ROME — The Billings ovulation method of family planning has long been regarded as a highly effective and ethical means of achieving and avoiding pregnancy.
The Church supports the Billings method and other ways of natural family planning (NFP) because they respect God’s design for married love.
According to “Standards for Diocesan Natural Family Planning,” a document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “these methods are based on observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle. ... NFP reflects the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, promotes openness to life and recognizes the value of the child. By respecting the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage, NFP can enrich the bond between husband and wife” (p. 23).
Marian Corkill, a long-serving Australian teacher of the Billings method, said, “The Catholic Church certainly approves of it, but so do all people of all faiths, because it doesn’t do any harm and respects nature, the natural law. … It’s a method suitable for all women and all couples. It’s not just purely for Catholics. It respects the way God created us.”
Yet, despite the Billings method of NFP being discovered more than 60 years ago by married doctors John and Evelyn Billings, relatively few in the West are aware of it. Taking a break from a recent conference in Rome, Corkill and fellow Aussie and Billings specialist Marie Marshell discussed with Edward Pentin, the Register’s Rome correspondent, the effectiveness of the method, why it’s relatively unknown compared to artificial contraception and in vitro fertilization (IVF), which the Church has called objectively immoral, and the significant impact it has had in China.
Marian, could you tell us a little about the Billings method and your work for it?
The Billings method was developed by John and Lynn Billings from Melbourne and was the beginning of understanding the significance of the mucus, with regard to fertility. It was John Billings who actually discovered that this was significant and is tied to fertility; and that was more than 60 years ago. He spread the method throughout the world.
This is a natural-family-planning method based on mucus secretion, and because of our scientific understanding, we’ve grown in comprehending the significance of the mucus and how it relates to different levels of hormones throughout the cycle.
The method is known internationally, but which nations have embraced it most?
Well, it’s really spread throughout the world, so [it’s present on] virtually every continent. The Billingses spent many years traveling the world, teaching this method, and spent a lot of their time, their final years, really, working in China. The Billings method has had great success in China, and Marie Marshell was the leader of the teaching team in China, along with John and Lynn Billings.
We’ve spent time in South America. We’ve visited Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and Uruguay to run programs. There was a big international conference in Brazil, so it’s something wonderful for the world. People just need to be told about it.
Most people, certainly in the West, will talk about IVF and contraception but will rarely talk about the Billings method or other natural-family-planning methods. Why has the Billings method not become mainstream, given its international success?
I think it’s because there’s no money to be made out of this, so it’s very difficult to have the ability to spread the information when you’re trying to do it on a shoestring budget. It virtually has to be spread by word of mouth.
When John Billings started it, it was to help couples avoid pregnancy who had a medical reason and those who had a serious problem planning their family. But, very quickly, it became obvious that it could help couples who were having difficulty conceiving. And our understanding of it now is that it can be charted using diagnostic tools, so we believe we’ve got very reliable indicators for women to help them to protect their reproductive health — a three-pronged way of helping women. So it’s something that’s just wonderful for couples, but it’s very difficult to get that message out.
Looking to the future, what hopes do you have for the method and for sharing its benefits?
We believe we’re sitting on the world’s best-kept secret. We hope that one day the world will wake up and realize there is something much better than what they’ve got. Nobody’s happy with contraception. There are all sorts of issues associated with contraception that concern people. Nobody’s happy with abortion, nobody wants to be killing babies, [but] they just don’t know this [method] is available.
In Kenya, where we’ve just come from, people were so responsive to what we had to offer; they could see [its effectiveness]. There were many men and priests in the group who were training to become teachers. Wherever we go, we get a very positive response.
In Australia, we do a lot of work with medical people, doctors, and provide medical education to doctors. We present the Billings method, and we never get any negativity.
One question mark some might have is over its effectiveness. Is this a challenge to overcome?
We don’t think there’s any question mark over its effectiveness. All the studies that have been done — well-controlled studies — show the method to have been 98%-99% effective. Regarding achieving pregnancy, we haven’t got the actual figures, but we do know, from a retrospective study in Australia, that we got a 78% success rate of all couples coming to us to achieve a pregnancy. So we believe, from the achieving-pregnancy point of view, that, if every woman who was having difficulty conceiving was able to understand the Billings method, we would be able to eliminate a lot of heartache when they have to go through much more interventionist attempts to have a baby.
Marie, could you share with us how the Billings method is being received in China?
In the 1990s, John Billings first sought permission to come to China to teach the method, and a lot of people were saying: “Why do you want to go to China? They’re doing terrible things there to women and babies.” But because John and Lynn were both doctors, they said they wanted to go to China because “we’ve got an answer to their problems.”
Initially, they were suspicious that we had anything positive to offer. But, within two years, we had thousands of trained Billings teachers in China, because it just grew. It went from province to province, and people were requesting that we come back.
We went to many provinces; and after two years of going to China, they conducted their own trial without any involvement from us, just from their teachers, and they got this success rate of more than 99% of couples avoiding pregnancy.
In villages where the Billings method was known, there was a sevenfold decrease in abortions. So it had that other effect: of couples being stewards of their fertility and not running the risk of having an abortion.
So the method has helped reduce the large numbers of forced abortions in China?
Certainly, an understanding of fertility helps to avoid the unplanned pregnancy, so there’s a very positive aspect to it. We’ve had people in our training programs who come to us with tears in their eyes saying: “My daughter will not suffer as we have suffered because of this knowledge.” They have had four, five, six or seven abortions. So this is a reality of what they’re living through.
Initially, we went to China under the auspices of family planning, but, very quickly, the Chinese authorities realized this was a health issue; so we then went under the label of “health” as well as “family planning.” Their programs are still being conducted in China through our trained Catholic teachers in different Catholic parishes in different parts of China. So it’s still at a grassroots level.
How would you like to see the method better promoted in the West?
As Marian was saying, because it doesn’t cost anything, it’s very difficult to counter the culture, where drug companies have a lot of money to spend, promoting what they’ve got.
All we’ve got is knowledge of the body that every woman ought to have. So the difficulties communicating this to a rather cynical population is a challenge, but there are programs throughout America and all over the world. They are working very diligently to give couples, and women and girls in particular, this information, so they’ll make good life choices.
We’re also teaching through the Internet, through correspondence, where people are trying to access the method. People aren’t coming to us necessarily for moral reasons, but because people are tired of hormonal control of their lives in all sorts of ways.