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NaPro Technology: Moral and Better than In Vitro

by Fr. Thomas Morrow

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  • Description:
    The following article by Fr. Thomas Morrow examines the moral and scientific reasons why Natural Procreative (NaPro) technology is the best choice for couples seeking reproductive treatment. Unlike in vitro fertilization, NaPro procedures do not conflict with Church teaching, and treatments do not cost nearly as much. In addition, studies have shown that NaPro technology is more effective than IVF in many cases.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 58 – 63
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, August/September 2007

Attorneys Anthony and Stephanie Epolite married in their late thirties, and after trying for some time to have a baby, they were deeply disappointed. When Stephanie was approaching her birthday without any prospect for conceiving, they went to see their doctor. He referred them to a fertility clinic. When they asked their parish priest about pursuing in vitro fertilization (IVF) he told them "Do whatever you feel comfortable with." (Pray for that man!)1

So, off they went. They met with a doctor who did no tests, took no blood, and seemed very cold, very matter of fact. He told them they had only one option, what with Stephanie about to turn 39, IVF. Next they met with a kind of sales person to decide which "package" they wanted, one cycle, two or three. They weren't warming up to this whole thing but it seemed like their last hope, so they forged ahead.

They would remove several ova (eggs) from Stephanie surgically, and then introduce a sperm cell from Anthony in a Petri dish. They would observe under a microscope to see if fertilization would occur. If it did, she would be invited back in to insert the embryo into Stephanie's womb. For two cycles of work, the price was a cool $25,000, with no guarantee that there would even be a fertilization. During the two months of preparation, Anthony had to inject his wife with several drugs in several parts of her body.

When they completed their part of the procedure, they went home to await the call. The call they got was to tell them it didn't work. Their comment at the end of the consultation was, "You will probably never have a family." And, of course, the $25,000 was down the tubes.

Studies show IVF problems

Their story is not unique. CDC data for 2003 indicate that the success rate for Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), of which in vitro fertilization is virtually always involved in one form or another, was 32.3 % live births per cycle. Of that 32.3%, 12%, or slightly over 1/3 were "multiple fetus pregnancies."2 For those women in Stephanie Epolite's age category (ages 38-40) the success rate for live births was just 20.2 % per cycle.3 Quite a gamble at about $10,000 per cycle! A study in the New England Journal of Medicine discovered that ART babies had a 9% rate of birth defects, vs. the national average of 4.2 %. Other studies have shown an increase among these babies of cancer, low birth weights and other problems.4

The Church on IVF

The Church's teaching on artificial reproduction has been in effect since the pontificate of Pius XII, who taught in 1949:

Artificial insemination outside of marriage [i.e., with single persons] must be condemned as immoral purely and simply.

Artificial insemination within marriage, but by means of . . . a third person, is equally immoral.

What of the liceity of artificial insemination in matrimony? . . . the desire for a child — a completely legitimate desire of the married people — does not prove] that artificial insemination is legitimate because it would satisfy such a desire . . .

Though new methods cannot be excluded a priori simply because they are new, in the case of artificial insemination, one should not only keep a cautious reserve, but must exclude it altogether. This does not necessarily forbid the use of certain artificial means . . . either to facilitate the natural act, or to enable the natural act, normally carried out, to attain its natural end.

Let it not be forgotten that only procreation of a new life according to the will and plan of the Creator, carries with it, to an amazing degree of perfection, the realization of intended aims. It is at the same time in conformity with the corporal and spiritual nature and the dignity of the marriage partners, and with the normal and happy development of the child.5

Pius spoke again on this subject, giving more reasons for his position, in 1951:

[In our address in 1949] We formally rejected artificial insemination in marriage. The marital act, in its natural setting, is a personal action. It is the simultaneous and direct cooperation of husband and wife, which by the very nature of the agents and the propriety of the act, is the expression of the mutual giving which, in the words of Scripture, results in the union "in one flesh."

There is much more than the union of two life seeds, which can be brought about even artificially, that is, without the cooperation of husband and wife. The marital act, in the order of, and by nature's design, consists of a personal cooperation which wife exchange as a right when they many.6

And, finally, the same Pius XII explained further his rejection of artificial insemination in a 1956 address:

The Church has rejected the . . . attitude, which would pretend to separate, in generation, the biological activity in the personal relation of the married couple. The child is the fruit of the conjugal union when that union finds full expression by bringing into play the organic functions, the associated sensible emotions, and the spiritual and disinterested love which animates the union. It is in the unity of this human act that we should consider the biological conditions of generation. Never is it permitted to separate these various aspects to the positive exclusion either of the procreative intention or of the conjugal relationship. The relationship which united the father and the mother to their child finds its root in the organic fact and still more in the deliberate conduct of the spouses who give themselves to each other and whose will to give themselves blossoms forth and finds its true attainment in the being which they bring into the world.7

