LIVERPOOL, England — A unique transatlantic partnership is bringing new hope to British couples suffering the heartache of infertility.

Just ask Mark and Anna Bennet.

They say they had “lost faith” in the government-provided test-tube techniques and were tired of the artificial techniques being pushed on them.

“From our first conversation with [Liverpool's Life Health Center], we felt that at last someone understood what we were going through.”

The couple now have the baby boy they yearned for.

The Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., has teamed up with Life, a British pro-life organization, to spread its pioneering NaPro technology in the United Kingdom as an alternative to the unethical and expensive in vitro fertilization treatment. The technology is also on the verge of spreading in other countries, as it is now being taught in Ireland, Mexico, Poland and Germany.

NaPro technology grew out of research on the Billings Ovulation Method of Natural Family Planning by Pope Paul VI Institute's founder, Dr. Thomas Hilgers, and is a way of monitoring different biological markers that reflect hormone patterns during a woman's fertility cycle.

The technology is used by medical personnel to offer couples a more complete prediction of the wife's times of fertility, and thus of their opportunities to conceive a child by natural means. It can also be used as a natural approach for delaying pregnancy or as a diagnostic tool in tackling such problems as infertility, repetitive miscarriage, recurrent ovarian cysts, pre-menstrual syndrome, hormonal abnormalities and abnormal bleeding.

The U.K. effort is the result of the development of NaPro technology in Ireland where Dr. Phil Boyle was a pioneer.

It operates out of the Life Health Center, which is based in a former convent in Liverpool, England. The work has also spread to a London clinic and there are hopes for further expansion.

Virginia Griffin, a director at the Liverpool center, said Life Health first came across the work of the Pope Paul VI Institute at a conference led by Boyle in Ireland three years ago.

“We just knew this was what we had been looking for. It is woman-friendly and ethically acceptable,” she said.

In addition to educators who teach a system for charting the relevant changes during a woman's cycle, there are medics who analyse a couple's chart and prescribe appropriate treatment, as well as counselors and spiritual directors.

For example, where other doctors have to guess the best times to test a woman's hormones, NaPro technology pinpoints the exact time when tests will yield the information a couple needs for achieving pregnancy.

“We look after each couple for as long as they need our support. We share their joy if they achieve a pregnancy, but we stay with those who do not conceive,” she said, “exploring other options such as adoption and helping them to move on. We find the couples who go through this process are more likely to accept their childlessness.”

David and Goliath?

The project is still small-scale. Peter Garrett, research director of the Life Health organization, explained: “We are up against a multimillion dollar industry. It has been estimated that by 2050, 1 in 10 births in Western Europe will be test tube babies.”

In many parts of the United Kingdom, with its government-funded free National Health Service, an estimated 1 in 4 couples can get free in vitro fertilization.

The majority of U.K. couples who find difficulty conceiving look to the test-tube approach. In vitro fertilization is regulated by a government-appointed watchdog, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.

Pro-life critics say the Fertilization Authority is just an example of self-regulation and make the point that pro-lifers are absent from its membership.

Church of England Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, chairman of the group's ethics committee, denies that the authority promotes in vitro fertilization.

He told the Register, “I know there are certain members who believe that our job should be promotion not regulation but I disagree with that.”

Ali describes in vitro fertilization in some instances as the lesser of several evils and denies that it enjoys a privileged position. He argues that the process should create the minimum number of embryos needed.

He said he doesn't ascribe to the Catholic teaching that in vitro fertilization violates the dignity of the human person, stating: “I think it depends on when you think person-hood begins. I happen to think it is when brain activity starts although I believe the human embryo should be respected. My colleague, the Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford, said that if you believe personhood begins at conception then heaven is going to be populated by people who have never been more than single cell embryos.”

But pro-lifers like Garrett say non-Catholic churchmen such as Bishop Ali are missing the key issue when it comes to in vitro fertilization and its repercussions. Garrett calls the work of the Life Health Centre a “prophetic stand,” adding: “By the middle of this century natural procreation could be seen as socially unacceptable because methods of artificial conception will have their own quality control, screening out anybody who doesn't function properly.”

Even the state is also beginning to take notice of the center. “We are now getting our first referrals of couples from the National Health Service,” said Griffin.

And in a neat twist, life has come full circle for the Life Fertility Center as its Web site is receiving a fair number of hits from the United States. Laughs Griffin, “We take great delight, of course, in referring these people back to the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha.”

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.

In Vitro Fertilization

In vitro fertilization, often called IVF, is the creation of human embryos by mixing sperm and ova in the lab, with embryos conceived this way transferred to the womb of the woman who is to carry the child.

Often, more embryos are created than needed, and those not transferred to the womb may be used by other women, frozen or destroyed. In Britain, it is legal to experiment on these embryos for up to two weeks after fertilization. Such experiments are inspected by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

But even when no embryos are destroyed, the Catholic Church still teaches that unnatural conception violates the dignity of the human person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses' ‘right to become a father and a mother only through each other.’

“Techniques involving only the married couple (homologous artificial insemination and fertilization) are perhaps less reprehensible, yet remain morally unacceptable. They dissociate the sexual act from the pro-creative act.

“The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that ‘entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children.’. … ‘Only respect for the link between the meanings of the conjugal act and respect for the unity of the human being make possible procreation in conformity with the dignity of the person.’” (2376-2377).

— Paul Burnell

Reinventing ‘Natural Family Planning’

The Pope Paul VI Institute is starting to make its work more publicly known according to Sue Hilgers, its Director of Education.

Hilgers, wife of NaPro technology pioneer Dr. Thomas Hilgers, told the Register that the institute limited its outreach and promotion so far because there were two key priorities that had to be taken care of first.

“We wanted to make sure we had done our research thoroughly because we knew once we went public it would be heavily scrutinized,” she said.

The second priority was to “rebrand” their work — a process that started two years ago. “We have been looking for another phrase to describe our work as [the term “natural family planning"] has negative connotations and is too restrictive.”

“We wanted something that would make people more open to what we do and we have come up with Fertility Care. Recently the [natural family planning] professionals in the U.S.A. had their 20th annual conference and also decided to call themselves fertility care professionals.”

— Paul Burnell