Two men of science, two very different paths to fertility

| Tom Bengtson | October 13, 2010 | 1 Comment

Most of us don’t think of people suffering professionally because of their faith, but it still happens.

Dr. Josef Roetzer, who died earlier this month, was an example. Roet­zer is the Austrian doctor who im­prov­ed fertility awareness science in the 1950s. His work led to the development of the sympto-thermal meth­od of natural family planning.

Roetzer studied human fertility, recording observations from more than 300,000 cycles. Roetzer discovered that by combining temperature in­formation with mucus observations, periods of fertility and infertility could be identified with ex­treme accuracy. His work was revolutionary, but it was shunned by the establishment, which was dominated by the pharmaceutical industry.

Austrian Bishop Klaus Kung re­por­tedly said that Roetzer “suffered many a setback in his work” due to his Catholic faith.

The Austrian bishops funded Roet­zer from 1966 to 1974 so he could continue his research. In 1986, he founded the Institute for Natural Family Plan­ning, which today is run by his daughter, Elisabeth. At the age of 91, Josef Roetzer died on Oct. 4.

Culture gets it wrong

Ironically, Oct. 4 is the same day the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Robert G. Edwards, the British biologist who developed in vitro fertilization, or IVF. Unlike their reaction to Roetzer’s work, the establishment lauded Edwards’ work. Cynically, one can’t avoid the observation that there are billions of dollars associated with assisted re­pro­ductive technology, while there is almost no money associated with the implementation of fertility awareness.

So often the culture gets it wrong. Church teaching warns against the immorality of IVF while lauding the practice of natural family planning. The modern basis for this teaching is found in Humane Vitae, the landmark encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968. The heart of Humane Vitae is the inseparability of the procreative and unitive as­pects of marriage. At Catholic weddings, the priest often proclaims “let no one divide what God has joined.”

While the theological basis for the church’s teaching on marriage is vast, I like the two creation stories in Genesis for understanding Humane Vitae. In Genesis 1, God tells the man and women to “be fruitful and multiply.” In Genesis 2, it says “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” God gives us two creation stories for many reasons, and one of those reasons is to help us understand the essential components of marriage.

More died than lived

Edwards disregarded that teaching when he developed the technology that led to the birth of the first “test-tube baby,” Louise Brown. Ironi­c­ally, she was born July 25, 1978, 10 years to the day after the publication of Humane Vitae. Since then, more than 4 million children have been born through the in vitro process, but many millions more have died in the laboratory.

IVF typically results in the fertilization of several eggs, with weaker ones culled away in a process euphe­mis­tically called “selective reduction.” Sometimes, the fertilized eggs are saved; today, more than half a million embryos are being preserved in laboratory freezers in this country, posing mind-bending theological and ethical dilemmas.

My wife and I resolved our own difficult infertility trials through adoption. The church teaching helped us to navigate the infertility experience. Without an NFP education organization called the Couple to Couple League, we would never have known of the church teaching.

Roetzer’s work is at the core of the method taught by CCL. I am very grateful to CCL, to the church, and to Josef Roetzer, a man who lived his faith.

Tom Bengtson, who runs a publishing company, can be contacted through his website at

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Category: Faith and the Workplace, Spotlight