By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Dr. Lester Ruppersberger, a practicing physician in gynecology for 35 years, belongs to a rather exclusive club.
“I don’t prescribe contraceptives, and I don’t do sterilizations,” he said. “I’m the only OB/GYN doctor in the entire Archdiocese of Philadelphia who doesn’t. There was one other, but she retired.”
It wasn’t always that way. Originally out of Kensington’s Ascension of Our Lord Parish, he married his wife of 40 years, Betty, and they had two sons, Drew and Gregg. As his practice prospered they moved to St. Ignatius Parish in Yardley. As an OB/GYN specialist, he did write prescriptions for contraceptives and perform sterilizations because they were in demand by his patients.
Fast forward to 1999. It was Lent, and he and Betty joined a Bible study group meeting at a friend’s house. It wasn’t going well, so they asked the parish if a priest could attend a meeting to get them on track.
The priest was very helpful, and the meeting went well. Afterwards he asked Ruppersberger what he did. When he replied that he was a doctor in gynecology, the priest asked if he prescribed contraceptives. When Ruppersberger mumbled something to the effect that he was a physician, so he did, the priest – with more zeal than tact – publicly asked how he could reconcile this with going to Mass and receiving Eucharist.
His initial reaction was anger. “How dare he embarrass me like that in public?” he fumed on the way home.
The next week a heavily underlined copy of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on life, Evangelium Vitae, arrived in the mail. Ruppersberger knew where that was from. It was certainly food for thought, and he stopped receiving Eucharist.
The following Right to Life Sunday another priest gave the first pro-life anti-contraceptive sermon he’d ever heard, and it really hit home. Ruppersberger prayed over it and the next day informed his four partners in the Langhorne practice that he could no longer prescribe contraceptives or perform sterilizations.
Because his decision affected the income of the practice, he was forced to take a one-third pay cut. To compensate, he and his wife downsized to a smaller house and made other changes in their lifestyle. Through confession, he cleared his conscience, resumed receiving the Eucharist and started visiting the parish’s daily Adoration chapel. He and his wife also attended Natural Family Planning seminars and became certified instructors of NFP with the archdiocesan Family Life Office.
Today’s NFP involves observance of body changes which are a clear predictor of when ovulation (and fertility) will occur. There are several methods of NFP; in his practice and classes Ruppersberger teaches what is called the sympto-thermal method.
For the Ruppersbergers NFP has become a ministry; he is the current president of the Philadelphia Natural Family Planning Network (PNFPN), and he and Betty not only instruct inspanidual couples on how to practice NFP, they speak before pre-Cana and RCIA groups and to parishes on invitation.
They are also the hosts of a monthly “NFP for Life” program on Doylestown-based Holy Spirit Radio. The program doesn’t reach the entire archdiocese live, but it is archived at www.holyspiritradio.org, Ruppersberger said.
Now a decade into NFP, his only regret is more couples have not discovered it. “People are afraid to make the transition,” he said.
In his own life, he said, “I got nicked a little financially, but spiritually and emotionally I can sleep well at night.”
As for the priest who first confronted him, “I think he saved my soul,” Ruppersberger said.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.