The Catechism of The Catholic Church covers this issue as well. First it condemns donor artificial insemination (involving sperm or ovum taken from someone other than the husband or wife) as violating the right of the child to be born of parents known to him within marriage (para. 2376). Techniques which involve only the couple are also morally unacceptable, because:

They [separate] the sexual act from the procreative act. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that "entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children."8 "Under the moral aspect procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not willed as the fruit of the conjugal act, that is to say, of the specific act of the spouses' union . . . Only respect for the link between the meanings of the conjugal act and respect for the unity of the human being make possible procreation in conformity with the dignity of the person"9 (CCC 2377).

The Catechism goes on to say:

A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift. The "supreme gift of marriage" is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged "right to a child" would lead. In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: the right "to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents," and "the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception."10 (CCC 2378)

NaPro saves the day

Returning to Anthony and Stephanie Epolite, in 2001 she called a longtime friend who was a certified instructor and practitioner in the Creighton FertilityCare system, a natural family planning method developed by Dr. Thomas Hilgers at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She was well qualified in natural procreative (NaPro) technology. Right away her friend taught Stephanie how to chart her fertility signs. This data would be analyzed by a NaPro doctor to determine just what was keeping the Epolites from getting pregnant.

According to Dr. Hilgers, developer of the NaPro method at the Paul VI Institute for The Study of Human Reproduction, "Most medical approaches today bypass the woman's problem or simply override her natural processes altogether. With NaPro we find out why the body is not functioning correctly, then apply treatments that work cooperatively with the body."11

Once the doctor evaluates the data, and discovers the problems, he can use one of the state-of-the-art medical procedures spelled out in Dr. Hilgers' 1300-page book, Medical and Surgical Practice of NaPro Technology (Pope Paul VI Press, 2004). In it, Dr. Hilgers explains some key advances in dealing with endometriosis, polycystic ovarian disease, blocked fallopian tubes, and hormonal disorders. These are often some of the problems that underlie infertility.

Once the Epolites had sent in their data, they went out to Omaha, to the Paul VI Institute, and they found it anything but the cold, impersonal environment of the artificial insemination clinic. The people treated them with, "respect, kindness, compassion and love." It was July 2001. They had been getting Stephanie's blood samples for several months on certain days near their home. In Omaha, Dr. Hilgers had some diagnostic tests done and determined that she suffered from endometriosis and blocked fallopian tubes. Anthony's sperm count was discovered to be low.

During their two weeks in Omaha, doctors performed NaPro surgery on Stephanie, and Anthony was given a list of nutritional supplements to take. They waited and waited. It seemed like forever. When they were invited to speak at a natural family planning conference in March 2002 about their IVF fiasco, they agreed, but were not enthusiastic about it.

By the time they got to the conference, they had more than their IVF misadventure to report. Stephanie announced that they were 7 weeks pregnant! They received a tearful standing ovation.

On October 31, 2002, Claire Marie Epolite was born. NaPro had succeeded where IVF had failed.

Wide-ranging healings

In July 2004, a NaPro conference was held in Omaha, Nebraska, attended by over 400 physicians, pharmacists, medical practitioners and patients. Several patients told their own stories of how NaPro had helped them.

One mother of eight was trying to home school her children while dealing with oppressive depression. She had already been treated successfully at the institute for repeated miscarriages. Her depression came up in a subsequent phone conversation, and a nurse picked up on that. She asked the woman to send in a blood sample, and they discovered her hormone level to be one-third the normal. She was treated for this and the depression disappeared.

A 19-year-old college student had such terrible cramps during her menstrual period that for days each month she was immobilized with pain. Doctors suggested either pain medication or the birth-control pill. The latter gave her slight relief. Her parents had heard about Dr. Hilgers, and called the Institute. Following a short period of charting, Hilgers discovered she had endometriosis. She had surgery and was vastly improved.

One mother suffered such post-partum depression she was beginning to feel as if having children was a huge mistake. Her doctors told her this feeling was normal and prescribed anti-depressants. She contacted Dr. Hilgers and he recognized this was way out of line. He prescribed progesterone treatment, and her heavy load was lifted. She quickly returned to her old, cheerful self.

One couple had six heart-breaking miscarriages, and the wife was pessimistic that Dr. Hilgers could help. Her attitude was, "If God wants you to have children he will give them to you." Dr. Hilgers commented, "If you have a clogged sink, are you just going to pray about it, or are you going to call a plumber?" He went to work with them and two babies later they beamed with joy, now firm believers in NaPro.12

Helpless in New York?

