IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Medical Mission Sisters
By Lou Baldwin
PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — Sister
Hanna Klaus is an OB-GYN, a member of the Medical Mission Sisters and best
known as founder of the TeenSTAR adolescent sex education program, which is
used around the world.
She has long been a promoter of
the Billings method of natural family planning and in 1980 developed TeenSTAR
— Sexuality Teaching in the context of Adult Responsibility.
It wasn’t always that way. Back
in 1968, when Blessed Paul VI issued his encyclical “Humanae Vitae,”
reaffirming the church’s ban on artificial contraception, her first reaction was:
“It is very nice Holy Father, you are telling us what we can’t do, but you
aren’t telling us what we can do.”
What was allowed was natural
family planning — regulating family size by making use of the fertile period
of the couple. For most of her life since she has been educating people,
especially the young, on how to determine just when that is.
In “Humane Vitae,” the pope also reaffirmed
the church’s moral teaching on the sanctity of life, married love, the
procreative and unitive nature of conjugal relations and responsible parenthood,
and he asked scientists to improve natural family planning methods.
Sister Klaus’ own story begins
in 1928, when she was born into a Jewish family in Austria and after the rise
of Nazism, her family fled their homeland. They arrived in the United when she
was 12 and were resettled in Louisville, Kentucky.
From the time she was a very
young child in Vienna, she had an interest in medicine and after college, she
entered medical school at the University of Louisville. After graduation and
during her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, she had a life-altering
epiphany. Previously nonreligious, she came to realize there was more,
something missing in her life. Through friends she discovered the Catholic
“I received the gift of faith,”
she said in an interview for Catholic News Service. “I came into the church in
1952. Conversion is like being adopted.”
Not one for halfway measures, she
almost immediately began to discern a religious vocation. Her ultimate choice
was the Medical Mission Sisters, where she could be both a religious and a
She joined the congregation in
1957, taking as her religious name “Miriam Paul.” After
her formation, she served medical missions in Pakistan and what is now
Bangladesh. She then worked for several years in St. Louis, just about the time
of the release of “Humanae Vitae.” She also did a stint as director of the OB-GYN
department at St. Francis Hospital in Kansas.
As a physician and an OB-GYN professor,
she was well aware of the NFP methods approved by the Catholic Church which
could be used to either promote or avoid conception. The calendar method was
based on calculating the presumed days of a women’s cycle until ovulation and
the second method — basal body temperature — was based on temperature changes
which could indicate the fertile period.
As a professional, Sister Klaus
was skeptical of the accuracy of either method. “The calendar method was like
rolling the dice,” she said.
It was while in St. Louis that
she read a book recommended by Cardinal Joseph Carberry that was written by an
Australian physician, Dr. John Billings. It explained another NFP method he
believed accurately predicted the onset of fertility and possible conception.
It was based on charting
discernable changes in cervical mucus which indicated ovulation was coming.
The following year, Sister Klaus
traveled to Sydney where Billings and his wife, Evelyn, also a physician, were
conducting a controlled study with couples to test accuracy of his method. The
results were such that on return to St. Louis she initiated a similar study
which replicated Billings’ results.
In 1978, Billings asked Sister
Klaus if she would be interested in promoting this method of NFP with teens, because
no one was doing that, and she agreed. The same year she moved to Washington to
be an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at George Washington
University; she also practiced as an OB-GYN.
She founded TeenSTAR in 1980 while
she was executive director of the Natural Family Planning Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
“It’s not birth control, it is a
method of fertility awareness,” she explained. At first the program was staffed
by herself and another Medical Mission Sister, Sister Mary Ursula. The first
pilot group focused on girls, ages 15-17 divided into age-appropriate groups.
As minors, all had parental permission to participate.
Through voluntary blind surveys, it was found a small percentage were already sexually active but over the
length of the program, that number decreased and there was only one pregnancy.
Because of the apparent success, more teachers were trained, and at parents’
request a similar but separate program was started for boys taught by a priest.
Since then, it has spread to
approximately 35 countries in North and South America, Central America, Europe,
Asia and Africa. When it is in a Catholic setting, it is taught in the context
of St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” which focuses on the meaning of
the human body, sexuality and marriage in light of biblical revelation.
But even in a secular setting,
“it is really natural law,” Sister Klaus said about the basis of TeenSTAR
“It is really teaching fertility
awareness. Once they understand their fertility they begin to move away from
peer pressure and begin to make their own decisions,” she told CNS. “It doesn’t
matter if they are in the Bronx or in Ethiopia, the kids became aware of their
own identity. If young people are invested in themselves and fully understand
the value of the program, they love it.
“I think ‘Humanae Vitae’ is the
way to go. I don’t think fertility is a disease and I don’t think it is
reasonable to use powerful drugs or surgery to remove a normal body function,”
Sister Klaus said.
One of the challenges Sister Klaus
finds is the reluctance of some church officials or pastors to permit any kind
of sex education because it might promote promiscuity. Properly presented it
does not, she maintains, and programs such as TeenSTAR actually have the
At this point, Sister Klaus, a
member of her religious congregation’s community in Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania,
has relinquished the office of president of TeenSTAR International but is still
a board member and president of the U.S. branch.
Looking back over her long
career in leadership with TeenSTAR, she said, “I would have like to have done at
least 10 times more than I have. The hardest place to bring such a program is
the United States because so many are afraid of talking about sex. They are
afraid when people get the information they will misuse the program.
“It is against human dignity to
try to control people by not giving them information. I’m grateful the Lord has
let us come this far.”
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Baldwin writes for
CatholicPhilly.com, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
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