40 Years of "Humanae Vitae" (Part 1)

Interview With Dr. Thomas Hilgers

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By Robert Conkling

ROME, JULY 24, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Had it not been for "Humanae Vitae," much of the natural reproductive medicine practiced today might not exist, says the co-founder of Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro).

Dr. Thomas Hilgers is the co-founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute, located in Omaha, Nebraska. He is also the co-developer of the Creighton Model FertilityCare System and author of "The Medical and Surgical Applications of NaProTechnology."

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the publication of the encyclical "Humanae Vitae," July 25, 1968, the American Academy of FertilityCare Professionals held their annual meeting in Rome last month.

In this interview with ZENIT, Hilgers speaks of the beginnings of the Pope Paul VI Institute and the effect "Humanae Vitae" has had on his professional career.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.

Q: Where did the idea of founding the Pope Paul VI Institute begin? What was your inspiration?

Hilgers: I was in medical school when all the discussion on birth control was occurring in the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII had appointed the papal birth control commission who were meeting and listening to experts in medicine, philosophy, theology and sociology and they were going to be looking into the Church’s position on contraception.

As news was leaking out from this commission, it seemed to me that they were probably going to recommend a change in the Church’s position --but I was only getting one side of the story.

When "Humanae Vitae" came out in July 1968 I thought I better read a copy of it. So I went up to my Newman Club chaplain at the University of Minnesota and I asked him where I could find a copy of "Humanae Vitae." And his comment to me was, “What do you want to read that kind of trash for?”

This irritated me. It was not his role to make an editorial comment to me. He was a priest, a Catholic priest. He ought to at least be sharing what the Church was saying, and not be so afraid of it.

A couple of months later the Knights of Columbus ran an advertisement as a Sunday supplement. For 25 cents I could send away for a copy of it. I did and when I received it and read it, I became an instant convert.

At the end of "Humanae Vitae" Pope Paul VI called on men of science, physicians and health care professionals to do something, get involved. I thought he was talking to me directly. So I did.

I had done a lot of research in medical school. I had worked with some people at the University of Minnesota and learned about it and discovered I liked doing research. So I began my first research project in December 1968 in a natural family planning system. It did not go very far, but at least it was my start.

After a few years doing additional training in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I met Dr. John Billings in 1972. I had heard a presentation on the Billings Method and that really got me on track to where I really wanted to go with all this. The Billings Method was new and had a different concept behind it and I thought it was worth studying.

It too was coming under attack like everything in this field does and I thought somebody ought to take the time to do an independent review of it.

We started in 1976 when I was on faculty at St. Louis University School of Medicine. And within about a year and a half we discovered this language, a common language that women could use when they made their observations, that physicians would know what they were observing and what their teachers could relate to. And everyone was using the same language. It was terrific. That was the beginning of it all.

So our work started with the investigation of a natural method of family planning. It turned out that the Billings Method, which under standardization became the Creighton Model of the ovulation method, was a natural for a gynecologist to recommend to his patients who were having other problems like infertility, miscarriages, abnormal bleeding or whatever the gynecologic condition was. If they were of reproductive age, I asked women to chart their cycles.

Q: Did you see this benefit of charting that early on?

Hilgers: Yes, I did in one sense. In one of the Billings’ atlases published in 1974 or 1976, there was one chart from one patient that was an infertility patient, and they showed things on that chart that was not charted by women of normal fertility. The women had charted dry cycles. And I thought I had no reason to believe that the Billings’ had published something that was not true. I just believed it.

One of the funny things is, when we did our first introductory session in 1976, there were two people with infertility problems who showed up. At the end of the presentation I talked to them to try to get them to sign up. But they didn't want to. They thought it had nothing to offer them.

Nonetheless, it continued to attract people with fertility problems, so we got an early start on that and we started to apply the system to other gynecologic conditions as well.

So we had about 15 years where we were not only studying the system from a family planning point of view, where we were looking at it in depth, but we were beginning to apply it and learn from our patients with gynecologic and reproductive problems.

In 1991, I published a little book called the "Medical Applications of Natural Family Planning: A Physician’s Guide to NaProTechnology.” That was the first time that word was introduced. That book had an incredible impact on people and I have always wondered why. I did not think of it as that great a book.

It was amazing to me, because we were now having physicians come into our program. That was real exciting for me personally because I had been working for a long time without any support at all.

Our understanding of this continues to grow and develop. We still do not understand everything by any means. So in 2004 we published the medical textbook and now we are trying to implement that and continue to do research.

Q: When you started this work back in the early 1970s, did you ever envision that 30-plus years later, you would be seeing the developments you have?

Hilgers: No. I have often said with regard to the developments that have occurred, they occurred in part because I have never closed the door on things. People have asked me, what my goals and objectives were. I reply, “I don’t have any goals and objectives.” And this is because I didn't know where this work was leading us.

So I realized over time that one begins to see things that we would never have seen had we shut the door in 1978 and said that’s all we need to know.

We kept the door open and more and more things would come to us, whether it was a woman with infertility, repetitive miscarriage or recurrent ovarian cysts, or whatever the situation was, we kept learning and to a great extent that door continues to be open. But then we began to realize that with NaProTechnology, that door was open wide and we had something that was really worth pursuing.

But to answer your question very directly, we had absolutely no idea and certainly no goal to begin to do this. It was just what we began to see as we did our research.

Q: So you were open to things as they developed?

Hilgers: We did not have a plan as though when we completed the plan we would be done. I am sure at the time that if someone had asked me, “I want to know if this method works as a family planning system, as a method to avoid a pregnancy,” I probably would have said that it is effective and that is where we were at the time.

But it was not an end point in itself because as a gynecologist, vaginal discharges or vaginal bleeding as signals of underlying problems, made a lot of sense to me. Even though as a gynecologist, we hardly know anything about these things and even to this day, I am flabbergasted by how little gynecologists know about these things.

It has been an incredible journey in that regard because you just do not expect things like that to happen.

Question: What would you like to see happen within the institutional Church?

Hilgers: There are probably two sides to that question. At our conference I addressed what role "Humane Vitae" and the Catholic Church played in the development of NaProTechnology. It is absolutely clear to me that none of this would be here if it were not for the Church -- period!

I can personally track it back to when you asked what was my motivation. My motivation was "Humanae Vitae." Its clear and simple, I can remember the day that I read it. The day I realized that something had to be done in this area. But of course I had no idea that it would develop the way it has.

At the same time the Church had an absolutely clear role, that had the Church not done its part, this would never have been accomplished. I am totally convinced of that. And then you wonder had we never had that insight, that direction from the Church, what would have happened? If the Church had not spoken there would be no hope today in reproductive medicine or pro-life areas.

Now from the other side of the coin, "Humanae Vitae" also brought in a lot of dissent and controversy and I do not think the Church has responded well to this at all. I think the Church leaders are way to timid and have been intimidated by those people who dissented.

They, the leaders, the bishops and higher up, and even the priests and Catholic religious have not taken the time to study this, study the events that have been occurring, study the developments over this period of time, so they can come out with their own sense of confidence about the developments.

We need the organization of the Church to be able to move this forward. It is clear to me also that the Church needs to continue to be involved, but this time in a much more practical way to see that people get stimulated to do this work and make funds more available.

It has been a very great struggle doing this without any outside funding. In that sense the Church continues to have a huge role and of course the Church has to continue to lead in the philosophical and theological areas as well, what with in-vitro fertilization, cloning, embryonic stem cell research. This all comes off of contraception and obviously we still need people working on these issues as well.

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On the Net:

NaProTechnology: www.naprotechnology.com/