Helping Fertility the Natural Way

Dr. Thomas Hilgers devoted his life to the study of reproductive health in response to the call of Pope Paul VI.

In addition to developing the Creighton Model of Natural Family Planning, he is founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and has successfully treated thousands of patients with Natural Procreative Technology (NaProTechnology).

He recently published The Medical and Surgical Practice of NaPro-Technology, the first definitive medical textbook on the subject. He spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake prior to the institute's annual conference, held in Omaha July 21-24.

Tell me a bit about your background.

I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. I grew up Catholic. I was the youngest of three brothers. My oldest brother had gone to medical school, so I thought that if he could do it, so could I. I went into pre-med right out of high school, attending the University of Minnesota.

How did you first become interested in issues related to reproductive health care from a Catholic perspective?

I was in medical school, and the issues of contraception were of some interest to me. I had been following the papal birth control commission and had been reading and listening to what was being said. It seemed to me that the Church was going to change its position. I wasn't a vehement contraceptionist, but it seemed reasonable to me that the Church would just follow along with everyone else. I couldn't see why the Church wouldn't approve birth control.

What happened when you learned that the Church wasn't changing its position?

When the Church did not, in July 1968, instead of being surprised, I decided to get a copy of Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI's encyclical “Of Human Life”). I was interested in what the Church had to say, but I didn't know how to get a copy. When I approached the chaplain at the University of Minnesota Newman Center, he told me, “What do you want to read that kind of trash for?” That was my inglorious start to all of this. A couple of months later, I mail-ordered a copy from the Knights of Columbus.

Whatever deep thoughts I had on the subject started with Humanae Vitae. After reading it, I began thinking about things I had never thought about before. I was an instant convert. The things said in Humanae Vitae were not being said in the newspapers, even Catholic newspapers. I appreciated what it had to say. At its conclusion, Pope Paul VI called upon men of science and health-care professionals to become involved in this process.

It was ultimately Pope Paul VI who was the turning point for me. I figured that I should roll up my sleeves and start doing some research. In December of 1968, as a senior in medical school, I conducted my first research project.

On the day Pope Paul VI died, my wife and I turned to each other and promised to build the Pope Paul VI Institute in specific response to his call. My goal was to build a “Mayo Clinic” for the treatment of reproductive disorders that had a Catholic moral and ethical foundation. We opened the institute in September 1985.

Looking back, I realize how important Humanae Vitae was for Catholics and the whole world. If the Church had changed its position, we would have no hope of recovery. Now, at least, we have a glimmer of hope. It's a huge uphill struggle, but I really do think there is great hope.

Tell me about NaProTechnology.

NaProTechnology has the comprehensive capability to treat a whole host of women's health issues. We work with a woman's menstrual and fertility cycles to identify the underlying causes of reproductive problems and establish a form of treatment using both medical and surgical techniques developed to treat a broad spectrum of disorders. With infertility, specifically, that approach leads to much higher rates of pregnancy than do artificial methods.

The medical profession often treats conditions — such as women with irregular cycles, recurrent ovarian cysts, painful menstrual cramps or pre-menstrual syndrome and endometriosis — with birth-control pills. Birth-control pills do not treat the disease. They're a Band-Aid. That's one of its basic flaws. In my practice, I find many women who are disillusioned and frustrated by that, and can't get an answer any place, so they come to the institute.

Why isn't this the practice at most fertility clinics?

Most fertility clinics give patients fertility drugs without investigating the causes. If they do not become pregnant, they recommend IVF. By the nature of the premise upon which it is built, it skips over the abnormality. Thirty years ago, this seemed like a good idea to the medical profession. Yet, when you skip over these causes, you end up dealing with them one way or another. A hormonal problem, for example, can lead to a hostile uterine lining. Therefore, when you fertilize an egg and try to implant it in the endometrium, it may not be ready for it. If a woman still has endometriosis, the fertility rate isn't going to be very high. You'd be surprised by how many men and women are flabbergasted by this approach. They go to the fertility clinic thinking that the doctor will try to find out what's wrong with them, but they find that the doctor doesn't care. The whole process is aimed at trying to get people pregnant. Women who go to these clinics don't get their diseases diagnosed or treated, and most of the time they don't get pregnant.

Why haven't most people heard about NaProTechnology?

We haven't kept it a secret. It's been in development for 28 years, but the definitive textbook on it has only just been written.

In the past, I've turned down opportunities to speak on national television because our research wasn't complete. It's now complete, so we can introduce this technology to the world.

We are 180-degrees polar opposite to other approaches to reproductive health care. Having said that, the concepts of NaPro make common sense. This is a morally acceptable approach that will be driven by women and patients. Individual doctors may seek to be trained, but the driving force will be women who want more from their health care.

NaProTechnology appears to fit together with the Holy Father's Theology of the Body.

Yes, in fact, I wrote to the Holy Father making that very point. The Holy Father has been writing and putting together his thoughts on Theology of the Body for the last 30 years. In my view, he has put together a theological and philosophical insight which will captivate the thoughts of great minds for decades, if not centuries, to come.

At the institute, we have the privilege of studying the physical domain. Being able to combine our domain of human sexuality and reproduction with those philosophical insights is a natural. As we teach people about how their bodies work and function, we have developed a language that allows them to better understand human procreation and reproductive abnormalities. As we teach this to women, a constant refrain we hear from them is how they feel that they grow closer to God. That's the greatest testament to the Theology of the Body itself.

I understand you gave a copy of the textbook to Pope John Paul II?

The Holy Father has been kept abreast of our work through the bishops. We receive financial support, to the tune of about $50,000 annually, from The Papal Foundation. In February, I gave the Holy Father a preliminary draft of our textbook. When I told him that this work had been done because of Humanae Vitae, Donum Vitae and Evangelium Vitae, he smiled.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.