Thomas Hilgers Leads the Way Toward Understanding Fertility
By Traci Osuna
OMAHA, Nebraska, 22 June 2011 (ZENIT)
As a young medical resident in 1968, Dr. Thomas Hilgers was concerned with treating his patients and staying abreast of the latest medical advances. As a Catholic, he was also mindful that one of the most significant advances that had occurred in recent years with regard to reproductive health was the creation of the birth control pill in 1960.
Hilgers, now an obstetrician — gynecologist and specialist in reproductive medicine and surgery, is the author of "The NaProTechnology Revolution: Unleashing the Power in a Woman's Cycle." The book recalls what inspired him to found the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and develop methods of treating a wide range of gynecological issues in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
In the late 1960s, Hilgers writes, many wondered if the Church would adjust their stand on contraception: "I followed the controversy closely thinking actually that the Church was going to change its long-held position of being opposed to contraception." Then, on July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI ended the debate and presented the Church's definitive statement in the form of the papal encyclical letter, "Humanae Vitae" (Of Human Life).
In the letter, the Pope stood firm and reiterated the value of human life and Church's direct opposition to contraception, a message that Hilgers said was received by many, even those in the Church, with anger and frustration.
Amid the controversy and biased media coverage, Hilgers writes that he decided to read "Humanae Vitae" himself. It ended up deeply impacting both his personal and professional life and would steer the course for his life's work in women's health care.
Cooperating with reproduction
Throughout the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Hilgers and his team researched various methods of fertility treatments and natural family planning approved by the Church. At the same time, the first "test-tube baby" was born and in vitro fertilization was the next "great" advance in medicine.
Still, his team pressed on, dedicated to their mission. Their work eventually led to the Creighton Model Fertility Care System, a natural way to regulate fertility.
In 1985, Hilgers founded the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, located in Omaha, Nebraska. The facility is also the home of the National Center for Women's Health.
In an interview with ZENIT, Hilgers explained that the Creighton Model Fertility Care System is "a unique system and because of that, it has had a special application in the area of women's reproductive health."
"Over these last 30 or 35 years," he added, "we've been continually investigating all that; and out of that has come Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro Technology)."
According to Hilgers, NaPro Technology is much more than an advanced form of natural family planning, which works cooperatively with a woman's cycle. "It actually becomes a whole new women's health science," he said. The science of NaPro Technology has three aspects to it, he says: the medical form, the perinatal form and the surgical form.
Rather than simply addressing issues of fertility, NaPro Technology works to address many gynecological issues that women face. "It's 180 degrees in the opposite direction of the artificial reproductive technologies," which, Hilgers explains, are either suppressive or destructive to the potential for human life, not cooperative.
He said that NaPro Technology also benefits women suffering from a variety of issues, including, but not limited to post partum depression, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and irregular cycles; it also can help to prevent pre-term births, which often result from artificial reproductive means.
"There's a whole surgical arm of near adhesion-free surgery that we've developed," he says. "We can operate and reconstruct a woman's reproductive tissues in a way that has never been done before." He says that many women fear surgery can cause severe scarring, leading to more problems than it helps. "We can do surgery now in a way that does not cause that scarring."
Hilgers said treatments may range from a shot of progesterone to help postpartum depression, to observing and charting changes in the menstrual cycle in order to monitor fertility, to surgery, both laparoscopic (out-patient) and traditional.
Since the 1960s and 1970s, when free-love and the sexual revolution spread throughout society, and medicine brought us "The Pill" and the test-tube babies, other "advances" have been made as well; just not ones that secular society likes to talk about, says Hilgers.
He cites, and his book discusses, the increased numbers of such sociological and medical issues as: abortions, out of wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases, various forms of cancers, cases of physical abuse, an increased divorce rate, teen suicide, low-birth weight babies, neonatal deaths, and increased drug use, all of which drastically increased in the last 45 to 50 years.
"We live fundamentally in a fertility abusing culture," says Hilgers. "People take their fertility for granted. They either suppress it [with birth control pills] or destroy it [with] different forms of contraception. And over the years of the so-called sexual revolution, one of the things they've always claimed is that there are no victims. But, I think [there has been] too much silence associated with the overwhelming destruction of relationships in the family and the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases that has occurred as a result of all this."
Hilgers explained that since the birth control pill was introduced in 1960, it has taken on a new identity. "Doctors realized quickly that they could start treating a whole variety of conditions, such as irregular cycles, or recurrent ovarian cysts; the list goes on and on." Today, doctors routinely prescribe the pill to help with premenstrual syndrome, to ward off osteoporosis and to combat acne.
"They talk about the health benefits, but they don't talk about the health risks very much, except what is mandated by the Food and Drug Administration and then people don't listen," he says. He explains that use of the pill contributes to pulmonary embolisms, blood clots, myocardial infractions and heart attacks. Women are at an increased risk of breast cancer due to the use of the pill, as well as an increased risk of cervical cancer, often caused by the transmission of the human papilloma virus (HPV).
"[These are] all risks associated with [the pill], but they tend to 'pooh-pooh' all that and it's been really tragic for women," he says.
When Hilgers and his team began training physicians in their methods in the early 1980's, he recalls that the response from the medical field was not what they had initially hoped for. "For 10 years, we'd get one doctor a year, maybe, and they were usually upset by the end [of the program]," he recalls. "So it took a while."
In 1991, he published a medical textbook entitled "The Medical Application of Natural Family Planning: A Physician's Guide to NaPro Technology," and the word spread. "All of a sudden we had four or five doctors in the class, then we had 10, then 30." This past April, the Pope Paul VI Institute conducted a week-long seminar for 90 students, half of them physicians, the other half NaPro Technology instructors and fertility care specialists.
"We've had doctors from Poland, from Ireland, from England, Australia, Canada, the United States; it's just incredible!" He adds that they have over 230 fertility care centers throughout the United States and programs in countries all over the world, including Japan, Singapore, Australia, Africa, Mexico and throughout Europe.
"I've told many people that I never thought for a moment that I would see in my lifetime what I'm seeing today, so in that sense, it's very gratifying," says Hilgers. He readily acknowledges that, with the wide acceptance of contraception and artificial reproductive methods, they have a long road ahead of them and there is a lot of work to be done. "We're kind of the little kid on the block," he said.
But he is optimistic that society will start to value human life and will see the sacredness of God's gifts to us. "In the next 10 years, we're going to see a shift, I think. If you look, there's a shift now. It's not so obvious, not so big, but I think the potential is there," Hilgers said, with a sense of hope. "It's kind of fun thinking about it."
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On the Net:
"The NaProTechnology Revolution": www.amazon.com/NaPro-Technology-Revolution-Unleashing-Womans/dp/0825306264