Father of Natural Family Planning Dies
BY TIM DRAKE
REGISTER SENIOR WRITER
April 15-21, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/10/07 at 10:00 AM
MELBOURNE, Australia — What began in response to a simple request from his pastor ended up becoming Dr. John Billings’ life’s work. The father of modern natural family planning, Billings died April 1, Passion Sunday, at the age of 89.
In China alone, there are more than 15,600 “Billings babies,” infants conceived using the Billings Ovulation Method (BOM) — the first, modern, scientific method of natural birth regulation — which Billings and his wife, Evelyn, pioneered.
It all began in 1953, when Father Maurice Catarinich of Melbourne approached Billings, then head of the department of neurology at St. Vincent’s Hospital, about the need for a natural method of regulating fertility.
Father Catarinich worked as a marriage consultant in the Melbourne Catholic Family Welfare Bureau. He spent one evening each week interviewing couples. Through these interviews, Father Catarinich came to learn of the failures of the Rhythm Method and wondered whether there might not be another, more effective way of natural birth regulation. He turned to Billings.
“Almighty God would not leave his people without help,” Father Catarinich told Billings.
Then a father of nine, Billings was hesitant to commit a lot of time. He promised his pastor three months of research to see if something better than the calendar-based Rhythm Method could be developed. In the end, both he and his wife got hooked.
A few years into the work, his wife, a pediatrician, became involved.
“She could confirm the symptoms that he had been reading about,” said Sue Ek, executive director of the Billings Ovulation Method Association — USA.
Through his research, Billings discovered in the medical literature going back at least 100 years that the key to fertility recognition were secretions produced by the woman’s cervix.
Billings’ research coincided with the introduction of the birth control pill and its vigorous marketing by the pharmaceutical industry.
“Many women were dazzled by this relentless publicity, and so were many doctors, members of the clergy …,” wrote Billings in one of his newsletters. “The deception caused many women to believe that the pill would be a simple answer to all their problems, and they were hesitant to accept a natural method.”
Billings’ findings were later confirmed by James Brown, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Melbourne University, and Erik Odeblad, professor of medical biophysics at the University of Umea, Sweden. Brown found that the birth control pill had long-term negative effects on the woman’s hormone levels and reproductive health. He was able to identify the hormonal patterns of a woman’s cycle.
Meanwhile, Odeblad helped identify the various types of secretions and explain that fertility has a changing pattern based on the different secretions. Both elements were combined with the Billings’ research to formulate a comprehensive, natural method of fertility regulation.
The publication of the Billings’ book, The Ovulation Method in 1964, aroused considerable interest, especially in developing countries, where poor, less educated women could easily be taught to recognize signs of fertility and to observe the method’s rules to either postpone or achieve pregnancy. That led to 50 years of traveling, conducting teacher training and establishing the BOM in more than 100 countries.
The Billings’ work also led to the creation of other methods of NFP. The Creighton Model of NFP, for example, is a standardized modification of the Billings Ovulation Method. Mercedes Wilson of the Family of the Americas Foundation used the Billings’ work to develop the Natures Method for teaching NFP throughout Guatemala and elsewhere.
Bringing It to China
In 1985, Billings wrote to the Chinese government offering to visit China to introduce the BOM because of the enormous problems being experienced there, even after the introduction of sterilization and abortion.
The government agreed, and in 1986 the Billings made a presentation to the members of the State Family Planning Commission. While visiting Shanghai, Qian Shao-Zhen, an andrologist with the Shanghai Institute of Medicine, offered his assistance.
That collaboration led to the Billings’ return to China approximately twice a year to train teachers throughout the country. Ten years later, the Australian government approved funding for a three-year project in Anhui Province.
Billings spent the last decade of his life teaching in China and getting materials translated into Chinese. Because of the method’s 99.5% success rate for avoiding pregnancy, the Chinese government today allows only the birth control pill, the intrauterine device (IUD) or the Billings Ovulation Method as a means of regulating births.
As a result of the Billings’ work, BOM instruction has had tremendous success throughout China. Fourteen centers have been established there, and the method is used by more than 3,645,000 couples. According to a report by Shanghai Institute of Medicine’s Qian, 15,640 couples who had trouble conceiving have been able to achieve pregnancy using the method.
The method has also led to a decrease in the rate of abortions.
“In certain localities where the method has been widely used, not only the birth rate but also the artificial abortion rate is significantly decreased,” wrote Qian in a 2003 report.
The Billings Ovulation Method has not only provided millions of couples with a natural means of regulating or achieving pregnancy, but also provided valuable knowledge about women’s fertility cycles, in some cases drastically transforming the care that physicians provide their patients.
Dr. Mary Martin, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Oklahoma City, says that learning the Billings Ovulation Method completely changed how she practiced gynecology. Although a cradle Catholic when she started her practice in 1995, she routinely prescribed contraceptives. In 1999, during the sacrament of reconciliation, a priest gave her the penance of researching whether contraceptives could cause abortions. When she learned the truth — that contraceptives can act as abortifacients — she stopped prescribing them.
“I had been brainwashed into believing that oral contraceptives were the mainstay of treating gynecological problems,” said Martin. “The Billings Ovulation Method clarified not only the signs and symptoms of fertility in a way that my specialty training had not, but also gave me a simple window into the endocrinology of the menstrual cycle, which correlates with 50 years of research and over 750,000 menstrual cycles.”
Martin now explains the method to all of her patients, whether discussing infertility, the transition to menopause, or diagnosing gynecologic problems.
“Dr. Billings is a giant in the history of family planning,” said Theresa Notare, assistant director of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “He is among the few who took the approach of trying to work with fertility rather than working against it.”
Notare noted that NFP has had less of an impact on population worldwide than artificial methods because of the lack of resources, but that its impact will be felt long-term.
“In terms of a long-term health perspective, possibly 100 years from now we’ll look at this time as a pioneer time and how these scientists, with the Billings leading them, were eons ahead of their time.”
Notare noted that numerous studies demonstrate NFP’s ability to strengthen marriage, and also referenced anecdotal stories that show that NFP has been, for many, the road by which non-Catholics convert.
“When couples understand that these messages are true they begin wondering if what the Catholic Church is saying in other areas could be true,” said Notare. “What is so astounding is that God gave Dr. Billings the graced insight, from the beginning, to understand the utter importance of fertility and how it fits into relationships and family.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.
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