Open to a “Broader Definition of Family”: How a Diagnosis of Infertility Changed One Catholic Couple’s Life


Jeanette Suter served as the Superintended for Catholic Schools for five years. She and her husband, John, moved from California to serve in a mission Diocese. From the beginning of their marriage, they have lived with a diagnosis of infertility, a struggle which afflicts around 10% of couples in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For another perspective on living out the Church’s teaching on married life, the Voice of the Southwest interviewed them about their experience living with infertility.

VoSW: Can you give us an overview of your situation?

Jeanette Suter: I had been married previously, and in my previous marriage we had tried to get pregnant, and things didn’t work. And so going into it – John and I dated for a year and a half. When we decided to get married we did have this conversation with our pastor at the time, because we didn’t know going forward if we’d be able to have children, because of some of the problems that I had had in the past.

We had talked about it – we knew the twofold purpose of marriage. So we knew going into this, well we may not be able to have children but the whole point of having a valid, Catholic marriage is that you’re open to it.

We had been married about 6, 8 months and we still weren’t getting pregnant, and we weren’t doing anything not to, of course. So we went to the gynecologist and she said “well nothing with you has changed…I think it’s time we look at John’s side of things.”

So we went to a urologist…he was actually able to diagnose John’s condition just by looking at him. Because of different physical characteristics, he said “I would bet you have Klinefelter’s. And it’s a genetic disorder.” And sure enough, he had it. Which means he’s basically been sterile since birth, So at that point, the idea of having our own children was completely gone.

For me, because I’d had those struggles before, I think it was easier for me to get the news than it was for John.

John Suter: Yeah, because I always associated marriage with children. If I didn’t become a priest, I would be a married person, and of course I’d have kids. And then not having kids – not having a way to biologically have kids, I think I was in the blues for a good year or so.

Jeanette: Once we got the news from the urologist, they said “we’re going to send you to a genetic counselor.” And we thought – mistakenly, I guess – that what the genetic counselor was going to do was tell us how to live with the Klinefelter’s, because there’s a lot of secondary issues that someone with that has. But no, we get there, and they’re talking about in vitro fertilization, sperm donors, all of this other stuff. For one thing, that wasn’t what we were expecting when we went for this appointment. The other thing that was interesting – the genetic counselor couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t do those things. It was almost like they’d never dealt with a Catholic person before.

John: It was really strange – I asked, “so the strongest [embryo] would live, and you would just kill the rest?”

Jeanette: They had no answer for that.

John: Like taking life is so academic.

Jeanette: It was almost like nobody had ever had that conversation before with them. I guess, in some ways, many couples in our situation are very desperate to have children, and so they maybe don’t think the whole thing through, or all the different possibilities.

Fr. Tad [Pacholczyk] – you’ve printed his stuff before – I actually heard him speak one time and that was enlightening to me. I know people who have done in vitro, and assisted reproduction, and at the time they did it, they never talked about any of these issues and never considered any of these issues. I have a sister who did that, and afterwards when we were explaining to my parents why we weren’t going to do that, it was even an eye-opener to my parents, who didn’t know what the Church teaches on reproductive technology. My dad was a cradle Catholic out of the 40s and 50s and didn’t now what was in the Church documents that we’re encouraged to know.

But on the other side of it, we did talk about adoption for a while, but we decided against that, because we’re older. We were 40 when we got married. The other thing was, I work so much. For me, not having my own children, I threw myself into my own work which is with children. I’ve worked for 26 years in Catholic education, and it’s all about the kids. If people say “you don’t have any children” I say “well right now I have 1,350 students.” And I do take what we do with our kids very seriously.

On the flip side of that, John is a teacher, we’ve both been catechists in our various parishes, confirmation sponsors, godparents…I feel God knew what he was doing with us.

[Jeanette’s father recently passed away after a long battle with cancer] It freed me to be completely, 100% present with my dad. So it’s living that family vocation out in a completely different way.

John: For me, the hard thing is that my dad was an only child, and I’ve got a half-brother, but I really felt the pressure that everything was on me, that I was gonna be the one that has kids…There’s times where I wonder what it would be like to be a dad. And there’s other times I reflect on it, and it seems like, well, this is genetic, God must’ve known what He was doing.

Jeanette: And it’s expanded my idea of family. I look at people that I work with, friends, everybody, as members of family.

VoSW: What would your advice be to others who struggle with this?

Jeanette: My advice would be to get the right information. Don’t just trust the doctors and those in the secular world to talk about it – you really need to talk to your priest or to Catholic couples that you know, to really get the full picture of family and what we’re called to in our baptism. Because yes, you were called to the vocation of marriage, but that does not necessarily mean that it’s meant to be the family that you envisioned.

And adoption is a beautiful thing – that’s a blessing on so many levels, because there are so many children that need good, stable homes. Don’t close the door on that either, and a lot of people do because in some families and in some places it’s a stigma not to have biological children. Don’t let that stop you, if that’s what you want, because that is a blessing both to you as a couple and to the children you bring in to your family. Pray about it, think about it, ask God where His plan is for you. Don’t let others tell you what your path is – let God tell you what your path is.

John: I think the hardest thing is the patience, waiting for an answer from God. We’re used to everything coming to us…practically instantaneously, but God seems to work on a different timetable.

Pray, listen, be patient. Look for signs in your life of what God wants you to do. And keep in contact with your spouse.

Jeanette: And be open to a broader definition of family.

This interview is part of our series celebrating the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae – Pope Pius’ encyclical on the family and married life.


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