‘Humanae Vitae’ led Hilgers on a sacred, fertile search

Thomas Hilgers was a fourth-year medical student at the University of Minnesota in the summer of 1968 when he heard about Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical on the regulation of human birth, “Humanae Vitae.”

In those days, the Internet was just a figment of the imagination, so as a student interested in medical research, Hilgers tried desperately to find a copy. He asked the priest-chaplain of the university’s Newman Club where he might find one.

“He looked at me and said, ‘What would you want to read that kind of trash for?’” said Hilgers.

Hilgers wound up mailing 25 cents to the Knights of Columbus for a copy of “Humane Vitae,” and he got it a few days later.

“I really had thought the church was going to change its position,” Hilgers said. “Everything was kind of leaning in that direction. But I had actually had a good experience with the church over the years, and I thought I would get a hold of it and at least hear what it had to say.”

Talking to me’

Two sections, specifically, got his attention, when Pope Paul VI offered pastoral directives to “men of science” and to doctors, urging them to look for natural ways of regulating birth.

“It was like he was talking to me,” said Hilgers, who addressed the annual meeting of the American Academy of Fertility Care Professionals Aug. 10 at the Hotel Monteleone. “It brings an emotional reaction to this day because it changed the direction of my life. In many ways, it’s been a hard effort, but it has been so incredibly worthwhile. Sometimes in life, you just take a blind step forward, and that’s what happened. I read it, and I was an instant convert.”

Since graduating in 1969 with a medical degree in obstetrics and gynecology, Dr. Hilgers has become one of the foremost scientific experts in the world of natural fertility care.

He created the Creighton Model Fertility Care System that uses easily recognizable signs of a woman’s reproductive cycle to both plan for or avoid pregnancy. The Creighton Model led to the refinement of what Hilgers calls NaPro (Natural/Procreative) Technology, which can treat infertility, recurrent miscarriages, ovarian cysts, abnormal bleeding, premature rupture of placental membranes, advanced hormonal issues, pelvic pain, pelvic adhesions and endometriosis.

Natural science spreading

Through the Pope Paul VI Institute that he established in Omaha, Neb., in 1978, Hilgers has certified more than 270 fertility care centers and 2,500 students in the U.S. and Canada to use the Creighton Model, and the model has spread worldwide.

“I hate to use the word ‘discovery,’” Hilgers said. “I always like to think we just stumbled over this. I didn’t set out to develop NaPro Technology. I did set out to develop a natural method because I was a gynecologist-obstetrician, and I felt like my patients needed something. The Creighton Model and NaPro Technology represent a new paradigm in family planning. There is really nothing in existence in health care that approaches what this does.”

Swimming against the tide of pharmaceutical companies and medical convention, Hilgers sees the steady growth of his natural method of fertility care as evidence that his therapeutic, safe health care for women is gaining traction.

“We need maybe three or four thousand (centers), but we’re getting there,” Hilgers said. “It takes awhile to do this. This is not like having a birth control pill and a prescription pad – which is instant access. This is an educational program, which has its merits.

“People who promote contraception and birth control pills are all interested in saying (they are practicing) reproductive health care, but it’s not reproductive and it’s not healthy. Pregnancy is not a disease; fertility is not a disease. So why are we treating it as a disease and calling it health care? You don’t have to get rid of your fertility to be healthy. In fact, what you have to do is learn better to live with it so you can be healthy.”

Dissent was harmful

Hilgers said the “dissent” by Catholics to “Humanae Vitae” – especially by those who “didn’t even read it” – was “a horrible thing.”

Speaking to the medical students in the room, Hilgers said he could understand if they felt reluctant to go into obstetrics and gynecology because that area of medicine is so fraught with ethical controversies.

“I keep telling young doctors, ‘We cannot leave the health care of women to the abortionists and the contraceptionists,’” Hilgers said. “We have to get involved and change the culture.”

He said many of Pope Paul VI’s warnings in “Humanae Vitae” – opening the way for increasing marital infidelity and lowering of moral standards – have come true.

With lifetime certification in obstetrics and gynecology, Hilgers is not required to attend annual medical conferences of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology – “I get physically ill walking among all the abortionists who are there” – but he does have to participate in meetings of the American Institute on Ultrasound in Medicine because his fertility care centers offer the latest in ultrasound technology.

“It gives me the quivers, because in many of the presentations, ultrasound becomes sort of a search-and-destroy effort,” Hilgers said. “We are the minority view, at the moment, but it’s not a stagnant or old hat or out-of-date view by any means. This view will never disappear from the face of the earth.”

Dr. Peter Danis of St. Louis, the incoming president of the American Academy of Fertility Care Professionals, urged the medical students present to consider examining the Creighton Model and NaPro Technology.

“The knowledge you will gain will open your eyes in a way that you will never have them opened again,” Danis said. “And you will not be having your eyes opened the right way in medical school, unfortunately, in most medical schools and most residencies.”

Brad Fossier of Baton Rouge, a fourth-year student at LSU School of Medicine, said he and classmate Greg Fontenot of Lafayette will attend a two-week training course in NaPro Technology with Hilgers at the Pope Paul VI Institute.

“Like Dr. Hilgers said, it’s kind of like ‘Theology of the Body’ meets science,” Fossier said. “It’s something that can make a big impact on medicine, just by respecting the dignity of the human person. I think that’s something that’s really lacking in the field of women’s health care nowadays. I want to be part of that.”

Fossier says he sees many medical students who want to bring their faith to their profession.

“It’s just like the kind of young people who are going into the priesthood nowadays,” he said. “There are similar personalities in the medical field who want to be countercultural and who want to stand up for their faith. This gives us an outlet in the medical profession to be that countercultural presence.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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