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When the State pilots procreative choices

· A conversation with Teresa Lee who teaches the Billings method in South Korea ·

“About ten years ago married women, mostly in their thirties, were coming to me wanting to know how to avoid becoming pregnant by using natural methods”. These are the words of Teresa Lee, 52 years old, who graduated from the Catholic University of Seoul with a thesis on “How a thorough knowledge of fertility influences bioethical awareness”.

Teresa has been working with the Happy Family Movement for 16 years. Her activity consists in educating and counselling women or couples regarding the natural methods for regulating fertility, especially the Billings method and NaPro Technology [Natural Procreative Technology] (a natural method for monitoring and maintaining women’s reproductive and gynaecological health). “Today instead women come to me for exactly the opposite reason: how to become pregnant through natural systems. In 10 years the situation has been reversed!” We are sitting at a bar just beside Myeongdong Cathedral; our interpreter is Agnes, who works for the Archdiocese of Seoul in the Pro-life Committee.

Let's start at the beginning...

Ten years ago the women who came to the counselling centre had become pregnant against their will and many of them had had an abortion. This was because the traditional contraceptives do not always work. I informed them about the Billings method which has a success rate of over 90 per cent. Much depends on the woman's attitude to these techniques. The psychological approach is very important. A woman who intends to try the Billings method must realize that it requires commitment and great dedication. The problem is that many women are still diffident with regard to these natural methods and come to me with an already negative prejudice.

A fine contradiction, if one thinks of the commercial success of biological products of all kinds: in their case everything that is natural is healthy.

I have worked in this field for many years now and I can say that the Billings method is far more scientific than contraceptive methods of a traditional kind. But women are not sufficiently informed. In the press or on television, not a word is said about it. The Church here in Korea is sceptical and real financial support is lacking: in a certain way, I regret to say, even the Church seems to have adapted to the spirit of the times.

Is it because the method is not very convenient?

Many women find the practice of this method too demanding. It can take six months to a year to make the natural method fully functional, whereas using a condom requires no kind of preparation whatsoever. But nowadays women come to us because they have the opposite problem: they don’t succeed in having children. However the marriage age has risen notably. The women who come to me today are over 40 and have had no children, even though they have been married for several years. The paradox is that in the past many of these women have used the pill and now that they would like to have a child discover that they can’t. But there are also psychological problems. Besides teaching natural methods to increase the chances of becoming pregnant, we also try to restore a natural harmony in the couple.

In South Korea for many years the government policy encouraged the use of contraceptives and even sterilization.

Until 1996 there was a policy that encouraged women to undergo sterilization and the operation was totally free of charge. Furthermore there were incentives for couples to have only one child. Then all of a sudden the government realized that the Korean population is aging too fast and sounded the alarm. There is no moral evaluation in all this, it all boils down to a mere economic calculation: if there are fewer babies today it means that within one or two generations there will be fewer people contributing to support the pensions system required by an ever aging population. So it is the economy that dictates the common ethical values.

What were the incentives the government used in the past to keep the birth rate under control?

Previously you could go to a health centre and obtain free pills or condoms. Whereas today the government promotes the spread of artificial insemination, an about turn!

At this point Agnes spoke. She works in the Pro life Committee, founded in 2005, which organizes four-week seminars whose teaching is based on the central values of Catholic doctrine. Agnes, like many young Koreans who can afford it, studied for two years in Australia. In Korea, having a good knowledge of English is essential in order to get high marks in language tests, certificates of which must be submitted in a variety of job interviews.

I will tell you briefly what happened to me and my husband. We met at high school when we were very young, but we only became a permanent couple at university. We married in 2005, at the age of 30: neither young nor old, so to speak. For the next three years we tried unsuccessfully to have a child. We wondered whether we might perhaps be suffering from some physical problem: we went to have tests but nothing turned out to be abnormal.

At this point did you decide to try artificial insemination?

Yes. And this went on for at least five years. During this period we made at least 11 attempts, but it never worked. The government financed a substantial part of our first four endeavours: we received a million won for each one (about 700 euros), but it is currently prepared to pay much more. This procedure is extremely expensive, but many couples are so desperate that they will stop at nothing. It is paradoxical that today the government is spending so much money to obtain the very same result (that is, to have more children born) which only a few years ago it was opposing with the same number of financial incentives. And it is incomprehensible how a practice with such a feeble success rate can be promoted and funded by the State.

Are you now thinking of using natural fertility methods?

Only recently have I come to know about this possibility. I met Teresa not long ago and I am beginning to learn a little more in detail what these natural methods consist in. It is certainly a way I intend to explore.

Today, Teresa concludes, many women who have tried artificial insemination without success are coming to me. I am their last hope. Fortunately the Church is now showing an interest in NaPro Technology, which really could prove to be a serious alternative to insemination in a laboratory.

Teresa Lee, a Korean, married with two children, is 52. After graduating from the Catholic University of Seoul she has worked for 16 years in the Happy Family Movement where she teaches the Billings method. She learned this method from Australian couples in 1998 during a five-day seminar held in the city of Daegu. 


Cristian Martini Grimaldi

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