Dr. Mary Martin of the Billings Centre for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine was in Toronto Sept. 28 for a workshop with health professionals. Photo by Vanessa Santilli

Numbers not good, but passion is high for Billings Method

  • October 4, 2012

TORONTO - Dr. Karen Stel made the “wonderful discovery” of natural family planning during her medical residency and to this day the Toronto doctor refuses to prescribe birth control pills. Instead, she recommends the Billings Ovulation Method of natural family planning to her patients.

“It’s a a co-operative way of working with your body the way that God designed it,” said Stel. “To be able to control fertility is an amazing thing that God has given us.”

Stel was a participant at a Sept. 28 Billings Ovulation Method workshop for medical professionals in Toronto. She’d come to hear Dr. Mary Martin, of the Billings Centre for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine in Oklahoma City, who was in Toronto at the invitation of the Natural Family Planning Association, funded by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

But the workshops had a low turnout, with just five health professionals attending the breakfast session and eight at the lunch session. Stel, a general practitioner, was the only medical doctor to attend. Participants included Billings teachers, homeopaths, naturopathic doctors, nurses and a social worker.

The Billings Method teaches couples to observe the natural biological signs of female fertility and use that knowledge to postpone or achieve pregnancy, said Martin.

Christian Elia, acting executive director of the Natural Family Planning Association which organized the event, said the workshops were open for all medical professionals to attend.

“I’m disappointed but I’m constantly disappointed that more doctors don’t take the Billings Ovulation Method seriously despite the fact that it’s been around for decades and it’s already used successfully by millions of people around the world,” he said.

Elia said the majority of medical professionals in Toronto are not receptive to the Billings Method.

“It wasn’t part of their training so… most doctors just feel more comfortable doing what they’ve been told which usually involves prescribing birth control pills.”

To reverse that, Stel believes natural family planning should be taught in medical schools.

Struggling with the issue of contraception during her residency at Queen’s University, Stel got in touch with the natural family planning community in Kingston, Ont., and eventually carried out a research project on the efficacy of the Billings Method as compared to contraception.

“I presented in 2001 to my colleagues at Queen’s and received very good feedback,” said Stel, an evangelical Christian. “It was enough to convince me that I could practise medicine with integrity.”

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Recently, a patient filed a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario when Stel refused to prescribe birth control. It took about eight months to settle, but in the end, the college voted in her favour.

“I’ve had to be careful after that but at the same time it doesn’t change my conviction. If anything, it affirms it. If you’re getting opposition, they say you’re doing something right.”

Similarly, Martin said a lot of Catholic physicians don’t know how to practise gynecology without prescribing pills. She stopped promoting birth control after a conversion experience. For her penance, a priest made her research whether the pill can cause miscarriages and induce abortions. She discovered this was a possibility.

“I had learned in medical school that there was that potential,” she said. “But I had been assured by the drug companies over the years that was a very uncommon thing.”

By 1999, she had stopped prescribing birth control. She was worried her clients would leave.

“It was like standing on the precipice with my toes curled over the edge and my arms spread out saying, ‘Okay, God, catch me if I fall.’ And He did.”

Rose Heron, program director of the Natural Family Planning Association, said doctors are often introduced to the Billings Method by patients who practise the Billings Method.

“Keep in mind that we live in a society where, if a couple is trying to achieve pregnancy and they don’t within the prescribed time, many doctors just send you for in-vitro fertilization. So they move onto technological means. And many couples are looking for an alternative to that.”

Pauline MacCarthy Phelps, a visiting Billings co-ordinator from Trinidad and Tobago, says advertising of the Billings Method must be improved in order to attract more people to the option.

“It’s not common,” she said. “What’s common is contraception. Nobody wants to have 10 children and contraception is what they know about and it’s popular.”

Lori Canlas, a social worker and psychotherapist, also believes Billings needs to be promoted further. But what struck her was the negative impact of contraception on women’s health.

“It’s also highly interesting that doctors highly prescribe contraception without knowing other alternatives… There is an option for them to choose something more natural.”

Stel remains optimistic that medical professionals will become more open to natural family planning.

“They respect me for this… It will just take more doctors (to show others). And doctors that have time. The reality right now is that I don’t have time. But I do, wherever I can.”

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