The ghosts (of babies) on Facebook

Before I jump into the heart of this piece, let me clearly state that I know it is possible to write an accurate, powerful and even emotional story about the following issue while leaving religious and moral issues completely out of the mix. After all, the Washington Post just published exactly that kind of news report. Now, to the subject at hand.

Catholic and Orthodox priests are, of course, not allowed to talk about the confessions they hear. The confidentiality of the sacrament is absolute. However, from time to time one will hear clergy talk -- in very broad, safe language -- about the ISSUES that they hear people raise time after time during the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

Long ago, during my Denver days, I heard Cardinal J. Francis Stafford -- at that time the city's archbishop -- make an amazing statement. He said that priests face many tough issues while trying to comfort those who are making their confessions while dealing with the wreckage caused by events in life that are occurring, literally, through no fault of their own.

In that context, he noted that of all the issues that he had faced through the years when hearing confessions, one of the the issues that consistently had the most devastating effects on the spiritual lives of penitents was infertility.

How serious? Often, he said, the spiritual effects of infertility were even worse than those suffered by those who lost a child to disease or to a tragic accident. There was a unique and silent pain suffered by those who wanted to have children, but could not. Whole communities will rally around those who lose a child. Those who feel denied the unique joys and pains of parenthood often suffer in silence, except for the interior screams of pain that others rarely hear. Clergy must understand this reality and help those who suffer from it, he stressed.

So what does that have to do with the following story from the Post, which is both creative and emotionally gripping? Read on:

Diane Colling, an occupational therapist and fertility patient, was scrolling through her Facebook page last week when, once again, she was bombarded by a friend's exuberant broadcast about her pregnancy. "Your daughter will hold your hand for a little while, but will hold your heart for a lifetime," her brother's pregnant girlfriend posted.

"I know it's not meant to hurt, but you feel like you're getting kicked every time you see these," said Colling, 28, who lives in Baltimore County and has been trying to get pregnant since 2006. "I have to unfriend people for a while. If I was smart, I wouldn't go on Facebook anymore, but I'd completely lose connections with family and friends."

Before Facebook, infertile couples could try to avoid pregnant people at work or social gatherings, limiting their exposure to triggers of bitterness or jealousy. But that was when friendships were forged mainly in person, not via today's social media Web sites, where people can feel ambushed by photos of friends' - or mere acquaintances' - baby bumps.

Now, when more than a half-billion people use Facebook, couples yearning for children say they are trapped: They are unwilling to detach from the social network, but unable to avoid its frequent reminders -- fetal sonograms are seemingly ubiquitous -- of what might elude them forever.

Now, Facebook is the news hook here and it's a good one. Of course, newsrooms are packed with people in the prime social-media demographics. This story may hit home for many journalists today.

The story notes that fertility clinic workers report hearing more and more people talking about "Facebook envy," which is understandable. However, depending on one's circle of friends, it is also possible to hear people talk about the pain of attending religious services and witnessing baptisms, flowers for mothers on Mothers Day, joyful announcements of pregnancies, etc. In liturgical traditions, the weekly prayers of the people often include (in Eastern Orthodoxy, they always are there) prayers for women by name "and the child she bears" during their pregnancies. The child is already real and, thus, is the subject of public prayers.

Facebook envy sounds similar, yet I would dare say that people are much more candid with their feelings and thoughts in confession than on their Facebook sites. A call to a support-and-prayer group for women in a religious setting wouldn't hurt.

In other words, could the story have been deeper? Is there a spiritual element to questions such as, "Why me?" or "Why not me?" What about, "What did I do wrong" or "What did she do right?" As the cardinal said, these completely understandable thoughts can lead to anger that is not purely logical and, dare I say it, purely secular (in most cases). And what about "accidents" vs. years of scientific work? What is God up to?

Katherine Klegin, 27, of Springfield, who had been trying to conceive for 15 months with egg-stimulating drugs, has a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Two months ago, the government contractor was at home using her laptop when she discovered a friend's pregnancy on Facebook.

"I burst into tears," she recalled. "It made me so angry. She had just gotten married, and there's this presumption that it was an accident. I can't comprehend having an accident."

Klegin didn't want to disconnect from her online life, so she switched mostly to Twitter, which has fewer photos and instead features snappy 140-character musings. "I found a huge community of infertile women on Twitter, and people announce pregnancies all the time there, but it's different," she said. "You don't see it."

So, can this story be written in a totally secular manner? Of course.

In the context of the United States of America (hello Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life), can the religion element of this story be included (note, merely "included") in order to connect with even more readers? Of course.

One can also ask: How many people in newsrooms are on Facebook? Then one can ask: How many people in newsrooms go to confession? To prayer circles for women? The odds of the story being written about in this faith-free fashion are probably higher.

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