CAMP HILL, Pa. — After South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds signed the state’s sweeping abortion ban into law March 6, two Catholic bishops hailed the new measure. But they also urged efforts to transform people’s hearts and minds to reject abortion and build a culture of life.
Those efforts have been going on for some time in a very real way in the examination rooms of pro-life obstetricians and gynecologists. There are a growing number of physicians and practices that not only refuse to perform abortions and prescribe contraceptives but also counsel women on what’s best for their bodies, as the Creator intended it.
Take the Center for Women’s Health in Camp Hill, Pa., for example. The center’s expanded facilities were blessed last fall by Harrisburg Bishop Kevin Rhoades. The only comprehensive Catholic Obstetrics-Gynecology practice in the United States that has the backing of a hospital-health care system (Holy Spirit Health Care and Hospital run by the Sisters of Christian Charity), it has grown from one physician to four, does upwards of 700 deliveries a year, provides routine and high-risk pregnancy care and gynecological services, infertility care and natural family planning. In January it celebrated its 10th anniversary.
“Critics who thought the practice’s commitment to natural family planning would impede its growth have been amazed by what it has achieved,” said Christian Charity Sister Romaine Niemeyer, president and chief executive officer of Holy Spirit Health System.
At first, even Dr. Anne Marie Manning, who founded the practice with Sister Romaine’s help, wasn’t fully confident it would succeed. But she was convinced this was the only way to practice obstetrics and gynecology.
The practice grew swiftly. Dr. James Long, a Protestant with the same pro-life belief, came on board in what Manning describes as a divine answer to her search. Five years ago, Dr. Faith Daggs became a partner, and Dr. Mark Stegman recently joined. Like Daggs and Manning, Stegman trained with obstetrician-gynecologist-reproductive surgeon Thomas Hilgers, founder and director of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, whose work led to the Creighton Model Natural Family Planning System. And, like Daggs and Manning, Stegman brings skills for complicated surgeries, high-risk pregnancies and infertility.
The physicians specialize in natural family planning and NaPro Technology (Natural Procreative Technology), a reproductive science developed through research at Pope Paul VI Institute that evaluates and treats gynecological and reproductive problems in ways cooperative with the reproductive system.
Sister Romaine called it a miracle of grace that these doctors came together to practice in an authentic way.
Against the Grain
For Daggs, who is learning surgical techniques from Stegman that would benefit “the infertile patient who doesn’t want to go the artificial, illicit in-vitro fertilization route,” the path to the center began in medical school where she said she couldn’t follow the usual course of treatment for a number of women’s health situations she was taught: Prescribe the birth-control pill.
“Coming out of training and being Catholic, I [knew I couldn’t] give them the pill for everything,” she thought. “It wasn’t consistent with living my faith. I needed further training in the way I could practice to save my soul and treat people in the way consistent with Church teaching.”
She obtained that training at the Pope Paul VI Institute.
“I think about a patient who first came to me over a year ago,” Daggs said. The woman and her husband had been trying some time to conceive, had gone through some of the artificial reproductive technologies and were frustrated by the humiliating procedures.
Through the use of natural family planning, which helps a couple pinpoint the woman’s day of ovulation, Daggs’ patient became pregnant. Daggs said other than getting someone to teach them NFP, charting, and praying for her, she didn’t treat the woman with any drugs or surgery.
But married couples are not the only people these doctors see. They also get their share of teens who have experimented with sex and gotten venereal diseases. For a pro-life practice, it’s a chance to teach chastity and abstinence.
“I tell them you’re worth waiting for,” said Daggs, who has seven children. “This is a gift you’ve been given. You have a second chance. There’s another way. … I try to take advantage of those opportunities. There’s no coincidence, everything is providence. I know that God has obviously put me where I am and I try to take advantage of those opportunities the best I can.”
Those who practice this way normally find it can be a constant financial struggle. Bob Laird, executive director of Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Va., said fund-raising is a necessary part of the overall operation of this state-of-the-art facility that delivers 600 babies and averages 12,000 visits annually. It’s the only Catholic health care organization in the Arlington diocese.
“Bishop [Paul] Loverde approved this as a Catholic entity about a year ago,” Laird said. “The key to this whole place is we run it like a business but with the heart of an apostolate.”
The nonprofit facility has to raise 10% to 15% of its annual budget through fund-raisers, but it gets help from the diocese as well. When the diocese, as part of its Gabriel Project, sends a pregnant girl to Tepeyac, they send along a $2,500 check. Laird calls that a win-win situation.
At the Center for Women’s Health, the doctors are employees of the Holy Spirit Health System but function much like they’re in private practice. Daggs said the sisters took the big financial risk.
The Center has fared better financially. “God has really blessed our practice,” Daggs said. “God has opened a lot of doors. He’s blessed us financially so we can keep pushing the limit where we can go.”
Father William Forrey, secretary for Catholic life and evangelization in the Diocese of Harrisburg, has insight into the success. “Their work recognizes the gift of sexuality in the context that God meant it to be,” he noted “The Center for Women’s Health blends science and the values of our faith, particularly as articulated by Pope John Paul II in the theology of the body.”
As Manning put it, the center’s mission is living out the teachings of the Church.
“It’s not an impossible thing to do,” she said. “It is a viable option. There is a way to practice faithfully that is true no matter what our station is in life. We don’t have to separate our personal lives from our professional lives. We have to be faithful across the board. …We demonstrate it is possible. We’ve been successful and a whole lot happier.”
Joseph Pronechen is based in