" I’ve been blessed as I strive to be a counterpoint to the culture of death. " Dr. William Toffler

As a young physician, Dr. William Toffler parked his faith by the door and blended into the culture of medical professionals. He was good at giving birth control. He enjoyed performing vasectomies and inserting intrauterine devices.

Painfully, he recounted the time he and another medical student watched a second trimester saline abortion. His colleague wanted to try one and so she did. Then someone asked him if he wanted to have a go. He hadn’t wanted to be involved but was unprepared for the question and didn’t want to make a scene. He said yes.

“Looking back, it was the most regrettable act of my life,” said the doctor.

Toffler, who has lived in Oregon for more than 40 years, specializes in family medicine. He first came to the state to work at a clinic in the small logging community of Sweet Home. He was eventually invited to work at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, where he was on staff for 34 years.

Toffler’s conversion was gradual. While he stopped inserting intrauterine devices because of high risks to women, he continued prescribing birth control pills and performing vasectomies. That is, until he attended a conference held at Holy Rosary Parish in Portland in 1993. The three-day conference focused on “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 papal encyclical that speaks to the theological and sociologic harms of contraception. He felt convicted but afraid to change.

“I wrestled with myself about whether or not I could [stop prescribing birth control],” remembered Toffler. He worried about losing income for his growing family. He worried about whether he could actually do it. He quietly told the receptionist at his office that he’d no longer be seeing patients who wanted birth control. When patients asked about it, he was surprised to find that many were grateful that he communicated the truth about the harms of contraception as well as the health benefits of more life-giving alternatives such as Natural Family Planning.

“It never would have happened without learning about the truths outlined in ‘Humanae Vitae,’” said Toffler. “It is a unique document — a clear and unambiguous  counterpoint to the culture of death.”

 

To put faith into action

Toffler was raised Catholic but hadn’t been fervent about faith. He hadn’t put his belief into action.

With a father who rose to the rank of  brigadier general in the army, Toffler’s family moved around often. Until he came to Oregon, the longest he’d lived anywhere was when he studied for four years at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Toffler hadn’t planned on being a doctor and was studying aeronautical engineering. In his junior year, he read an article about the large airplane manufacturer Boeing laying off thousands of people. So, he thought again about his career aspirations. He had always been interested in medicine and decided to change direction. While he finished Notre Dame with a degree in Aerospace Engineering, he then took two additional premed courses the summer after he graduated to meet the requirements for medical school.

Notre Dame wasn’t just the foundation for his career in medicine but also for his future family. He met his wife Marlene during a road trip with the college’s rowing club. Marlene was studying education at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The couple managed to survive the challenges of a long-distance relationship and ultimately married in August of 1973.

“She helped me become a better Catholic throughout our marriage of 40 years,” said Toffler. He and Marlene ultimately had seven children, despite Toffler’s admission that he hadn’t been very open to having children at first.

Marlene had a love of babies and children that was contagious, said Toffler. 

“In retrospect, I guess, I was young and dumb,” said Toffler. “Despite this, God blessed us with a large family.” Marlene had a long and steady influence on Toffler. He credits her and the insights he gained from “Humanae Vitae” with his ability to speak out in the medical field.

“I’ve been blessed as I strive to be a counterpoint to the culture of death,” said Toffler.

Marlene died in 2014. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss her deeply,” said Toffler.

 

New beginnings

While seeing a young patient last year, Toffler spoke with her about the risks of birth control. She ended up giving him a critical review, saying he made her feel guilty about taking birth control. Toffler was warned not to have such discussions and subsequently was put on administrative leave from OHSU. Soon after, his contract was left to expire.

Toffler is now teaming up with a group of other Catholic physicians to start a non-profit Catholic medical practice, Holy Family Clinic. The clinic, based on Willamette Drive in West Linn,  has been several months in the making and is now set to open in early September. The clinic will practice fully consistent with the Ethical and Religious Directives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, Toffler says the clinic won’t participate in or refer for abortions or assisted suicide. “It won’t give children birth control and it won’t kick parents out of the room to talk in secret to kids about gender preference.”

“This clinic will  stand for all of the right things,” said Toffler. The doctor added that he believes patients will get better health care with better outcomes in such a system.

Despite the controversy that rocked Toffler’s career, he’s admired by Catholic health care providers.

“I’ve looked up to him as a Catholic physician,” said Dr. Charles Bentz, a longtime friend of Toffler. “He’s very authentic in what he does and very open about it. You know where you stand with him.”

Bentz respects Toffler’s courage in speaking truth.

“He hasn’t changed. He’s the same person he’s always been,” said Bentz. “The situation, the environment just doesn’t allow for people of conscience to speak.”

Bentz thinks new doctors should look up to Toffler, too.

“When asked who is a good example of a Catholic doctor in the state, I can’t think of anyone else,” said Bentz. “He’s very clear and very humble.

“He’s the example for young Catholic clinicians.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org

 

Learn more

holyfamilyclinic.com