One woman who lived in New York City went to a highly recommended OB/GYN (obstetrician/gynecologist) there when she got engaged, to ask about possible fertility problems. She explained to him all her symptoms and wondered if he would explore the possibility of her having endometriosis. He didn't. He patted her on the back and walked her to the door, having prescribed some painkillers. She blurted out, "But I read [that] the only way this can be diagnosed is through laparoscopic surgery." (She was quite right)13

"Surgery!" he blustered. "You don't need surgery." He said she was in good health and had no reason for any concern. Well, 2 1/2 years into marriage and with no success at getting pregnant, Deborah was treated for Graves disease. When that didn't solve her fertility, her OB/GYN started blindly looking for problems in her reproductive system. He suggested she should think about seeing an IVF specialist.14

She had no use for artificial reproduction, so she went home and started researching other possibilities on the internet (smart woman). She found the Paul VI Institute, and called, hoping to get to see Dr. Hilgers. She was disappointed to learn that before seeing him she had to do two months of "NaPro tracking" in which she charted her monthly cycles, and a month-long series of hormone tests before she could get to see him. Of course, she later came to appreciate this delay for testing, as this is a scientific approach to the problem, which is at the heart of the Creighton Model fertility program. She was able to do these things locally.15

By the time she got to Dr. Hilgers, he already had a strong suspicion that she had endometriosis. And, she had low levels of pre-ovulation estrogen. He did the laparoscopy and discovered she did indeed have endometriosis, and he treated it with laser surgery during the laparoscopy (60% of the cases can be treated during the initial laparoscopy). He also treated partial blockages in her fallopian tubes (which had been declared "clear and normal" in New York).16 Also, by doing ultrasound tests during her two-week Omaha visit, they discovered that she had "premature follicle rupture."17

With all the data in, he recommended hormone treatment to deal with her low estrogen. She became pregnant within weeks of her treatment. Her baby, Olivia June Colloton was born April 21, 2004. So much for New York medicine.18

Just the facts

Some astonishing facts about NaPro are:

The list of benefits seems to go on and on. The only thing lacking now is getting the word out. NaPro has a great future.20

End notes

  1. Most of this article is based on "Agents of Change" by Chuck Weber, at www.catholicculture.org/docs/doc_view.cfm?recnum~6669.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003 Assisted Reproductive Technology Success Rates, published 2005 by US Dept. of Health and Human Services, p. 18.
  3. bid., p. 32.
  4. Weber, "Agents of Change."
  5. Pius XII, Votreprésence. 29 Sep 1949, To the fourth International Congress of Catholic Doctors, AAS 41 (1949) 557-561; English trans. in Liebard, 96-100. This quote from pp. 99, 100.
  6. Pius XII, Vegilare con sollecitudine. 29 Oct 1951, To the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives, AAS 43 (1951) 833-854; English trans., Liebard, 101-122. This quote taken from p. 118.
  7. Pius XII, Nous vous avez exprimé. 19 May 1956, To the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility, AAS 48 (1956) 467-474; English trans., Liebard, 173-179. This quote taken from p. 176.
  8. From Congregation for The Doctrine of The Faith, Donum vitae, 1987, II, 5.
  9. Whole paragraph from Catechism of The Catholic Church, para. 2377. Quote taken from: Congregation for The Doctrine of The Faith, Donum vitae, 1987, II, 4.
  10. From Congregation for The Doctrine of The Faith, Donum vitae, 1987, II, 8.
  11. Weber, "Agents of Change."
  12. All these stories from Weber, "Agents of Change."
  13. Jean Blair Packard, editor, In Their Own Words, Women Healed, Omaha, NE: Pope Paul VI Inst. Press, 2004, p. 63.
  14. Ibid., pp. 61, 62.
  15. Ibid. p. 62.
  16. Ibid., pp. 63, 64.
  17. Ibid., p.64.
  18. Ibid. pp. 65, 66.
  19. Weber, "Agents of Change."
  20. For more information on NaPro go to www.popepaulvi.com. Doctors who wish to learn more about NaPro technology may find detailed information in Dr. Hilgers' book, Medical and Surgical Practice of NaPro Technology, Omaha, NE, Pope Paul VI Press, 2004.


Reverend Thomas G. Morrow has a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. His book, Saints for Families (Emmaus Road), a compilation of 27 lives of saints appropriate for family reading time, appeared in 2002. He is a parochial vicar at St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton, Md. His published booklets and leaflets can be seen at www.cfalive.org. His most recent booklet is Achieving Chastity in a Pornographic World (New Hope Publications, 2006).

© Ignatius Press

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