By Julie Sly
Photography by Jose Velasquez
When Dr. Gretchen Marsh, a family practice physician in Yuba City for the past 20 years, decided to come into the Catholic Church though the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Isidore Parish in 1997, it was because of her great love for the Eucharist.
Married to her husband, Jon, also a physician, for 13 years, part of her faith formation and study included examining church teaching on human sexuality and contraception, as expressed in Pope Paul VI’s July 1968 encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).
“Until that point, I had been practicing medicine as a typical family doctor and prescribed birth control pills and contraceptives,” says Gretchen, who was raised in the Methodist Church. She and Jon met during medical school at Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona.
“I knew about and was willing to follow church teaching, but I needed more information as a physician, wife and mother. I had to ask why. I read Humanae Vitae and everything I could. God gave me a scientific brain and so that’s how he led me to the answer – through the science. It was a lightbulb turned on moment for me. I didn’t want to be picking and choosing what truths I wanted to believe. God is the way, the truth and the life…so it was up to me to understand the parts of church teaching I didn’t understand.”
She sought out training with Dr. Thomas W. Hilgers and the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, affiliated with the Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb. She learned the science and medical aspects of the Creighton Model Fertility Care System (CrMS) of Natural Family Planning (NFP), while also learning more about the theology and philosophy of church teaching. She felt God was shaping her philosophy on medicine, making her more aware of authentic Catholic teaching on human fertility, in particular regarding women’s reproduction.
“It was a huge turning point for me, not only professionally but personally,” she says. “It was a journey for my husband as well, as we learned more about natural reproductive technology.”
She became certified as a CrMS teacher as well as a medical consultant in a new women’s health science called Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro Technology). While her five sons (now ages 16 to 29) were young, she taught the Creighton Model to couples for years at her dining room table at home, before she went back into family practice.
While serving on the staff for many years of Rideout Family Physicians, she shared with her colleagues and patients that she would not prescribe traditional contraceptives, do vasectomies or perform abortions. “I was fortunate that my medical colleagues were fine with this, though some people thought it was a little odd,” she says. “I said I offer natural alternatives in its place. With time, people have become comfortable with it. They see that this is not just about family planning, but about women’s health care overall.”
She gives informational materials to interested patients explaining why she offers CrMS for family planning, diagnosis of menstrual disorders and reproductive diseases and conditions, the benefits of charting menstrual cycles, and the side effects of traditional birth control.
“For family planning, CrMS allows couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy without chemicals or procedures. The woman’s health is protected and if menstrual disorders arise, diagnosis can be made more quickly and accurately.
“Learning to chart her cycles educates a woman about her body and puts her in the ‘driver’s seat’ of her health care. Couples of normal fertility choosing to avoid pregnancy with CrMS have a 96.8 percent (Journal of Reproductive Medicine, June 1998) success rate, which is comparable to other methods.
“Charting is also for young, single women who are having menstrual problems, because the biological signs a woman records are proven to accurately reflect internal body changes. These changes as indicated on her chart help to time blood tests and ultrasounds based on her physiology and therefore aid in more accurate diagnosis and treatment of underlying disorders.”
Gretchen explains that side effects of the pill, the patch, the ring, the shot and IUDs include post-fertilization miscarriage (baby can’t implant into the womb), increases in stroke, heart attack and blood clots, and depression, especially in adolescents, to name a few. The chemicals in these products, she adds, have increased risk of breast, liver and endometrial cancer, especially in teens. IUDs “work locally on the endometrium and allow ovulation to occur. Therefore pregnancy occurs more often than women realize, but ends in miscarriage because the developing embryo has difficulty implanting in the womb.”
She treated a large number of teenage girls, college women, as well as single women of all ages and married couples, mainly because of menstrual cycle disorders. She also saw “a fairly large number of couples who are infertile. It’s so much more than just (achieving) pregnancy. It’s women’s health and then by relationship it is men’s health, because as a family physician I also treat the men. It’s a huge benefit for women to understand their cycles, because their normal cycles are a reflection of underlying health and their abnormal cycles are a reflection of underlying disease.”
Many teenage girls ask questions about their fertility and health at an early age and already use smartphone apps to track their menstrual cycles, but usually without proper knowledge of what they are doing. “I always reiterate, don’t use the app as a way to avoid pregnancy – you need a trained teacher in one of the NFP models to help you -- that is always paramount. You have to know the right kind of data to put in.”
With NaPro Technology and other areas of restorative reproductive medicine, “the research is just exploding, and the science for me just keeps pointing back to how right the church is in its teaching on sexuality,” Gretchen notes. “This is not about putting restraints on women. It’s about empowering women, helping men and women live in better relationships, especially in marriage, and fostering respect for each other. It’s countercultural and flies in the face of what the world teaches right now. “I sometimes tell people -- tongue in cheek -- that Catholic sexuality is the best sexuality. It’s the one that’s the most true, and the science and the medicine are now building up enough where they support all of the philosophy and theology.”
Her study of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” taught her that “human sexuality is integral to the human person, and when you start damaging that, whether from a medical or philosophical view, you start damaging the person. Sexuality is integral, it is key to the person, it overflows and permeates everything.”
Gretchen’s approach is to treat each patient in the likeness of God, as a child of God, regardless of religious, cultural or ethnic background or beliefs. “When I speak about NFP, it resonates with people. I have taught people of all religious faiths and no faith. I have Sikhs, Baptists, Mormons and atheists among my patients. My Catholic faith and studying Theology of the Body helped me tremendously. Each patient I treat has their own struggles and they are trying the best they can. Interacting with patients helps me grow as a person and to not take anyone for granted.”
She shares her approach with different audiences, including local community groups, as well as giving talks on NFP and NaPro Technology to marriage preparation and RCIA groups at local parishes. At the recent Diocesan Ministry Days, she presented to teens, youth ministers and parents the medical facts about human sexuality and reproduction, including the harm to women and men from the contraceptive mentality, the physical consequences of contraception, and the medical benefits of the Catholic approach to sexuality.
Her approach to making people more aware of NFP and NaPro Technology is one of “planting the seeds.”
“All of us are on a journey, and the right information sometimes will need months or years to germinate,” she notes. “The church does not call you to have as many children as you physically can. The church says rightly, be open to God’s life in you. I had one woman from a RCIA talk who kept my card for five years with no pregnancies before she came to see me. I like to say I’m a blockhead biologist. I keep doing research and training. It’s had a huge impact on my faith, helping my faith to grow. Every little bit just reveals more of how awesome God is.”
For questions about Natural Family Planning or NaPro Technology, email Gretchen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Fertility Care (CrMS) and NaPro Technology from the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction at https://popepaulvi.com.
About facts about fertility from the Family Medicine Education Consortium at https://factsaboutfertility.org.