Reproductive Health Care Pioneer Was Converted After Reading ‘Humanae Vitae’

One of the co-founders of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and the National Center for Women's Health in Omaha, Neb., was inspired after reading Paul VI’s encyclical on the regulation of birth.

Dr. Thomas and Susan Hilgers of the Pope Paul VI Institute speak with CNA in Rome, Oct. 16.
Dr. Thomas and Susan Hilgers of the Pope Paul VI Institute speak with CNA in Rome, Oct. 16. (photo: CNA/Bohumil Petrik)

VATICAN CITY — As founders of an institute studying reproductive health care, Thomas and Susan Hilgers have seen the benefits that natural family planning can offer in the realms of health, sexuality and human relationships.

But the couple was not always focused on advocating Church teaching on sexuality and family planning. Their years of dedication to the subject were largely inspired by reading Blessed Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and later St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, documents that they say bring “great hope and joy to the people to utilize them.”

“This whole concept is rich. I said in another place we should be shouting out from the mountain tops as a Church, we shouldn’t be crawling under like it’s something we have to be embarrassed by,” Dr. Thomas Hilgers told CNA on Oct. 15.

The Hilgerses were present in Rome for the Oct. 19 beatification of Pope Paul VI at the end of the Synod of Bishops on the Family. During the Mass, the doctor read aloud one of the Prayers of the Faithful in English.

Together with his wife, Hilgers founded the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and the National Center for Women's Health in Omaha, Neb., in 1985 after reading Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on the regulation of birth.

The doctor recalled that he was one of many people who had expected the Church’s position on contraception to change at the time that the encyclical was released. However, he said, upon reading the document, he was “an instant convert, because the things that were being portrayed in the newspapers and television was not what Humanae Vitae was saying.”

“It was much more, [it was] a rich document spiritually, rich sociologically and rich in a lot of other ways,” he said, noting how at the end of the encyclical Blessed Paul VI had written a series of pastoral directives to physicians and those working in the fields of science and health care.

With the feeling that the Pope was speaking directly to him, Hilgers went on to complete his first research project in natural methods of parental planning in December 1968, after which he received training in obstetrics and gynecology.

He currently works at the St. Louis University and Creighton University Schools of Medicine. At Creighton, he serves as a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

The doctor is also a senior medical consultant in obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine and surgery at the Pope Paul VI Institute, where he still serves as director. He was appointed to the permanent membership of the Pontifical Academy for Life in 1994.

Together with his other colleagues, Hilgers developed NaPro Technology (Natural Procreative Technology), a method of women’s health care that relies upon scientific methods of monitoring and maintaining a woman's reproductive health.

Using Creighton Model Fertility Care System biomarkers to monitor the hormonal patterns during the menstrual cycle, NaPro Technology is the current method practiced at the Paul VI Institute, which will change its name following the beatification of its patron.

The technology has successfully been used to help women better understand their bodies’ natural fertility, achieve or avoid pregnancy, and find solutions to a variety of health problems.

In his more than 35 years of experience in the reproductive medical field, Hilgers said that since the publication of Humanae Vitae, “I don’t know of any other field that could claim such advances in so many ways.”

Although medical sciences have changed since the time of Pope Paul VI, the late pontiff knew the importance of promoting natural methods, “and that’s why he called on people to be involved, and that’s why I became involved,” the doctor noted.

“So what we see is the potential that these approaches bring: balance in your sexual life, harmony into your physical life with regard to your illnesses, diseases or whatever you might have, and it builds relationship in marriage.”

Among the institute’s biggest advocates are the women and couples themselves who have received treatment there, said Hilger’s wife, Susan.

Most women, she told CNA, don’t understand their fertility because “we haven’t been teaching women about how their bodies work and how to live with their fertility.”

For perhaps the first time in history, women are truly starting to understand how their bodies function, she explained, saying that it brings her “great joy as a woman” to see other women know exactly what their bodies are doing.

“It’s been a great blessing for us personally, and to see the blessings that have come from this work because of the teachings of the Church has been absolutely miraculous and unbelievable for us. That’s why we’re so dedicated to this.”

When asked if it was difficult for him and the 22 members of the institute’s staff to stay faithful to the precepts laid out in Humanae Vitae in a secularized culture, Hilgers said: “Not at all,” because Pope Paul VI “predicted all of those sociological calamities we have come up against.”

“The way we treat women, the divorce rate, abortion and everything that has occurred in one way or another is predicted in Humanae Vitae, he said, observing how some have referred to the revolutionary encyclical “as ‘Paul VI’s Prophecies’ (precisely) because they were so prophetic.”

Although they never met Blessed Paul VI, “he spoke to us in Humanae Vitae and we listened, so it is an honor” to continue his work, the couple observed.

To see Pope Paul VI beatified “brings a lot of emotion out of me personally,” Dr. Hilgers explained. “Sometimes it is hard for me to talk about it because he suffered so much; he was an incredibly courageous man and I personally have no doubt he’s in heaven.”

“I am deeply grateful for the Church recognizing him as being blessed and I hope someday he will be canonized. For us, he’s our namesake.”

Hilgers has recently written a book entitled War on Women, in which he compiled 17 of the cases he has seen at his clinic of women who have experienced great damage and trauma due to the use of contraception, abortion and in vitro fertilization.

“There has been a lot of political chatter about the so-called war on women, but they described it as the inability to abort, the inability to get contraceptive measures, and it pretty much stops there, abortion and contraception,” the doctor noted.

However, he said that the real “war on women” doesn’t come from a lack of access to these “very accessible” products and procedures, but rather from “the result of abortion, contraception and in vitro fertilization,” which can often be physically damaging and emotionally scarring to women.

The book, he said, could just as easily be filled with “1,700 or 17,000 cases,” because most everyone that comes to his institute has some sort of history with artificial contraception in their background.

“And that is why they’ve sought services with us; because we provide a real alternative to them, we look for the causes, we treat the diseases.”