National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Firebrand MD Blazes Trail for Natural Family Planning

BY William Murray

January 19-25, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/19/97 at 2:00 PM


THE DAY Pope Paul VI died—Aug. 6, 1978—an idea was born in the minds of Dr. Thomas Hilgers and his wife Susan. They made a decision that would change their lives and impact thousands of American Catholics.

Hilgers, then a 35-year-old professor at the Creighton University Medical School, launched an educational and research institute in Omaha, Neb., specializing in reproductive medicine. He envisioned an institute that would never break from Catholic teaching—least of all from Paul VI's groundbreaking 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that reaffirmed the Church's support for natural family planning (NFP) and its rejection of artificial birth control.

It wasn't until 1985 that the St. Paul, Minn., native was finally able to open the doors of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, which he lovingly calls it the “Miracle on Mercy Road” after its location. Hilgers had approached Creighton and a local Catholic hospital, but both rejected his idea of incorporating his center within their organizations. He had to go it alone.

“There is so little support for this work; and many people associated with it are unwilling to pay” to make it flourish, he told the Register during a recent phone interview from his Omaha office. Hilgers, a specialist in fertility treatment, said that his wife and he have tithed more than half of their income earned from treating 10,000 patients, teaching and other jobs during the past 10 years. Both are members of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Hilgers's hard-nosed personality has won him his share of enemies—some of them former close associates—but many admire his work. The 53- year-old father of five acknowledges that he rubs some people the wrong way. “For a young OB/GYN, I'm not the most easy person to work with,” he allows, adding that, as a diabetic, “I'm a pain in the rear.”

Admirers defend Hilgers. “I'm sure it must be difficult to do research, see patients and raise money,” said Steve Koob, founder of One More Soul, a Dayton, Ohio-based group that promotes the idea that “children are a blessing from the Lord.”

“Those are three skills that few people have,” said Koob, whose group is publishing a directory of pro-life doctors, with an emphasis on OB/GYNs and family practitioners who follow Humanae Vitae's mandates. Hilgers also counts Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha among his supporters.

During the past five years, Hilgers has trained 70 doctors in an NFP program he developed, known as the Creighton Model, which is a modified version of the Billings Ovulation Method. Many in NFP circles regard Hilgers's method as more complex than the one developed by John and Lynn Billings of Australia. The third major NFP system, the Sympto-Thermal Method, introduced by John Kippley of the Cincinnati, Ohio-based Couple to Couple League (CCL), is believed by many to be the easiest to follow.

While a number of NFP teachers report bickering between some adherents of the three different groups, Hilgers dismissed such talk. “If a diocese decides to standardize one or another method, of course we're going to make a presentation” to change their minds. But Hilgers said he hasn't argued with teachers of other NFP models for 25 years, although he has written scientific research papers that have criticized both the Billings and Sympto-Thermal Methods.

Hilgers and his followers pride themselves on the rigorous training that Creighton Method teachers undergo. Most of the doctors receive six months of training, while health care professionals and other practitioners usually complete a year-long course of studies. “You can't become a Creighton Model teacher in a weekend class or in a four-month training,” explained Hilgers. “The volume of knowledge you have to know as an allied health professional” doesn't allow such shortcuts, he added. “Hair-care professionals go to classes for a year in the evenings. We should take NFP just as seriously.”

While Hilgers set up a model through which certified practitioners—usually health care professionals—could earn money seeing patients who want to practice NFP, the Couple to Couple League encourages non-professional couples to enroll in its less rigorous training program. CCL instructors are usually volunteers who charge only for the cost of materials, said Kippley.

The Pope Paul VI Institute runs five certification programs and has trained almost 700 NFP practitioners in Africa, Canada, Europe, Mexico and the United States. Hilgers has also launched 50 Catholic hospital-based NFP programs in 25 states, in addition to conducting a fiveday non-certification programs on NFP for Catholic priests.

Far from being a dead letter, Humanae Vitae appears to be attracting more notice from a younger crowd. “We're seeing younger physicians and priests come here,” said Hilgers. “The people of my generation tended to reject NFP because they associate it with the rhythm method, which wasn't very scientific or systematic,” he said. “Younger people don't have that hangup and are very open,” about mastering NFP and practicing it.

Despite an upturn in support for the encyclical's teachings, surveys have shown that more than 80 percent of Catholic couples use artificial birth control. Rather than blame them, Hilgers takes Church leadership to task for “the profound silence that's been born from dissent” from Humanae Vitae.

Hilgers readily admits that his institution's main weakness is its financial security, and he's in the midst of a $2.75 million capital campaign to eliminate debt and build an endowment. The first phase of the campaign netted more than $400,000 in donations from 630 individual donors, which exceeded Hilgers' targets. He is currently approaching companies and foundations.

If the institute reaches its fundraising goals, Hilgers plans to open up an international studies center as well as a national training center; he also hopes to revive its intern program. “The work is too important not to expand it,” he explained.

William Murray is based in Kensington, Md.