What's so bad about artificial birth control?

If you had posed the question to Dr. Matthew Paquette and Dr. Mary Paquette when they were medical residents prescribing artificial contraception, they might have raised a quizzical eyebrow and responded, “Nothing.”

Ask them now, and you'll hear an enthusiastic explanation of why Catholic teaching on the subject is good morals, good sense and good medicine.

What happened?

The Paquettes came to their convictions gradually. Though each attended Catholic grade school, high school and college, neither emerged with an understanding of the Church's teaching on birth control. In medical school, neither encountered objections to oral contraceptives.

“I was never taught that these can cause abortions, so I saw no problem,” says Matt. More than that, adds Mary, the birth control pill was touted as “the answer to pretty much every gynecological problem.” Its possible serious side effects were downplayed.

Then, when Mary was a second-year resident, two Catholic doctors told her what the Church teaches about fertility regulation. “It was the first time I realized I shouldn't be prescribing contraception,” she says.

Another eye-opener was a study of different cross-sections of teen-agers that linked use of the pill with an increase in unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, multiple sexual partners and abortions. Working in an inner city clinic, Mary had worried that refusing to prescribe the pill would leave many unmarried young mothers in the lurch. “Suddenly, I realized I wasn't helping them.”

Seeking alternatives to pill-based medical treatments, Mary discovered the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Neb., and a whole new world of “natural reproductive technology.” In cutting-edge research, Institute director Dr. Thomas Hilgers has perfected highly effective, ethical approaches to fertility regulation and gynecological problems.

“Dr. Hilgers is a good scientist who gets printed in reputable medical journals,” Mary observes, “but the common OB/GYN has never heard of him. In fact, especially when it comes to natural family planning, many people in medicine just don't want to know. It's part of a larger racist and elitist attitude that ‘there are too many people in the world’ — that is, too many of certain types of people.”

Mary, who is currently the sole Natural Family Planning-only woman doctor in the Twin Cities area, notes that many of her patients seek her out because they want alternatives to the pill.

Some, like Rachelle Medina, a young mother in West St. Paul, are fed up with being treated disrespectfully by health care practitioners who don't have a pro-life perspective.

“My former doctor asked what kind of birth control I use, and I answered, ‘NFP,’” says Rachelle. “She looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Russian roulette.’ It was very demeaning. I walked away thinking, ‘This is the person I'm supposed to trust with my fertility and my pregnancies?’”

The contrast with Dr. Mary Paquette couldn't be more striking, says Rachelle. “Because she's a pro-life professional who uses NFP herself, I experience a care and respect from her that I've never had before. I'm so grateful that she and her husband have taken such a strong stand for life.”

Not Crazy, After All

Matt's definitive conversion to life came in June 1998, after their marriage, at an ethics conference sponsored by the Pope Paul VI Institute. He says he was catechized there, especially by being taught how to read and understand Church documents like the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

“Frankly, they hadn't made a lot of sense to me,” he admits, “but once I grasped the principles, I found them so reasonable. I came away absolutely convinced that this is the truth. It really set me free.” Free enough to initiate the following risky conversation with the director of the clinic where he had just been hired for a very desirable position:

“Look, I can't prescribe contraception any more, but here's a better alternative.”

“Maybe you should look for another job.”

Things worked out somehow and Matt has stayed on, appealing to “diversity” as a rationale for offering patients a non-contraceptive approach. It's not a comfortable position. In most of the medical world, says Matt, “this is like saying the earth is flat. I speak out, though, because I see this as a justice issue. It's the patient's right to know that there are other, safer approaches and treatments.”

Most patients, he has found, are pleasantly surprised to discover a natural way to avoid pregnancy. “As I explain it, their faces light up,” Matt observes. “Many of these women have already been on the pill and don't like it. It's not foolproof, and the side effects make them miserable.”

Kathy Laird, for one, is grateful for the doctors Pacquette. “Matt and Mary are knowledgeable, articulate and on fire about marriage as a commitment to be open to the gift of life,” says the director of the Marriage and Family Life office for the archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

“They live out their faith and balance their responsibilities to make time for evangelization.”

Louise Perrotta writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.