Aussie Doctor Evelyn Billings Promotes a New Birth Control Device—a Woman's Own Body
As a natural birth control method, the Billings technique has the Pope's blessing, and in tests conducted by the World Health Organization, it has been shown to be 97 percent effective if used according to guidelines. By comparison, other studies have found the Pill to be 99.5 percent effective, the IUD 93 to 97 percent, and the diaphragm 97 percent effective if used correctly. Says Ann Westmore, a science writer who collaborated with Lyn Billings on her recently published book, The Billings Method: Controlling Fertility Without Drugs or Devices (Random House, $12.95), the WHO study "established conclusively that women can be relied upon to recognize their signals of fertility."
The method is based primarily upon the daily monitoring of the mucus at the vaginal opening—how it looks and feels. Generally, when it is sticky and opaque, or when there is no mucus at all, it signals a period of infertility. As the woman prepares to ovulate, however, the mucus becomes slippery and clearer, indicating possible fertility. The mucus may exhibit these fertile characteristics on and off for up to half the time of the average 28-day cycle. On these risky days, a couple should abstain from sex. No woman will actually be fertile on all, or even most, of those days, but, as Lyn Billings explains, "The guidelines have been formulated for maximum security."
The Billingses don't claim to have discovered their method. They point out that it has been used for generations by several African tribes and Australian aboriginal nomads. John Billings began to research the technique in 1953 after a Melbourne priest asked him to help parishioners who found the rhythm method restrictive and unreliable. (In the rhythm method, fertile days are calculated based on the length of prior menstrual cycles and may entail lengthy periods of abstention.) Billings didn't write about his findings until 1964, when Lyn became interested in them. Two years later she replaced her husband as a trainer of teachers. "It became clear," she recalls, "that woman-to-woman teaching was the effective way of getting the message across. The problem for men who have tried to teach the method is that they can never experience ovulation and therefore can only dimly appreciate the observations and sensations of the cervical mucus."
Using government funds tunneled to her through the Church, Lyn began teaching the method in clinics she set up in Australia. Catholic clergy in other countries soon became interested, and in 1977 the Billingses helped to create the World Organization of the Ovulation Method—Billings (WOOMB) to help spread the word. In addition, Lyn and her husband have traveled from Asia to Latin America, teaching the Billings technique at the invitation of local governments and churches. Their work has been praised by many doctors, including Dr. Henry Burger, professor of medicine at Melbourne's Monash University, who says it is valuable "because it does not involve the use of hormonal medications or foreign bodies or devices."
But the method also has critics. Dr. Arnold Roufa, medical director of the Margaret Sanger Center of Planned Parenthood of New York City, warns, "It's not for everyone. There are too many factors to monitor, and it may take six to eight months before you have those factors down." Gynecologist John Leeton, a colleague of Dr. Burger's at Monash, claims the method's failure rate can be as high as 30 percent, but the Billingses dispute this. "The 30 percent figure includes people who recognize the fertile characteristics and still exercise their options," maintains Lyn Billings. "That is a personal decision, not a failure of the method."
The daughter of an engineer father and a mother who worked as a secretary, Lyn, 63, is a native of Melbourne. She received her medical degree at Melbourne University and now teaches histology and embryology there. John, also 63, whom she met in medical school, is a neurologist and associate dean at Melbourne University's Faculty of Medicine. The couple has nine grown children and 23 grandchildren. Although they are practicing Catholics, the Billingses are quick to point out that their method is, as Lyn says, "non-sectarian. What we are teaching," she declares, "is normal physiology. It's a gift of knowledge that all women are entitled to have."
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