For Dr. Robert Lawler, the decision to conform his obstetrics and gynecology practice to the teachings of the Catholic Church came down to one thing: “I want to get to heaven,” said Lawler.
Lawler and Dr. Anthony Caruso recently opened Downers Grove OB-GYN, 1121 Warren Ave., Ste. 200, in Downers Grove, with Dr. Anthony Caruso, a reproductive endocrinologist who also has forsworn procedures that conflict with church teaching.
Lawler, a parishioner at St. James-Sag Bridge, and Caruso, who attends St. John Cantius, both came to the realization that they needed to bring their professional lives into line with their beliefs after they started practicing medicine.
For Lawler, who went into practice about 15 years ago, the realization came with the help of urging by his wife and others.
“I was finding pamphlets about ‘Humanae Vitae’ (Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical confirming the church’s teaching against artificial contraception) in my golf bag,” he joked.
At first, he thought, not performing or referring patients for abortions was enough. As for prescribing birth control pills, he said, everybody did it, including Catholic doctors that he liked and respected.
“I thought, if they were doing it, it must be OK,” he said. “There’s not many of us who feel it’s important to be Catholic 24/7.”
Then he came to understand that whatever anybody else was doing, it was definitely not OK.
“I had visions of meeting the Lord at Judgment Day and him saying to me, ‘OK, Robert, what part of “intrinsically evil” did you not understand about contraception?’” Lawler said.
At the same time, he said, younger and younger girls were coming in, with their parents, and asking for contraceptives.
“I would no more hand them contraceptives than I would a pack of cigarettes,” he said. “People said they will do it anyway; I said how about a little less birth control and a little more self-control?”
So he stopped prescribing birth control and performing sterilizations, while remaining in a general OB-GYN practice where other doctors provided those services.
In the beginning, he said, it wasn’t easy.
“That first day when I told patients I would no longer be prescribing birth control was a very long day, and it was a very long year,” he said. “People weren’t shy about sharing what they thought of the Catholic Church or this Catholic doctor.”
But his resolve was bolstered by his belief that what he was doing was medically — as well as morally — right. Giving hormone pills to women to induce a state of false pregnancy, indefinitely, with no medical indication that there is anything wrong, makes no sense, he said. And giving them to women and girls to mask symptoms of other problems is even worse.
“Say a young girl comes in with terrible, painful periods,” Lawler said. “If she goes to a regular gynecologist, nine times out of 10, she’s going to leave with a prescription for the pill in her hand. But why does she have painful periods? Does she have endometriosis or is there something else going on? We are going to dig deeper. … I don’t consider oral contraceptives as a treatment for anything. It may suppress the symptoms, but you aren’t treating anything.”
Caruso, whose epiphany came a bit later, was supported by a friendship with Lawler that started when a priest suggested he contact the other doctor. But Caruso — a reproductive endocrinologist whose practice once included assisted reproduction technologies such as in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination — now can offer his expertise in endocrinology as well as general obstetrics and gynecology.
As part of their services, the doctors support women using all forms of natural family planning, but they encourage them to consider that there is no bad time for a baby once a couple is married. Having children earlier is often easier, avoiding fertility problems that increase with age.
On the other hand, they don’t suggest that there’s something wrong with women who conceive and bear children in their 40s.
That’s appreciated by Sue Zabilka, who first met Lawler because her children attended Everest Academy in Lemont with his, and later learned about the nature of his practice and became a patient. Zabilka has three sons, ages 17, 13 and 2, and she suffered two miscarriages.
She began seeing Lawler 10 or 11 years ago, she said, and she loves the new practice.
“I took a whole stack of business cards and I am giving them to everybody,” she said. “It’s such a welcoming, loving feeling.”
When she was pregnant with her youngest, she said, Lawler took the time to reassure her that women in their 40s can and do have healthy pregnancies, using the example of his own mother, who had her youngest child at 46.
“It just gave me such peace of mind,” Zabilka said.
Caruso, who has six children, said that after he was laid off from his university job, he worked as a hospitalist — a doctor who coordinates the care of patients in the hospital — for a few years, while he tried to get the idea of a center similar to the practice he and Lawler started off the ground. His idea was that it would be part of a Catholic hospital. The proposal came closest to fruition at Alexian Brothers hospital in Elk Grove Village, even becoming the topic of an article in the Chicago Tribune.
But when progress on that front snagged, the best course seemed to be to open a freestanding practice with Lawler, he said.
The two hope that it will become a regional center for patients who want care not only in accord with church teaching, but also with those who want to live a life as free of unnecessary chemicals as possible — those who seek out organic food, for example, and avoid other medications where possible.
“I believe that this kind of care is for everyone,” Caruso said. “It doesn’t put poison in female bodies. We try to get to the bottom of what the problem is and fix it at its source.”
Both doctors believe that the stakes for their new practice are higher than their own professional success.
“There are people out there rooting for us, and there are people out there hoping we crash and burn,” Lawler said. “But I think there are also some fence-sitters out there, Catholic doctors who would like to do this, but want so see if it will work.”