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Medicine Woman: For Catholic Medical Association, a First

Kathleen Raviele was a young Catholic medical student in the 1970s when abortion was legalized.
by Jeanette DeMelo | Source: NCRegister.com

Gradually, her Catholicism gave way as “old-fashioned” and out-of-step with the times. Like many medical professionals, she bought into the practice of contraception, and even referred to abortion, as important components of medical care for women.

Now, more than 30 years later, Raviele calls herself a revert to Catholicism. She practices medicine in harmony with Catholic teachings as a gynecologist and is an avid promoter of natural family planning.

Last year, she was appointed president of the Catholic Medical Association, the first woman to hold the post. As one of her first acts, she issued a challenge to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Nov. 7, 2007, "ethics opinion" that obstetrician-gynecologists opposed to abortion provide referrals for abortions in certain situations.

Raviele spoke with Register correspondent Jeanette DeMelo to recount her journey as a Catholic and a physician.

First of all, can you describe the work of the Catholic Medical Association?

The Catholic Medical Association is dedicated to bringing the teachings of the Catholic Church into the science and practice of medicine. It is to inform the community of the Catholic principles that should be applied in treating patients. It is to assist the bishops and the clergy in difficult medical and ethical situations. It also provides fellowship and a kind of refuge for Catholic doctors who are trying to live out their faith, practicing as physicians. At least every year, at our annual educational program, doctors get to come together to have camaraderie and share experiences.

The association’s conference last October was on “Theology of the Body: The Dignity of Woman.” Of course, both men and women physicians attended, so why did you choose to study women?

I wanted to have a conference focused primarily on women’s issues, which are among the major ethical problems that face doctors. They usually involve women, except for the end-of-life issues that address everybody. We covered things like embryo adoptions. We talked about the stress on women as caretakers, because most end up being the caretakers of elderly parents and relatives, besides being mothers. We had several speakers on natural family planning. We talked about the effects of New Age on health care.

How was it received?

Oh, very well. We had nearly 300 participants. We taped the conference. The CDs of various speakers will be available on the Catholic Medical Association website (cathmed.org) through our bookstore.

What are the plans for the Catholic Medical Association?

As far as what’s facing us this year, we have already come up with a statement addressing the use of Plan B in Catholic emergency rooms for rape victims. Plan B is different from the other Yuzpe regimen [which uses the hormones estrogen and progestogen] that is used to prevent a clinically detectible pregnancy. It has a different action on the lining of the uterus. It doesn’t change the lining, so much as it changes what is going on biochemically, but the affect is still that it can prevent successful implantation.

It does not always prevent ovulation, even when given prior to ovulation. That is one thing we have addressed.

The other thing is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists came out with an ethical opinion in November, that even if a physician did not perform abortions or agree with abortion, they had to present the alternative to carrying a pregnancy to patients in a “nonjudgmental way,” in a neutral fashion, and still refer the patient for an abortion if the patient wanted to have an abortion.

This is a serious infringement of a doctor’s right to have a conscience and their autonomy to be able to explain to patients what’s good for them and what isn’t good for them.

So, conscience is a major thing we are going to be addressing this year — and that Catholic physicians should be able to practice according to their conscience.

Now, tell me a little about your own journey of faith. Can you describe your “reversion” back to Catholicism?

When my kids were in elementary school, they were in Catholic schools. I heard about Medjugorje. I read a book on Medjugorje and had a conversion experience.

Our family started praying and doing what Our Lady was asking. Between praying the Rosary, going to confession regularly and reading Scripture every day, I started becoming aware of things that I hadn’t thought were wrong before. And within a couple of months, I started to question what I was doing in my medical practice.

I started questioning the contraception part, especially because many contraceptives potentially prevent a fertilized egg from implanting.

In the field of obstetrics-gynecology they don’t call that an abortion because they say an abortion has occurred once the baby has implanted, and then you disrupt a pregnancy. But pro-life people view it as an abortion. You have a live person there who’s just not allowed to continue on because you’ve disrupted their means of implantation.

About six months after I heard of Medjugorje, I went on a trip. I saw things that made me realize that God is all-powerful and almighty and he wants me on his side.

I talked to the priest who was leading our group about what I did for a living. And he told me I had to stop what I was doing. He spent 30 minutes explaining that the Church had taught this for 2,000 years and that it was in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis. Onanism is a form of contraception.

I went to confession and came back from Medjugorje to change my practice. I was in a group of four other obstetrician-gynecologists. Within a month of returning, I left my group and started my own practice.

I had to learn about natural family planning. Now I can say I have so much fun in my practice. I really feel like I am helping people at the end of the day. Before, in my old practice, I’d go home and think, “Did I really cure any sick person today?” because all I did was hand out the birth control pill for everything.

Now I feel like I can get to the root of the problem.

What encouragement would you give to other medical professionals who are trying to live their faith and practice medicine?

Well, I would encourage any physician who reads this to look us up and join us. We are facing a lot of ethical battles in coming years, and we need all the talented Catholic physicians there are out there.

We encourage them to come to our national meeting every year. Our meeting next year is also on the theology of the body, and it’s going to be in Baltimore.

I was so happy when I found the Catholic Medical Association. What I found were all these physicians, and many of them had been able to live their faith throughout their practice of medicine. They were very important from the stand point of mentoring.

I think we, as Catholic physicians, need to mentor medical students and residents so they don’t fall into the pitfalls that I fell into and that many other Catholic physicians did through the ’70s, and can steer them in the right direction.

What about advice for patients seeking medical care that is in line with their Catholic faith?

One of the best options is to contact the pro-life office for their diocese to see if they have a list of Catholic physicians who are practicing as Catholic physicians.

Another resource is the website One More Soul (OMSoul.com). On that, there are physicians around the country of all different specialties that have said they don’t prescribe contraceptives.

Jeanette DeMelo is based in Denver.

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