Natural Family Planning Pioneer Dies

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From the New York Times obituary:

John Billings, an Australian physician who more than half a century ago developed a natural contraception method endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, died Sunday in Melbourne. He was 89 and a lifelong Melbourne resident…

A neurologist by training, Dr. Billings began investigating natural contraception, that is, techniques not relying on devices or drugs that block conception, in 1953, at the request of the Catholic Marriage Guidance Bureau in Melbourne. Working with his wife, Dr. Evelyn Billings, a pediatrician, he created what is now known as the Billings ovulation method, or the Billings method. The method relies on a woman's ability to sense changes in the amount and texture of her cervical mucus, which help predict ovulation and fertility.

And here's where the irony meter soars:

Besides his wife, the former Evelyn Thomas, whom he married in 1943, Dr. Billings is survived by eight of their nine children (emphasis added), and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

If natural family planning is followed perfectly pregnancies result between 1 to 9 percent of the time depending on the method. However compliance (that is, chiefly periodic sexual abstinence) is rarely perfect, so actual the actual pregnancy rate is closer to 25 percent.

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  1. A biology teacher at my (Jesuit) college put it neatly: “Do you know what they call people who rely on the rhythm method? Parents.”

  2. I don’t get natural family planning. Why is it somehow less sinful to try and trick god than it is to use a condom?

  3. Down with NFP. Yeah, you know me.

  4. Natural family planning, not to be confused with the rhythm method, does have a place. About 15 years ago my wife and I used it for a couple of years with great success, success being defined as not getting pregnant. She was having an adverse reaction to BCPs, we did not really want kids yet but it would not have been the end of the world had she conceived, and it gave us that downtime a woman allegedly needs between being on the pill and being fertile again. All in all, and for no spiritual reason whatsoever, we found it quite useful.

  5. If natural family planning is followed perfectly pregnancies result between 1 to 9 percent of the time depending on the method.

    I don’t think it’s being followed perfectly if there is still 1-9% error rate.

  6. Is it any more ironic than naming a condom brand after a pharoah who fathered about a hundred kids?

  7. The real “irony” of the rhythm method is that the Catholic Church was pushing a sexual practice that was in direct contradiction with the church’s own teaching–that sexual intercourse was only “moral” when engaged in by a married couple for the purpose of procreation. For this reason, the Catholic Church has always objected to any form of contraception. But somehow the rhythm method didn’t count. O the hypocrisy!

  8. The real “irony” of the rhythm method is that the Catholic Church was pushing a sexual practice that was in direct contradiction with the church’s own teaching–that sexual intercourse was only “moral” when engaged in by a married couple for the purpose of procreation. For this reason, the Catholic Church has always objected to any form of contraception. But somehow the rhythm method didn’t count. O the hypocrisy!

    It’s not hypocritical. Sin is determined as much by one’s intentions as one’s actions. The church teaches that non-artificial means of regulating procreation when done for moral reasons, as opposed to selfish ones, is acceptable. NFP meets the criteria of being natural, unlike condoms or pills. But the practioners still have to police their own motvies behind using it.

  9. Please explain the “irony” of Dr. Billings having several children.

    From the article:

    “The Billings method can be used either to prevent conception or to bring it about, with couples abstaining from sex or engaging in it on the woman’s most fertile days.”

    The Guttmacher Institute data include a 9% failure rate for the “calendar” method, and you seem to use that datum for your 9% figure. However, I thought “calendar” meant rhythm method, not Billings method. The Guttmacher data suggests a Billings failure rate similar to that of the male condom (2%), although the Australian Medical Association doctor quoted by the *Times* says the male condom failure rate is only 1%. I guess the Guttmacher Institute is just trying to purvey anti-condom propaganda.

  10. The Guttmacher data also give a 6% failure rate for the diaphragm if properly used, and a 9% (lower level) failure rate for the sponge.

  11. MM: I linked to the Guttmacher info so that all of the data would be available to Reason readers. Natural family planning encompasses several techniques including the Billings Method. I thought it relevant that the “failure” rate for actual use of the Billings method is about 25 percent.

  12. I’ve always been amused by the fact that while most people get to use physics for their birth control, we Catholics are limited to mathematics. 🙂

  13. I don’t see the irony about two Catholic doctors one of whom is a pediatrician wanting to have a large family. A large number of people use the Billings method and other NFP methods to become pregnant.

  14. One suspects that more and more Catholics simply ignore the official doctrine on condoms.

  15. JParker: I’d say its similar if not identical to a 600 lb man teaching an exercise class. He could probably lose the weight if he wanted to since he knows the most efficient techniques and dietary methods, but he doesn’t choose to use them. Similarly Billing’s method is about birth control in that its a morally acceptable (to the Catholic Church) alternative to pills or “unnatural” methodology, but he doesn’t show that it is particularly effective to prevent pregnancy.

