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John J. Billings, 89, founder of a family planning method

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Dr. John James Billings, a neurologist and the founder of a natural contraception method that won support among Catholics, died Sunday, a colleague said yesterday. He was 89.

Dr. Billings died in a retirement home in Melbourne, said Marian Corkill, director of the World Organization Ovulation Method Billings International, better known as WOOMB.

In the 1950s, Dr. Billings and his wife, Evelyn, pioneered the Billings Ovulation Method, a technique that helps women identify their fertile and nonfertile states based on their menstrual cycle.

In the Billings method, a woman can determine when she is fertile based on an examination of her cervical mucus, as opposed to the rhythm method, which is based on past menstrual cycles.

Dr. Billings, a staunch Catholic and the father of nine, always had the support of his church, which opposes contraceptive devises such as condoms and the pill that revolutionized birth control a decade later.

Critics of the Billings method argue that the church supported it because of its relatively high failure rate. They called it "Vatican roulette."

Mukesh Haikerwal, president of the Australian Medical Association, said the method's failure rate was 3 in 100, compared to 1 in 100 for condoms, 1 in 1,000 for the pill, and 1 in 10,000 for implanted devices.

"It made a contribution to reducing some pregnancies, but obviously, in terms of the wider availability of contraception today, it's not as successful," Haikerwal told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Corkill said the Billings method was taught in more than 100 countries, including China, where it was welcomed by the government in the mid-1990s as a safe and cheap alternative to abortion and popular intrauterine devices.

"His work in China was a highlight of his career, in that the Billings Method is now available in all the provinces in China and has been taken up by the Chinese government as the method of choice as part of their family planning," Corkill said.

Dr. Billings received an Australian national award and a papal knighthood for his work.

According to the WOOMB website, he was born in Melbourne on March 5, 1918, and was educated at Xavier College and the University of Melbourne. He was a doctor with the Australian Army in Papua New Guinea during World War II .

In 1947, Dr. Billings was awarded a Nuffield Fellowship for postgraduate studies in London, the website said. He later became head of the department of neurology at St. Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne and dean of the Undergraduate Medical School within the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Melbourne .