At the Faithful to God’s Design: Humanae Vitaeat 50 conference put on by the Archdiocese of Toronto on Nov. 10, Maria Wolfs, a staff endocrinologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, compared how estrogen sends signals to a woman’s ovaries to the way a thermostat will turn the heat on when the temperature drops too low. In her talk, “Your Hormones and Humanae vitae,” she asserted that taking hormonal birth control, like the combined estrogen-progestin pill, is the equivalent of putting thirty space heaters in a room, effectively shutting down the thermostat. In other words, not only is the body flooded with much more estrogen than it should have, but also, its natural reproductive system is being suppressed.
When a woman faces health problems related to her hormones, the default response of many health care professionals is to prescribe the pill which has a number of deleterious side-effects: completely overriding the woman’s natural regulation of her hormonal levels; increasing her chances of breast cancer, blood clots, depression, and other health ailments; and potentially preventing a newly-created embryo from implanting in her uterus. When a couple faces infertility, they are often pushed towards artificial means of conception like in-vitro fertilization, or what the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Nebraska, refers to as a “band-aid approach” to the treatment of infertility.
Restorative reproductive medicine, however, aims to actually correct the underlying problem the woman is facing, without subjecting her to morally objectionable methods, or unnecessary and dangerous side effects. The International Institute for Restorative Reproductive Medicine defines restorative reproductive medicine as, “any scientific approach to reproductive medicine that seeks to cooperate with or restore the normal physiology and anatomy of the human reproductive system.” The Institute states that “this approach respects the integrity of the human person and the right of women and men to have access to reproductive health care that respects their right to understand and cooperatively manage their own fertility, with appropriate medical assistance” and “does not employ methods that are inherently suppressive, circumventive or destructive.” They claim that restorative reproductive medicine can help with anything from infertility and miscarriage to postpartum depression to conditions like premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
As Wolfs put it in the continuation of her analogy: There is a manual to fixing the furnace when it is broken; you do not have to turn off the thermostat. This troubleshooting process requires the collaboration of both health care provider and patient, as patients are taught to observe and chart biological markers. One of the most common methods, pioneered by Thomas W. Hilgers of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, is referred to as NaProtechnology (Natural Procreative Technology). It involves tracking bleeding and cervical mucus patterns according to the Creighton Model FertilityCare System, which is also used by couples practicing natural family planning. Not only do these “biomarkers” communicate fertility levels, but they also indicate any deviations from a healthy menstrual cycle. Medical treatment is based, in part, off this chart, along with lab, ultrasound, and other test results, and may be adjusted according to changes that are tracked in the chart.
Restorative reproductive medicine may also involve surgical NaProtechnology (e.g. excising endometriosis while avoiding subsequent adhesions), but when invasive methods are employed, restorative reproductive medicine is, as always, aiming to return the body to its natural functioning. When restoration is not possible, “optimization” is striven for.
Restorative reproductive medicine has a record of successes. Catholic Health Services of Long Island in New York, for instance, asserts that, “contrasted with artificial reproductive technologies such as intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and intracytoplasmic sperm infiltration (ICSI), RRM [restorative reproductive medicine] techniques are more effective.” One study conducted by researchers from the International Institute of Restorative Reproductive Medicine and published in theJournal of the American Board of Family Medicinein 2008 found that 52.8 per cent of patients who try to conceive using NaProTechnology and complete treatment could expect to successfully give birth. An IVF cycle for a woman under the age of 35 has a success rate of around 40 per cent, and it is significantly more expensive.
Many couples struggling to conceive and women trying to address health concerns may be buoyed by this commitment to what Wolfs calls “authentic women’s health,” but they also may be left waiting, as Wolfs indicated that there is only a handful of physicians actually practicing restorative reproductive medicine. The website fertilitycare.org has a list of centres which are able to connect patients to these physicians.