  16. Question for anyone who has a decent knowledge of Catholic theology: My understanding of the church’s opposition to birth control was that sex was supposed to always be “open to the possibility of procreation” or something to that effect. Given that reasoning, why is this method ok but the pill, condoms, etc, are not? Does the church approve of any birth control method that has a failure rate of X percent or higher?

  17. Wow Dave,

    That is a good question. Your understanding of the Church’s opposition is similar to mine.

    IIRC, the Church has some opaque reasoning justifying the Billings method over other kinds of ‘artificial’ birth control. It is as similarly opaque as their statements regarding how the bread and wine they serve at communion is actually blood and flesh. (Yes, Catholics still believe it).

  18. Why does Mr. Bailey seem to assume that Billings’s large family size was the result of the failure of NFP. This may come as a surprise to him, but there are some people who *want* to have a lot of children. NFP can help them accomplish that.

  19. The real “irony” of the rhythm method is that the Catholic Church was pushing a sexual practice that was in direct contradiction with the church’s own teaching–that sexual intercourse was only “moral” when engaged in by a married couple for the purpose of procreation.

    This characterization of Catholic teaching is what is technically referred to, in Catholic moral theology, as horseshit.

  20. Does the church approve of any birth control method that has a failure rate of X percent or higher?

    No more than it approves the telling of lies that have little or no chance of actually deceiving the listener.

  21. Avoiding pregnancy should be evaluated by its intent, not the method.

    Avoiding pregnancy by NFP has ZERO difference in motive or intent from condoms or the pill. None whatsoever. Zero. Zip. Nada. The idea of the “Naturalness” of the method is silly. It’s a facile argument to delude people with “my g the mucus(sp?) isreligion is better than yours” types of posturing.

    In all cases, the motive and intent is a desire to have sex and NOT get pregnant. Reasoning doesn’t get more simple – or more natural – than that.

  22. Sorry…that should read:

    It’s a facile argument to delude people with “my religion is better than yours” types of posturing.

  23. In all cases, the motive and intent is a desire to have sex and NOT get pregnant. Reasoning doesn’t get more simple – or more natural – than that.

    So if my motive and intent are to get rich, it’s morally all the same whether I accomplish this by working my ass off, conducting a Nigerian bank scam, picking your pocket, or robbing you at gunpoint? Or, to use my analogy about lying (above), it’s all the same if I lie to you about my recent inheritance or simply refrain from talking, if my motive and intent is to have my money without being hit up for a loan?

  24. madpad,

    I think the larger point is that calling one form of contraception “natural” while calling another form “unnatural” is at best fairly arbitrary.

  25. Sophistry, Seamus.

    Your analogies have no bearing…and they’re a desperate reach for a lame point.

    In your analysis, there’s a major difference in each of those methods of becoming rich.

    However, for two married Catholics in a reasonably healthy marriage, there’s no significant difference in screwing with a condom, screwing on the pill or screwing when the mucus is just right when the motive is the same in all cases…to screw and not get pregnant.

    What’s really going on is that the institution of the Catholic Church backed itself into a corner on this issue and has arrived at a clunky solution to make it’s adherant happy. Which explains why a remarkable number of American Catholics skip NFP and use the pill.

  26. When people say, “God created humans to be sexually receptive regardless of whether there is a possibility of conceiving, and to derive great pleasure from the act, but people who believe in God should only have sex to procreate because sex for fun is immoral,” what I hear them say is, “God screwed up.”

  27. However, for two married Catholics in a reasonably healthy marriage, there’s no significant difference in screwing with a condom, screwing on the pill or screwing when the mucus is just right when the motive is the same in all cases…to screw and not get pregnant.

    This isn’t an argument; this is simply begging the question. You state the premise that there’s no significant difference in the two acts (without explaining what you’d regard as a “significant” difference), then rely on that that premise to reach the conclusion that — surprise! — they are morally indistinguishable. Or maybe you’d argue that “significant” means “done with a different motive.” If so, you really haven’t explained why you seem to think that “if the motive of the two acts is the same then the morality of the acts is not significantly different” is a moral principle that’s valid only when the motive in question is screwing and not getting pregnant.

  28. If anyone would like to do a little light reading on why NFP is different from contraception, go to
    http://nfp.freehostia.com/theo.html.

  29. NFP isn’t contraception. It’s selective abstinence.

  30. I sense a lot of anti- Catholic hostilities in some of the comments on this topic. Most of the ideas stated are based on the ignorance of Catholic dostrine, not a true understanding. The Church has been around for over 2000 yrs. You should actually study why the Church supports NFP before you bash it. This also holds true for the comment on believeing in the Holy Eucharist. Try reading John Chapter six. ALL of IT!!

  31. Another note to add. All Christian denominations opposed artificial birth control up until the 1930 or 40’s. Since the “liberating revolution” of the pill, other churches have went back on their beliefs. NFP is a wonderful gift to any marriage.

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