Mixing Faith and Science

Published in DukeMed, December 2005

(Sidebar to “Egg Hunters“)

Rarely do you see a physician wear his religion on his sleeve. But David Walmer, MD, PhD, wears his quite literally around his neck, in the form of a green, gold, and maroon tie patterned with crosses, fish, and the word “faith.” As chief of the Duke Reproductive Endocrinology and Fertility division, Walmer knows his attire is not only a revelation of his character, but an outward symbol of what anyone–Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or agnostic–must possess to face the emotional and physical roller coaster of infertility treatment.

You have to believe, deeply, to go through these procedures–if not in God, then in science. Walmer happens to believe in both. For many of his patients, that’s a welcome fact. In fact, not only do more patients keep the dialogue on faith open with him through their medical journeys than not, many couples specifically come to Duke to see Walmer because of his Christian-focused practice. Many ask Walmer to pray with them before embryo transplants. Some just want the knowledge that they are cared for by a physician who unabashedly shares their faith. Others seek advice on reconciling the ethical issues that abound in assisted reproductive technology (ART) with their intense desire to begin a family.

“I used to feel uncomfortable sharing my Christian faith in an academic medical center setting,” Walmer says. “When patients were paying for medical advice and time was limited, it didn’t seem natural or appropriate launching into a discussion of faith if they might not be interested.”

But after five years as a basic scientist, 10 years as the director of IVF at Duke, and 13 years in ministry in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Walmer has learned from the peasants of Haiti the importance of relationships and the importance that many people place in faith while pursuing parenthood.

“If patients perceive that faith is an important part of your life, they can choose to spend their time sharing it or not,” he says. “It is not my goal to persuade my patients to believe what I believe. But if they choose, I can certainly share what God has done in my life, walk with them through the fertility process from my perspective, and help them process the complexities of their options with regard to medicine and theology.”

Walmer, who founded a nonprofit called Family Health Ministries (www.familyhm.org), has also taught students in Duke’s Medicine and Theology program about ART, discussing the role of human embryos in fertility treatments and research with hard questions about hypocrisy (“People who fight for potential human lives should also care deeply about the rights of children dying in developing countries,” he says.)

Ultimately, he says, infertility is a journey of faith in which couples must decide what compromises are acceptable in their pursuit of parenthood–whether it’s taking medications, going through in vitro fertilization, using donor eggs or sperm, or adopting. “At Duke we try to help couples make the right personal choices, and then work to give them the highest probability of success with the lowest chance of a complication,” he says. “In the end, though, we just put sperm and eggs together and God makes the babies.”

Article Copyright 2005 DukeMed magazine