Dr John Billings, creator of the Billings Method of contraception, has died in Melbourne at the age of 89. The Billings Method involves calculating the times at which a woman is most likely to become pregnant (I won’t go into the details, but I daresay it involves a hand mirror), and abstaining during those times.
Billings remains the only form of contraception with the official (if wary) endorsement of the Catholic Church. This does mean that a free and accessible method of birth control is able to be taught in developing countries where other forms may be hard to come by. It also means citizens of those same countries may choose natural birth control over methods that are more reliable, or provide more protection against sexually transmitted disease. At worst, governments of strongly Catholic countries such as the Philippines take the absurd position of officially opposing any other form of contraception – in that case, in an already impoverished country whose population is expected to double by 2050.
There is, of course, a time and place for all forms of birth control, and `natural’ methods such as Billings are often neglected in the wider debate. This may be because they seem such a product of an earlier way of thinking – the era of the Second Vatican Council, and the neighbourhood chemist who required written permission from a woman’s husband before dispensing The Pill (and dispensing it not at all if she had none).
However, this could be said of so many elements of the birth control debate. This of course became evident in the deliberations over the introduction, with the multipartisan support of the late Jeannie Ferris and others, of RU486, a drug already freely available in other industrialised countries since the late 1980s. Nearly a century after the beginning of the organised birth control movement, nearly half a century after the Pill became widely available, the first question asked of potential members of the US Supreme Court still remains whether they would consider overturning the famous Roe vs Wade ruling, which was made nearly forty years ago (I would link to a facinating and illuminating article about this often misunderstood case, but the New Yorker has churlishly taken it offline).
Less than a month ago, the governor of South Dakota signed a bill essentially banning abortion in his state, in a move hailed by some as the beginning of the end for the Roe vs Wade ruling. In NSW, this could never occur, for one simple reason: here, abortion is still criminalised. Doctors must establish a pretext – much as was the situation in marriage before the introduction of the no-fault divorce – of physical or mental hardship before going ahead.
Is this a good thing? Some argue that this is just – that an abortion should or must only take place if physical or mental duress prevents the woman from carrying the baby to term.
Those who have undergone one would argue that despite improved access, and despite wide community acceptance, it’s a decision that is never, ever made lightly, regardless of whether a pretext exists or not.
Setting aside the ethics of abortion, NSW law remains inconsistent with that of other states and, I would suggest, most community expectation. When will it be changed? What government would wish to shake this particular hornet’s nest to make what is in the end simply a correction of current legislation?
Just like Billings, it may all be in the timing.