the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. It would not offer in vitro fertilization (IVF), artificial insemination or certain medicines often prescribed as a course of treatment. It also would be the only center in the nation run by a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist.
Caruso acknowledges that the success rates of measures compatible with church teachings are lower than what advanced reproductive technology can offer. Furthermore, doctors almost always try to accommodate a patient's religious convictions. But Caruso and other proponents of natural family planning say many fertility practices tend to treat infertility rather than treat the underlying condition of which infertility is a symptom.
Catholic hospitals so far have been reluctant to embrace Caruso's proposal for financial reasons. But as religious institutions feel the heat of the federal health care overhaul's contraceptive mandate, hospital and church leaders have started to recognize the power of promoting church teachings and incorporating them into care. In January, the Obama administration issued a mandate requiring that employers provide health plans that include contraception for women at no cost. Under the rules, religiously affiliated schools, charities and hospitals would not be exempt from providing care that includes contraception and sterilization procedures approved by theU.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"The HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) mandate is the best thing that happened to me," Caruso said. "What the HHS mandate potentially could do is reawaken the Catholic Church."
Caruso's awakening started more than three decades after the first IVF baby was born in 1978.
At age 15 in 1979, Caruso applied to work in the reproductive laboratories of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Though he was turned away, the rejection did not deter him. After completing his residency in Springfield, Ill., he chose to specialize in reproductive endocrinology at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center. By then, infertility technology had entered what he calls "early adolescence."
As success rates climbed, Caruso eagerly sought new ways of helping couples conceive children. He witnessed countless breakthroughs such as freezing eggs, finding egg donors, screening embryos for abnormalities and enhancing ovulation through new medicines — medicines that helped him and his wife to have their six children.
Occasionally asked to justify his profession as a Catholic, Caruso had no reservations dismissing the Vatican'sinstruction, Donum Vitae, or "The Gift of Life." The 1987 document — issued by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI — denounced in vitro fertilization and predicted advances in artificial reproductive technologies that Caruso believed weren't rooted in reality.
In 2002, Caruso gave an interview to the Chicago Tribune about helping a lesbian couple conceive through IVF.
"They struck me as just as intent and caring as any heterosexual couple that I would see," Caruso told the reporter. The next week, Caruso's parish priest asked him to step down from the pastoral council at Christ the King Parish in Lombard. Caruso's words and actions had violated church teachings, the priest concluded.
"That might have been the first salvo," Caruso said. "I wasn't angry. I really took what he had to say to heart."
Caruso had a teaching position at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine in 2008 when the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released another document titled Dignitas Personae, or "The Dignity of a Person." That instruction clarified why the church opposed many of the innovations in biotechnology that had evolved since the introduction of IVF. The fields of embryology and genetic engineering had advanced exponentially, including the breakthrough in embryonic stem cell research in 1998 and the mapping of the human genome.
"There was so much in Donum Vitae (about advances in artificial reproductive technologies) I saw potentially not possible," Caruso said. "I would tell you in retrospect I was wrong."
Throughout his career, Caruso had defended the children but not necessarily the science that created them. Seeing the church's predictions become reality suddenly made him uneasy.
"When you talk about in vitro fertilization, the discussion largely centers around the child," Caruso said. "It's really hard when you're talking on that level to be able to explain what might be concerning about that. There's nothing wrong with the babies. We see babies in our Catholic faith as children of God. Donum Vitae comes to life when you look at the process that brought the babies to be."