Dr. Thomas Hilgers and 25 Years of Love and Life at the Pope Paul VI Institute
Dr. Thomas Hilgers - committed to the Cause of Life
Inspired by Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae, one man takes a vision and makes it a reality. Today's guest commentary explains Dr. Thomas Hilgers' dream and how this dream is changing the lives of women and their families on a daily basis.
Dr. Thomas Hilgers with Pope John Paul II
Heeding the call
The road Dr. Hilgers traveled to open the institute was long and arduous. In 1968, as a senior medical student at the University of Minnesota, he read Pope Paul VI's landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which reaffirmed the Church's constant teaching against contraception. When he asked a priest at the university what he thought of the work, the priest replied, "Why would you want to read that trash?"
"His answer," Dr. Hilgers said, "spurred me on to weigh Humanae Vitae more seriously." And he heard the Holy Father's call, issued in this encyclical, for scientists to further study human fertility, in order to assist married couples in spacing the births of their children in harmony with divine law.
Humanae Vitae did generate some attempts by others in the medical community to investigate various forms of natural family planning, including research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles that compared the effectiveness of various NFP methods. Lacking good methodology, the study ran into trouble, and Dr. Hilgers and other physicians were asked to visit the site. What they found was pro-abortion researchers who listed all pregnancies as failures.
"We came away from that visit with a conviction that what the science of natural family planning needed was solid research done by trained researchers," he said. In other words, an entire institute with a whole new perspective on the study of reproductive medicine.
A voice crying in the wilderness
Although the idea for the Pope Paul VI Institute had taken root in Dr. Hilgers' heart, its realization was still years away. He spent the early 1970s striving to develop the most accurate fertility awareness methods and a pro-life, pro-woman approach to obstetrics and gynecology. Owing to his unshakable pro-life position, he was, more than once, asked to leave professional posts.
In 1973, when Dr. Hilgers was a resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion on demand. When he asked to be transferred to a facility that did not commit abortions, Mayo dropped him from the residency program. "I didn't know where I was going to go or what I was going to do," he recalled. "I was scheduled to serve two years in the Navy following my residency, but there too, I told them that I would absolutely not perform abortions." To accommodate his moral principles, the Navy initially planned to have him serve as a gynecologist in an all-male prison. "But," he laughed, "they eventually gave me an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector."
By 1974, Dr. Hilgers was a faculty member at St. Louis University School of Medicine. After the pro-life physician who hired him was forced out as chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department, Dr. Hilgers knew it was again time to move on. In 1976, he accepted a position at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska.
Creighton University, like St. Louis University, is a Jesuit institution, and at least initially, was more supportive of Dr. Hilgers' research, which challenged the conventional approach to obstetrics and gynecology. Contraception, sterilization and even typical menopausal and postmenopausal care don't teach a woman how to work with her natural cycles to solve-not just mask-her underlying health issues.
Making a leap of faith
After two years at Creighton, Dr. Hilgers reached a tipping point. He knew the fertility awareness method that he was developing, the Creighton Model FertilityCare System (CrMS), was revolutionary. The CrMS, described as "a standardized modification of the Billings Ovulation Method" of naturally spacing births, uses the body's natural indicators to identify periods of fertility, to help couples achieve or avoid pregnancy effectively.
But between teaching and seeing his patients, there wasn't enough time for much-needed additional research. Then on August 6, 1978, the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Dr. Hilgers and his wife went to Mass, the priest tearfully announced that Pope Paul VI had just died. "I remember the ride home from that Mass," said Sue. "I even remember the light that we were stopped at when Tom said he had to open a center that would allow him to pursue the ...
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