Practicing Faith: Catholic Doctors Open Contraceptive-Free Clinics

MINNEAPOLIS — After giving birth to her first child, Ann Maloney decided she wanted a pro-life doctor in the future.

“When I had an ultrasound done on my first pregnancy, the nurse practitioner pointed to the screen and said, ‘There's the pregnancy,’” Maloney recalled. “That terminology bothered me.”

Calling her child a “pregnancy” sent up a flag, said the Minneapolis native. So she contacted an organization for the names of natural family planning-only doctors in the Twin Cities, and visited Dr. Paul Spencer at Aalfa Family Practice. He was able to read her NFP charts and understand exactly what she was talking about.

“That was nice,” said Maloney. “The nurse practitioner at the other clinic had no clue. My guess is she knew all about [birth control].”

The Minneapolis mother adds that as her children grow, she doesn't want a doctor to secretly prescribe birth control to them and not “tell about the side effects or the increased health risks, besides the immoral side effects.”

Maloney's experience highlights a growing trend among Catholic physicians to open their own clinics, where doctors and patients alike can be confident they won't be engaging in medical procedures that conflict with their faith

‘Vasectomy Day’

Dr. Tim Fisher of Lincoln, Neb., left a group practice for that very reason. In 1989, he started an NFP-only clinic, Holy Family Medical Specialties, because he didn't want to be surrounded by things he opposed in his previous workplace. “Birth control pills [were] in our drug rooms and Friday afternoons were vasectomy day,” Fisher said.

Diane Reznicek and her family started seeing Fisher early on, and she's comforted now knowing that her three children, ages 18 to 24, today have a doctor who shares their values.

“We put our trust in another individual who loved God the way we did, who reflects Godly doctrines. As I grow older, it becomes more important to me because there is so much out there in the world,” she said.

Mike Herzog, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association in Pewaukee, Wis., said his organization averages 10 to 12 calls or e-mails a day from people all over the country looking for NFP-only and pro-life doctors — mainly for obstetriciangynecologists, Catholic urologists who will do vasectomy reversals, and doctors who can care for ailing parents.

Herzog said that setting up an NFP-only clinic can be a difficult decision for physicians, who often worry that such a clinic won't be able to survive economically.

But that's changing. “I think we're seeing that they can thrive,” Herzog said. “Years ago, hanging up your shingle as an NFP-only clinic was frightening to the physician as well as the patient, until they realized how detrimental oral contraceptives are, not only physiologically but sociologically too.”

Fisher's clinic is affiliated with St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center, Lincoln's largest Catholic hospital. He has received its full support since the clinic opened, but jokes that they didn't give him “two months to survive.”

“We're supportive of his clinic,” confirmed Bob Lanik, president of St. Elizabeth. “I think it's a way for a Catholic hospital to be more proactive in terms of the Church's positions.”

Catholic hospitals must deal with a culture that is oriented toward birth-control methods, Lanik added, but St. Elizabeth is very “pristine” in following the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Problems at Catholic Hospitals

Most hospitals adhere to the Church's positions, said the Catholic Medical Association's Herzog, but loopholes created by corporate structures sometimes allow for independent, off-site clinics that deviate from those positions. The bishops are responsible for the hospital premises but not the affiliated clinics, at which Catholic doctors may have to carry out part of their practice.

“If you are part of an [health management organization] or [planned provider organization] that pays for abortions or tubal ligations, a lot of doctors are seeing some pressure to provide these services to the members,” said Herzog.

But others maintain that some Catholic hospitals do not remain completely loyal to Church teachings even in their own operations.

Steve Koob, director of One More Soul, a Dayton, Ohio-based group that provides information about the negative consequences of artificial contraception, said that some hospitals are extremely weak about following Catholic teaching. His organization maintains a database of more than 400 NFP-only doctors who have philosophical differences with their local Catholic hospitals.

“Their pharmacies are dispensing contraceptives [and] family practice clinics are prescribing them,” Koob said. Less commonly, Catholic institutions also perform sterilizations, he added, citing one hospital in Louisiana that set up a separate room for sterilizations and then declared the room was not part of the hospital.

Dr. Ann Moell knows firsthand about the shortcomings of some Catholic hospitals. She did her residency in the late 1980s at a hospital in Ohio that “wasn't one that followed the rules of the Catholic Church,” she said.

Doctors were told that officially they were not to prescribe contraceptives, but “it was expected that we would, and everybody did.” In fact, of the 11 residents on staff, only one would not prescribe contraceptives.

“He seemed a little strange that he would be so adamant about his Catholic belief,” said Moell, a Catholic who at the time didn't understand or agree with the Church's positions on life issues.

A Change of Heart

But midway through an eight-year stint at a family practice, she was moved by Janet Smith's tape, “Contraception: Why Not,” given to her by One More Soul, and had a conversion. She informed her partners and staff that she would no longer dispense contraceptives.

Her partners and patients were very understanding. “Maybe they didn't agree with me, but they respected me for acting on my convictions,” Moell said.

Surprised by the positive response, Moell began sharing her convictions on a more spiritual level and heard over and over from patients that they hadn't “thought of it that way.”

Moell now works at a prenatal clinic inside Elizabeth's New Life Center in Dayton, Ohio, which upholds an NFP-only philosophy with the mothers who come there, including those who reject that viewpoint.

Said Moell, “I always try to speak the truth to them, even though I know they are spiritually and intellectually far from where I stand on the issue.”

Barb Ernster writes from Minneapolis.

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