Prayer seems to almost double the success rate of in vitro fertilization procedures that lead to pregnancy, according to surprising results from a study carefully designed to eliminate bias.
The controversial findings, published in the September issue of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, reveal that a group of women who had people praying for them had a 50 percent pregnancy rate compared to a 26 percent rate in the group of women who did not have people praying for them. None of the women undergoing the IVF procedures knew about the praying.
The researchers acknowledge the results seem incredible and say unknown biological factors may be playing a role in the difference between the two groups. But they decided to go public with the results in the hope that other scientists may carry out studies to determine if the findings are reproducible and, if so, what factors might be responsible for the improved success rate in the group of women who had people praying for them.
"We could have ignored the findings, but that would not help to advance the field," says Dr. Rogerio Lobo, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and lead author of the study.
"We are putting the results out there hoping to provoke discussion and see if anything can be learned from it. We would like to understand the biological or other phenomena that led to this almost doubling of the pregnancy rate."
The study, which had several safeguards in place to eliminate bias, involved 199 women planning in vitro fertilization and embryo transfers at the Cha Hospital in Seoul, Korea, between December 1998 and March 1999. A statistician randomly assigned the prospective mothers to either a prayer group (100 women) or a non-prayer group (99). Besides the women, the physicians and medical personnel caring for the women did not know a study of prayer was ongoing.
The people praying for the women lived in the United States, Canada, and Australia and were incapable of knowing or contacting the women undergoing the procedures. Which women were in which group was not revealed until the pregnancy data became available at the completion of the study. The people praying were from Christian denominations and were separated into three groups. One group received pictures of the women and prayed for an increase in their pregnancy rate. Another group prayed to improve the effectiveness of the first group. A third group prayed for the two other groups. Anecdotal evidence from other prayer research has found this method to be most effective. The three groups began to pray within five days of the initial hormone treatment that stimulates egg development and continued to pray for three weeks.
Besides finding a higher pregnancy rate among the women who had a group praying for them, the researchers found older women seemed to benefit more from prayer. For women between 30 and 39, the pregnancy rate for the prayer group was 51 percent, compared with 23 percent for the non-prayer group.
The researchers analyzed their data several ways to see if they could find other variables that would have accounted for the differences between the two groups. However, no adjustments altered the results. The group will continue to study whether its findings are genuine and, if so, what mechanisms might be at work.
Other studies have shown that prayer seems to exert a benefit for heart patients. The researchers believe theirs is the first study looking at prayer and infertility.
Editor's Note, June 6th, 2004: Reports from Skeptic.com indicate that this research may at best be flawed, and at worst be an outright fabrication. We are seeking further clarification and will update this page when more information becomes available.