Reprinted with kind permission from The Catholic Weekly, Sydney Australia.
by Sharyn Marchant
April 5, 2009
“It was a movement of faith initially; we felt called to this work,” says Dr Evelyn Billings.
Evelyn, who was born in Melbourne in 1918 and grew up in the Riverina, established the Billings Ovulation Method in 1953 with her husband, the late Dr John Billings.
“The method came about through my husband in the 1950s, when the Pill came into vogue,” she says.
“There was only the rhythm method offered (for natural family planning), but a lot of people weren’t interested in the Pill or other contraceptives, and were anxious to know of an alternative.”
The couple teamed up with a priest who had been asked by Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix to oversee marriage and family relationships in the archdiocese.
“The archbishop could see that disturbed children were coming from disturbed families and he asked Fr Maurice Catarinich to do something about the problem.
“Fr Catarinich said almighty God would not leave his people without a solution, and he and John both believed that there would be some provision in nature.
“John said he didn’t know much about family planning; he was more interested in having a family than preventing it, but he said he would help out for three months, and that was in 1953.
“He realised very quickly that the couples were using the rhythm method, which of course wasn’t reliable in so many cases, so that was unsatisfactory.”
Keen to overcome the limitations of the rhythm method, John realised a marker of ovulation was needed.
As well as examining medical texts, he had the foresight to turn to women themselves in search of this marker.
“Information about this had been written up 100 years before, but nobody thought of asking women about it, so that’s what John did,” Evelyn says.
“That was the brilliant stroke, really, talking to women and asking them to identify it.
“Up until that point, it had been mainly men working in that field, but when women got into the act they were able to show that this was verifiable right throughout the female population.
“That was the exciting thing, it was really quite extraordinary, and when it was put to women that this was something they could do themselves, they were encouraged to try to do that.”
In the early 1960s, New Zealand-born Prof James Brown arrived in Melbourne after working in Edinburgh assessing the effects of the contraceptive pill.
The Drs Billings asked Prof Brown to verify the results of their new method, which was immediately proven to be more effective than the rhythm method.
“The statistics on both counts (for avoiding pregnancy and achieving pregnancy) are very good; it’s 75 per cent for a couple trying to conceive and 99 per cent for those not wanting to conceive.
“I had a letter yesterday from a woman in Ireland telling me about a couple she had just helped, who had been trying for ever so long to have a child.
“These people were from Zimbabwe and they came to Ireland and she taught them, and within three months they had conceived. That story has occurred I don’t know how many times over the years, but my husband and I always got a thrill when we received one of those letters.”
Evelyn and John met in a dissecting room at medical school where he was a year ahead of her and was part of a special group of students entrusted to advise second-year students. Among these students was Evelyn.
Asked whether there was an instant attraction, she says: “He said there was but I didn’t really know about it; I was more interested in the dead body!”
Four years later they married, in February 1943. In August of that year, John was recruited to serve in Papua New Guinea, where he remained for 15 months.
“It was just awful, we had only been married for eight months, and then he came home and met his daughter for the first time. She was 11 months old and it was just extraordinary.”
Upon returning to Australia, John was offered a scholarship to study medicine, and he and Evelyn moved to England to study for a year.
“We had left the children with my parents because things were very tough in England, there wasn’t much to eat, and we thought it would be in their best interests to leave them at home.
“When we came home we brought another baby with us.”
Evelyn now has eight surviving children, 33 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
“They keep me busy, but I’m very well looked after,” she says.
And she is still associated with the Billings organisation – the Ovulation Method Research and Reference Centre of Australia,
“I haven’t given them any formal date for retirement yet!
“They are quite capable of running the whole thing, but it was a lifetime for me, it is part of me.”
The role of the centre is to “maintain the authenticity of the method and the teaching of the method”, as Evelyn says many people have attempted to “complicate” it over the years.
“The teaching phase of the method began in 1960, and there have been tremendous advances in the teaching process, but the method itself has become simpler and simpler.
“We’re still finding people who want to make it more and more complicated by putting various devices with it. “I can see people doing foolish things from time to time, such as lining it up to a monitor, and we will run a few cycles through it and see that the accuracy is reduced and it is time-consuming and expensive.
“The traditional method works best, and you can see that when you teach it in a community. You see the women holding their heads high; they are proud to be telling their husbands what’s what for a change.”
According to Evelyn, the Billings Method has been particularly embraced in China, where the government claims to be anti-abortion but maintains a strict one-child policy.
“At the end of 2000 the method was being used by more than 3½ million fertile couples in China,” she says.
“The results were so good, about 99 per cent effective, that we have saved lots and lots of abortions.
“The abortion rate was dramatically diminished because women didn’t get pregnant if they didn’t want to, and the government became convinced that the method was satisfactory.
“It’s not a contraceptive; it’s a method whereby we teach women to understand their own body and what they do with that information is entirely up to them, and that is completely different from contraception.”
Evelyn says anecdotal accounts of doctors prescribing the contraceptive pill to young teenagers as a way of combating acne is “reprehensible”.
“We’re gaining ground on the education of doctors, and we are teaching medical students through community placement with second year students from Monash University.
“They are coming to it fresh and don’t have the prejudice to overcome, so they are generally very accepting of it.
“That’s the big advantage of teaching them young.”
As a great advocate for marriage, Evelyn believes the sexual revolution can be blamed for the attitude of expendability many young people bring to relationships.
“People have lost their sense of trust; that sense of trust has gone out of their concept of partnership.
“There is an attitude that if it doesn’t work, we will just move on, and that is not marriage.
“Sometimes I find it hard when I’m talking to people with this attitude, because marriage isn’t too hard.”
In her own marriage of 64 years, Evelyn and her husband faced a war and the loss of a child, hard times in war-ravaged London, and the natural trials of life with nine children, but “it would be pretty dull if there was nothing but smooth sailing”.
“I think you’ve got to be sensible and choose well in the beginning; marriage is a very practical thing, it’s not all sunsets and sunrises and birds singing, there are hard times, and marriage vows recognise this. There will be times of sickness and hardship and economic problems, but if you really love a person then you can get through anything.”
Although her John died in 2007 at the age of 89, Evelyn says she is comforted by the love they shared and the fact that she had no regrets.
“It must be awful to be married to somebody and have an indifferent relationship. I think the remorse that follows death in some cases must be agonising.
“I think love overcomes grief, and for me it was a big loss, but there was no regret.”