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A Life’s Work: Nature’s Own

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When I was eighteen, I traveled to India alone and wound up working at one of Mother Teresa's missions in Calcutta. One day, the nuns and the volunteers were gathered in the courtyard for a special presentation by a friendly elderly couple from Australia named John and Evelyn Billings. Since the Billings were Catholics and from an organization called WOOMB, I assumed we had a standard anti-abortion lecture in store. Instead, they broke out diagrams of the female anatomy and went into graphic detail about the sex act, the function of the vagina, and the mucus all women produce in the course of their menstrual cycle.
    Practitioners of the Billings Method chart their cervical mucus pattern and come to know, based on their body's signals, when their six-day-long fertile window falls, and thus when to abstain or have sex, depending on whether they're trying to avoid or achieve pregnancy. It requires periodic abstinence. The Alan Guttmacher Institute cites the chance of not getting pregnant using the Method as 97% when practiced perfectly and 78% when practiced typically. Dr. Evelyn Billings cites a greater than 99% effectiveness, citing a study done in China. (Condoms are 98% efffective with perfect use, 85% with typical use).
   Sure, the method comes from a faith-based desire to decrease the number of abortions in the world and the couple is reluctant to admit any other method of birth control rivals theirs, but it's hard to take issue with the basic strategy: making women more in tune with their bodies and men more attentive to their women.
   Recently, I spoke with the Doctors Billings by phone at their home in Australia. They're now both nearly eighty-eight years old, have been around the world many times, and have nineteen great-grandchildren. — Ada Calhoun

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People don't tend to see Catholics as very sex-positive, but you're very vocally in favor of sex.
John: It's very important for generating love between a man and a woman. If they care enough about each other they will pay attention to each other and will pay a lot of attention to their own fertility and reproduction. And then they will love the child when it comes into existence.

Using your method, a woman becomes very conscious of her body.
Evelyn: Yes, she knows that her body is healthy, and she knows also if there's something going wrong. She can say "Well, this isn't like it ought to be." And she can get medical attention ahead of time to correct anything.

How does the Billings Method work, briefly?
John: If she wants to understand her fertility, a woman must study the cycle every day and she will identify a pattern of what we call mucus. She learns to study that pattern day to day, and during the fertile period, the mucus becomes very slippery and at the same time the vulva — that's the outer part of the woman's reproductive system — swells. That's all indicating that now the woman is ovulating. Then immediately after that the slipperiness disappears and the swelling of the vulva also disappears.

Drs. Evelyn and John Billings

You were a neurologist in the early sixties when you started all this. How did you become interested in cervical mucus?
John: I got into the work because women were being given the contraceptive pill and that proved to be quite poisonous for a number of them. Many of them got blood clots and those blood clots caused strokes. These women were being brought to the hospital in Melbourne, having had a stroke. And we realized that this was being caused by sensitivity to the contraceptive pill. My colleague Professor [James] Brown, a wonderful endocrinologist, recorded 750,000 cycles in women and proved the mucus theory.

Did people think John was crazy, Evelyn?
Evelyn: Well, John went to the medical library and discovered reference to mucus and began to ask women about it. He then realised the significance of mucus and fertility. Nobody had asked the women much about it in those days. But he got a very positive response when he asked them. When he asked if they noticed mucus between one menstruation and the next, they all said yes. The women were rather surprised that he knew anything about it since he's a man!

You've attacked the Pill, but it comes in a much lower dose now than it did when you were seeing all those strokes.
Evelyn: The Pill is still causing damage. It's frustrating the natural process. Now, people are talking a lot about the environment, but there's a very important environment in a woman's body. The process of the Pill is, of course, to cause infertility. Now that's a very serious disruption of a natural process. And then as far as condoms are concerned, that's not reliable.

But condoms have nearly the same percentage of effectiveness you assign the Billings Method when practiced perfectly — in the upper nineties — and unlike your method, they protect against STDs. What about condom distribution in Africa? Surely that's a good thing.
Evelyn: Unfortunately, it has proven to be quite a negative thing. It has given people a false sense of security in believing they are protected. In fact, diseases continue to spread, even with condom use. Couples have not been educated about how to use condoms correctly. They haven't been taught to understand their bodies. And they haven't been given the opportunity of experiencing a natural method of regulation and they think that condoms will be a cure-all.

Do you see a great difference between the sexual practices and needs of couples from one country to the next?
John:Well, we've found all around the world that men and women, husbands and wives, couples, they're all the same. They all respond to this method that we've taught.

Do you have children?
John:We do. We've got nine children. That's a big family these days, but of course this was during the Second World War. The thought in Australia was populate or perish. Anyway, we are very fond of children.  

    Click here to read other features from the Reproductive Rights Issue

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©2005 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com