Institute Practices Reproductive Medicine -- and Catholicism

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

OMAHA -- Craig Turczynski traveled from Texas to find ways to help infertile women that do not conflict with his religious beliefs. Cherie LeFevre came from St. Louis to learn how to treat her OB-GYN patients in obedience to her Catholicism. Amie Holmes flew from Ohio so she could practice medicine in conformity with church teachings when she graduates from medical school.

On a journey that would blend the aura of a pilgrimage with the ambience of a medical seminar, the three arrived at an unassuming three-story red-brick building on a quiet side street in this Missouri River city.

Their destination was the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, which has become perhaps the most prominent women's health center serving Catholics and other doctors, medical students and patients who object for religious reasons to in vitro fertilization, contraceptives and other aspects of modern reproductive medicine.

"We have built a new women's health science," said Thomas W. Hilgers, who runs the institute. "Our system works cooperatively with the natural fertility cycle and enables doctors to treat women and married couples, especially Catholic married couples, in a way that allows them to live out their faith."

Hilgers and his supporters say the approach, called "natural procreative technology" or "NaProTechnology," can address a spectrum of women's health issues, including family planning, premenstrual syndrome, postpartum depression and infertility, without the use of birth control pills, sterilization, abortion or in vitro fertilization (IVF). Instead, Hilgers said, he uses diagnostics, hormones and surgery to identify and treat underlying causes of reproductive ailments that other doctors often miss.

Although the institute is not formally affiliated with the church, Hilgers's work is endorsed by groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Medical Association.

But many mainstream authorities question Hilgers's assertions that his techniques are equal or even superior to standard therapies. They worry that women are being misled and given unproven, ineffective treatments, denying them the best available care.

"This is anti-science," said Anita L. Nelson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California at Los Angeles. "I respect people's personal values. But I am deeply concerned that they are giving treatments and making claims that are not scientifically proven as safe and effective."

Although some independent experts say that some of the institute's offerings may be acceptable alternatives for religious patients, as long as they are fully informed about their options, others view its work as a disturbing example of religion intruding into secular society.

"Combining medicine and religion is dangerous," said the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. "This tendency is creeping into our health-care system."

The trend will become particularly worrisome, some say, if religiously shaped medicine begins to displace and curtail access to standard medical care.

"If you look at what's happened with abortion services being severely limited in large parts of the country, this is not at all an unrealistic fear," said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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