Last week—on the feast of the Immaculate Conception—St. Vincent’s Hospital here in New York opened a Catholic women’s healthcare center. Gianna: The Catholic Healthcare Center for Women—named after Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian doctor, wife, and mother, who, when faced with complications while pregnant, refused to have an abortion at great risk to her own life—provides women gynecological and obstetric care that is fully committed to the USCCB’s Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services and fully respects both the dignity of women and the sanctity of human life.
As many Catholic woman I know can attest to, who have seen the unique expression that passes across their doctors face—a mingling of disbelief, mirth, and disapprobation—when told, “No really, I am quite sure, I do not need to be on the pill,” there is a great need for genuinely Catholic women’s health care. Dr. Anne Mielnik, director of the Gianna Center, said she has spoken to many women with similar experiences: “their OB/GYN or Family Doctor actually laughed at them, verbally mocked them, or did not take them seriously when they have shared their desire to have a large family, to use NFP, to be faithful to their Catholic beliefs, or to be abstinent until marriage. Almost universally, they have expressed that their doctor has pressured them to use birth control, be sterilized or have an IUD placed.” Many women experiencing infertility often feel bullied into using IVF or other artificial reproductive technologies, “One couple,” Dr. Mielnik said, “told me they felt like they were listening to a ‘used car salesman’ trying to ‘sell them’ the ‘best model’ for making a baby.”
This degree of conflict between patients and doctors is not seen in other fields of medicine. When we visit the ophthalmologist, for example, we can almost always agree on the proper course of treatment for our eyes. But then, we are also in perfect agreement with our ophthalmologist that our eyes are meant for seeing. There is not, however, a common understanding among OB/GYNs and their patients that a woman’s reproductive organs are made for just that—reproduction. It is therefore no surprise that the Gianna Center, where a woman’s fertility is recognized as a gift and not a curse—something that indeed even that allows her, with her spouse, to collaborate with their Creator in the generation of life—opened with a waiting list of over 150 patients.
Gianna is, for instance, the first medical practice in New York City to offer the Creighton Model FertilityCare System (CrMS) and NaPro Technology. CrMS is a natural-family-planning method that monitors the biological markers of hormone changes in a woman’s fertility cycle and is, according to Dr. Mielnik, 99 percent effective when used to avoid pregnancy and 98 percent effective when used to achieve pregnancy. NaPro Technology uses CrMS to find the underlying causes of reproductive health problems and uses natural hormones like progesterone, medication, and, if necessary, surgery to restore the fertility cycle to normal function. When used to help infertile couples conceive, NaPro Technology has a 70 percent success rate.
Such high success rates raise the question: Why do so many doctors have such a strong bias against natural-family-planning methods and infertility treatment methods? For one thing, NFP is still associated with the old so-called rhythm method which had a 25 percent failure rate. “When people hear ‘NFP,’” says Mielnik, “they immediately think ‘rhythm method’ and basically stop listening.” And then there is the money: Artificial reproductive technology (ART) is a lucrative business. “An approach that is natural, cooperative, effective, and less expensive than ART represents a real threat to that business,” Mielnik says, “If a doctor can charge $10,000 for a procedure for which there is no alternative, he will not be open to considering the validity of an approach that is effective and costs less.”
And finally, there seems to be a lack of interest in the medical profession in solving reproductive health problems. “Women’s health,” Dr. Mielnik told me, “is the only area of medicine where physicians have stopped trying to diagnose and treat appropriately the underlying causes of a woman’s reproductive health problem—and as healthcare consumers, we have allowed this to happen by not expecting more.” A quick look at the National Institute of Health’s distribution of funds seems to support this. In 2007, the National Institute of Health allotted just $486 million of its $30 billion budget for reproductive-health research, including contraception. This is less than half the funding awarded for diabetes research. I found this surprising considering that during 2005, the most recent year for which the Center for Disease Control offered statistics, 10 percent of women in the United States between the ages of 15 and 44 were pregnant—about the same percentage of woman in the United States diagnosed with diabetes.
But hopefully, Dr. Mielnik concluded, as NaPro Technology become more widely available at clinics like Gianna “women will ‘vote with their feet’ about the kind of health care they want to receive—and send the message to the medical community that treatments that do not treat the underlying problem and which suppress, destroy, or bypass their naturally-occurring cycle are no longer acceptable to them.”
Meghan Duke is a junior fellow at First Things.