Hope for the childless
Dr. Thomas Hilgers’ breakthrough technology delivers the goods for women . . .
As a medical student in 1968, Dr. Thomas Hilgers could never have imagined that a papal encyclical would shape his future practice and lead him to develop a science that helps couples with trouble conceiving children.
After reading Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae, the young doctor was immediately struck by the Holy Father’s appeal to scientists to “elucidate more thoroughly the conditions favorable to a proper regulation of births.”
The Pope’s challenge led Hilgers to conduct research on the Billings Ovulation Method of natural family planning and to develop the Creighton Model FertilityCare System, a standardized modification of the Billings Method. The Creighton System became the basis for NaPro (natural procreative) Technology, a science that monitors a woman’s reproductive and gynecological health.
Through NaPro Technology, thousands of women like Lucynda Choi and Kristy Tucker have been able to conceive and give birth to children using treatment methods that not only cooperate with their reproductive systems but are in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Both women sought out NaPro physicians after their doctors tried to steer them toward in vitro fertilization (IVF), a method considered immoral by the Church because it generates human life outside the marital act. Choi, 37, and her husband Michael now have a two-year old daughter and 14-month-old son. Tucker, 34, and her husband Mark are the parents of a 17-month-old daughter.
“Conventional medicine only wants to do a couple of things. They don’t really want to find out what the problem is,” said Tucker of Lexington, Ky.
Likewise, Choi said, before she went to Hilgers, her doctors gave her responses varying from, “You’re never going to get pregnant on your own” to “Life would be easier if you had a hysterectomy.” The doctor who told Choi she would never get pregnant on her own urged her to try IVF. But at that point, she said, no one seemed to care about her health in a way that addressed her reproductive system so that she could have children.
Hilgers, who has spent his career developing and applying NaPro Technology, said it is simply good medicine.
“I happen to think most of what is being done with women’s reproductive health care today is very bad medicine, and we’ve developed a whole climate of health-care professionals who could care less about what’s wrong with the woman,” he told Legatus magazine. “If she has irregular cycles or cysts, they put her on the [birth-control] pill. Then, if it’s infertility, they don’t look at the causes. They jump over and rush to IVF.”
By contrast, he said, NaPro works with foundational medical principles that are used in all branches of medicine. “But in the area of gynecology, [traditional medicine] stopped about 30 to 35 years ago in terms of looking for causes.”
Hilgers founded the Omaha-based Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in 1985. Today it includes the National Center for Women’s Health, FertilityCare Center of Omaha, and the Center for NaPro Ethics.
Although Hilgers doesn’t see NaPro moving into mainstream use, he has observed increased interest in the technology. For example, he said, the Paul VI Institute’s fellowship program is always filled, and NaPro programs now are being offered in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and North America. In addition, he said, more than 250 fertility care centers in the U.S. and Canada practice NaPro — and their number has increased in the last decade.
“The revolution with NaPro will occur much more slowly than it did with the birth-control pill,” Hilgers predicted, “because all you needed with the pill was a doctor with a prescription pad. It was instant. With this, you have to train a whole new cadre of people to take on responsibility, because they never learned it in medical or nursing school. It’s a longer, more difficult challenge, but it’s very much worth it.”
Tucker, who became pregnant after two years of treatment by a NaPro doctor in Cincinnati, said she has tried to spread the word about NaPro through her blog, www.percolatingpetals.blogspot.com.
“So many women suffer from infertility and this is a great solution, but it’s not being talked about.”
Another advantage of NaPro is that it can be used to treat women with problems other than infertility — including postpartum depression and abnormal bleeding.
Hilgers said he thinks infertility today is more prevalent than in the past and is likely related to women having multiple sexual partners, promiscuity, infection and stress. “Women are under a lot of stress these days. They’re expected to do so many different things. Hormonal systems are sensitive to outside stressors.”
Choi, who hails from Beaverton, Ore., said that just among the couples she knows, many seem to have trouble getting pregnant these days. “It’s almost like an epidemic.”
Choi often recommends NaPro, but finds that unless the couple are Catholic, they usually don’t warm to the idea. “They also don’t like having to do so much of the work themselves. Everybody is so busy. They want it to be easy. They want to just go to the IVF doctor, do a procedure and make it happen.”
Hilgers added, “Everything that’s worthwhile takes some effort. The length of time [NaPro requires] is a little bit of a frustration, yet we’re working on trying to resolve it. We honestly don’t know all the causes of infertility. Maybe in the next five years or more we may be able to speed up the process because of better understanding.”
Judy Roberts is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.
The trouble with in vitro fertilization
Catholic teaching about human reproduction remains widely misunderstood, as the recent debate over the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contraceptive mandates has shown.
One area that many find especially problematic is the Church’s opposition to such technologies as in vitro fertilization (IVF). If the Church holds that marriage is for the procreation of children, some ask, why would it discourage methods that could lead to the birth of a child?
The answer, according to Fr. Thomas Berg, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., lies in the definition of marital love as both procreative and unitive — or creating an exclusive and permanent one-flesh union of man and woman. The Church considers the connection between these two dimensions unbreakable and teaches that they may never be intentionally separated, as happens with IVF when an effort is made to generate human life outside or apart from marital sexual intercourse.
In addition, the Church also has concerns about the multiple embryos that IVF creates. Often only one survives and the others are frozen and eventually destroyed. “For every IVF baby that ‘makes it,’ half a dozen or more are destroyed,” Fr. Berg said. “The end does not justify the means.”
Even so-called “natural IVF,” in which a woman’s egg is retrieved, fertilized with her husband’s sperm and returned to the uterus, is a moral compromise, Fr. Berg said, because it substitutes for the marital act. “The desire for a child does not constitute a morally sufficient reason to be involved with this industry,” he said, adding that there is nothing “natural” about this particular procedure.
For the same reason, Catholics should also avoid Gamete Intra-Fallopian Transfer (GIFT) in which the eggs and semen are placed in a fallopian tube for spontaneous conception and eventual passage into the uterine cavity. Although GIFT is touted as an alternative for patients whose religion prohibits conception outside the body, Fr. Berg said it’s considered immoral by a majority of Catholic moral theologians because it interrupts the direct causal link between intercourse and conception.