The following are excerpts from Sue Hilgers’ presentation to the audience at Nebraskans’ Embracing Life’s Annual Celebration of Life Dinner in January 2019 when Dr. Thomas W. Hilgers was honored with their lifetime achievement award.
I met my husband, Dr. Thomas W. Hilgers, in the pro-life movement when I was a student at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of one of the first two collegiate student pro-life organizations in the country. Our University of Minnesota pro-life group was named SOUL — Save Our Unwanted Life.·
It was 1972. He was a 28-year-old resident in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Mayo Clinic, and was known as a pro-life speaker and author. He was instrumental in organizing the first national college pro-life organization called the National Youth Pro-Life Coalition (NYPLC).
The same year, the NYPLC organized the first National Rally for Human Life at the Lincoln Memorial with 2,000+ in attendance on that day. This was in conjunction with our NYPLC’s national meeting attended by over 500 students from 35 states. In his presentation for that event, Dr. Hilgers said,“The pro-life movement … has already begun to create and implement positive solutions. It will be the ultimate responsibility of the young to do the most creating..that will require a new revolutionary spirit, one which recognizes the inherent value and dignity of every human life.”
A very special story involves Dr. Hilgers’ six-month assignment at Cook County hospital in Chicago in 1972 as part of his Mayo Clinic Residency. While on call at the hospital one evening, a woman was admitted and assigned to his care.
She had an attempted illegal abortion at 18 weeks and was suffering from a high fever. Amazingly, Dr. Hilgers found the unborn baby’s heartbeat. Rather than informing his attending doctor of her condition, he decided to try to let her body heal by prescribing an antibiotic rather than completing the botched abortion which would have been the normal treatment procedure. The pregnant patient responded to the antibiotic and was released from the hospital 10 days later. She kept in contact with Dr. Hilgers and delivered a full-term baby girl with an African name that meant “Looking forward to the baby coming.” She gave Dr. Hilgers a beautiful chalk drawing of herself in gratitude for his care.
On January 22, 1973, we were in Des Moines, Iowa. Dr. Hilgers was invited to speak to the Iowa pro-life legislators. We learned about Roe v. Wade at the luncheon; and, needless to say, the pro-life legislators and all in attendance were shocked! There was total silence among us all. We were amazed to see that very day following the announcement of the decision there were already advertisements posted in Des Moines for “legal” abortions.
The Mayo Clinic was no exception as it would begin to perform abortions at one of the two hospitals in Rochester Minnesota – Methodist Hospital – not St. Mary’s, the Catholic hospital.
Dr. Hilgers was assigned to Methodist Hospital where abortions would now begin to be performed. Of course, he would have nothing to do with the abortion process. He conscientiously refused to work in a hospital that did abortions.
He requested to finish his residency at St. Mary’s Hospital; but his program director, Dr. David Decker, a personal friend of Justice Harry Blackmun who previously had been legal counsel for the Mayo Clinic, denied Dr. Hilgers’ request.
It was too early to know about conscientious objector status, so Dr. Hilgers was forced to resign from the Mayo Clinic (with only six months left in his residency) without knowing what he would do next.
Dr. John Hillabrand, a very pro-life OB-GYN who was co-founder of Alternatives to Abortion International, secured for Dr. Hilgers a position at the University of Ohio at Toledo Medical School to complete his residency. During that year, his residency schedule was 36 hours in the hospital and 12 hours at home. The 12 hours were spent working in the pro-life effort!
Following the release of Roe v. Wade, the NYPLC learned on good authority at the time that the Court had a 45-day window to change its opinion! So, we organized a huge mailing to the US Catholic parishes for pastors to urge their parishioners to write to the Court. Dr. Hilgers stuffed and sealed countless envelopes!
We certainly knew it was a very long shot that the decision would change – but, we had to try!
At that time, the NYPLC, with the leadership of Dr. Hilgers, developed the “Circle of Life” bracelets — similar to the POW bracelets that were very popular at that time during the Vietnam War. And, over a million Circle of Life bracelets were sold!
It was important to present the national pro-life effort outside the confines of the Catholic Church. The National Right to Life Committee was established. The Board of Directors, with Dr. Jack Wilke as President, included Dr. Hilgers as a Board member; and he was involved in helping to write an Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court regarding Roe v. Wade.
Following his residency, Dr. Hilgers’ pro-life reputation was well known within the United States and in other countries for his dedicated efforts in publishing and speaking on pro-life issues as an OB-GYN. In May 1975, Dr. Hilgers was invited by Lutheran pastor Daniel Overduin, a prominent pro-life Australian leader, to spread the pro-life message throughout Australia and New Zealand. We spent several weeks traveling throughout these countries to speak and promote the growing pro-life effort .
While in Melbourne, Australia, we spent several days with Drs. John and Evelyn Billings, primarily for Dr. Hilgers to discuss their new Billings Method.
My husband and I got to know each other through our direct “boots on the ground” involvement — including stuffing envelopes, picketing, planning conferences, driving cross country, speaking, and much more.
In my reminiscing, I remembered very early in our marriage he bought an offset printing machine for our pro-life projects. We couldn’t afford it outright — so he arranged a payment plan — $25.00/month — for a long time! My mom and mother in law said, “You don’t have a dryer but only a printing press next to the washing machine!”
Dr. Hilgers’ professional career at St. Louis School of Medicine, Creighton University School of Medicine and the Pope Paul VI Institute has been focused on research, writing, publishing and patient care. Dr. Hilgers viewed this direction as providing long-term solutions to issues that lead to abortion, and he simply did not have time to be as visible as he had been in those early days.
As you know, this led to the development of a completely pro-life women’s health medicine, NaProTechnology.
Without question, the Culture of Death has grown significantly over the years in doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals. Pro-life women’s health care is critical to building a Culture of Life, and pro-life physicians need a medical approach to allow them to be effective pro-life physicians.
Finally, often we say what goes around comes around! From the NYPLC development in the 1970s to Dr. Hilgers’ vision to establish the American Academy of FertilityCare Professionals in the 1980’s, to the FertilityCare Centers of America in the 1990s (now with over 300 FertilityCare Centers in US and Canada) and FertilityCare Centers International of which he is still president today — he continues to build for the future generations.
Dr. Hilgers knows this is not his work but it is the work of the Lord!