By Robert Conkling
ROME, SEPT. 25, 2008 (Zenit.org).- For a non-Catholic, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae” is not important because it is the Church speaking, but rather because it offers a compelling argument, says Mormon physician Dr. Joe Stanford.
Stanford, a family physician and a researcher in the Creighton Model FertilityCare system and NaPro Technology, was a speaker at the 27th annual meeting of the American Academy of FertilityCare Professionals, held this summer in Rome.
Stanford, a professor in the department of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah, spoke to ZENIT about his take on “Humanae Vitae,” as well as the role faith plays in his medical practice.
Q: Have you read “Humanae Vitae”?
Stanford: Yes. I first read “Humanae Vitae” in 1991 and several times since then. I think it is an inspired document. I think it captures fundamental aspects of human nature. He [Pope Paul VI] really hits the nail on the head regarding the dark side of contraception, sterilization and abortion and their effects on society.
Although I do not think divorce, promiscuity, teen pregnancy are exclusively the result of contraception, I also think these are not unrelated to contraception. I think contraception is a heavy part of the fuel behind the sexual revolution and many of the problems in society we are facing.
I think “Humanae Vitae” is basically a prophetic statement.
Q: If more physicians read “Humanae Vitae,” do you think their approach to women or the problems married couples face might be different?
Stanford: Yes, but a qualified yes. I think you have to read “Humanae Vitae” with an open mind, which really means with an open heart. You have to be willing to really consider what Pope Paul VI says and not just judge it. In medical training, the culture is so steeped with acceptance of standard medical practices, that to question it is very difficult. And I do not mean just difficult from a peer pressure point of view, although that is part of the difficulty. But it is difficult to even come around to a different way of thinking when you have always been immersed in one way of thinking.
I am not Catholic, so for me it was not an issue of reading the document because it was the Church speaking. It became an issue because many of the Catholic physicians I have come to know and respect — [Dr.] Tom Hilgers being one of them — and who have become moral mentors for me in medicine — told me “Humanae Vitae” was a moral guide in their life. So I wanted to know what the document said and what it means.
So, for me it was not an ecclesiastically binding document. If you are not Catholic, you might be inclined to think “this is for Catholics.” Having said that, if you really consider “Humanae Vitae” on its own merits, I think Pope Paul VI really does make a compelling argument that can penetrate the heart and can make a difference.
Q: Is it fair to say then that faith plays a part in how you practice medicine?
Stanford: It definitely does. It is how I see people. I see patients as children of God. That is my faith. And I see my duty to them to be the best, most compassionate and skilled physician I can be, while still respecting patients’ views. Part of my faith, too, is to respect where patients’ are coming from and not demand that they see things my way. Most of my patients now come to me because they want the perspective I provide.
That is a real joy. But I still see patients who do not share my views and come to me and we have to negotiate. I have to inform them where my moral boundaries are — for example, that I will not prescribe oral contraceptives — but without judging them. I respect their ability to make their own choices, but I have to tell them I have certain parameters and boundaries that I operate within.
So, yes, faith is integral to how I practice. It does not mean that I tell patients, “This is my faith and you have to see it my way.” I inform them who I am and that this is the reason for what I do.
Q: There is a medical ethic in vogue today which, if followed, would have physicians believe they must check their faith at the door of their office, examining room or in their teaching. Is this a contradiction to who you then become as a physician?
Stanford: Absolutely. In the end it does not work. It is sort of a myth to say you can check who you are at the door of the examining room, to sort of become a sort of blank slate. Ultimately, you have some values. When I talk to colleagues about this they say I cannot impose my judgments on patients. In one sense I agree with that. But in another sense, it does not mean that I do whatever patients want.
An example I reply with is what if someone comes in and states, “Doctor, I need morphine and I want you to prescribe that to me.” Of course you do not just do it, because there is an assessment required as to whether it is appropriate.
Usually when asked in that way one is predisposed to think it may not be appropriate and for good reason. It is no different with any other medicine. You have to make a judgment. The important distinction is that you are not judging the person or telling him or her what to believe.
As a physician we have to always decide what we think is in the patient’s best interest, within the moral boundaries we set for ourselves, which we describe to patients.
In reality, every physician actually does that whether they acknowledge this or not. Unfortunately, some physicians relax those boundaries and compromise who they are. But they are still presenting somebody they really are in the examination room.
There is no such thing as a physician like a vending machine, because people do not walk in to see a doctor, press a button and out comes what they want. Physicians are professionals. You have boundaries and you have to define what those boundaries are and make judgments appropriately.
Q: You are a researcher with an interest in natural family planning, specifically focusing on the Creighton Model FertilityCare system and NaPro Technology. Is it unusual to have physicians like yourself challenging standard medical approaches to couples’ reproductive potential?
Stanford: That is a very good question. I think to some extent it has always happened. There have always been free thinkers out there who are guided by their own moral compass and try to do what is right for the patient, for good medicine and for good moral medicine.
In some sense this is not new. What is different with respect to NFP, FertilityCare and NaPro Technology is an attempt to bring in the service of systematic science in an ethical-moral framework. That is a marriage I think makes sense. A lot of people may disagree. But I think it makes immanent sense.
What we are trying to develop is a cadre of practicing physicians and scientists who will actually do science within that ethical framework. To make sure that what we are doing is the best we can do and not just do what we have read in a journal or figured out ourselves and tried on some patients. We go that far but then we test it further with our colleagues and use data to evaluate whether what we are doing really is the best way. We then might ask is there another angle we have not thought of?
So, a systematic way allows for two tracks: One is getting many physicians together who are interested in this area of medicine and trying to make it work. That is relatively new, but not completely new. Other groups have done that. What is relatively unique is trying to make this as scientific and systematic as possible. We want to create science that is better than the mainstream medicine and science.