Natural Family Planning: Part 1

In a recent conversation, somebody said she doesn’t think a person’s religious leanings should play a part in his or her decision to use or not use contraceptives — that the church, frankly, should stay out of it.
But I think a common misconception, both within the church and outside of it, is that faith is one of several separate parts of a person’s life. If you know me, you already know I disagree. Your faith — at least among practicing Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant — is not one of several separate parts of life. It is the umbrella that covers all the parts of your life. It is the compass by which you decide how you will live.
Which is why — especially among practicing Catholics — a person’s religious leanings do play a part in his or her decision to use or not use contraceptives. And practicing Catholics choose not to use them.
This is usually the part of the conversation at which a head shakes and somebody uses words like “irresponsible.” And I understand that, especially given the state of the world, the latest stats about the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections and the popular belief that there already aren’t enough resources to go around.
(There’s always a but.)

In lieu of contraceptives, what practicing Catholics do use is natural family planning (NFP). This is usually the part of the conversation at which a head shakes and somebody uses words like “outdated” and “rhythm method” and “Duggar family.” Then I laugh, and I tell him or her this: The Duggars do not use NFP. I repeat: The Duggars do not use NFP! (They are part of a movement called Quiverfull, the participants of which forgo family planning of any kind.) That is why they have a show called 19 Kids and Counting.

NFP is neither outdated, nor is it the rhythm method. It is used either to avoid or achieve pregnancy. It requires a couple to monitor signs of the woman’s fertility and to abstain from sex periodically — when the woman is fertile — if the couple doesn’t want to get pregnant. And when a couple wants to get pregnant, they can use their awareness of fertility to choose to do the deed when the conditions are right for pregnancy. There are several modern kinds of NFP (initially, the Billings Ovulation Method, the Creighton Model and the Marquette Model come to mind) which, when used consistently and correctly, are 98-99% effective for preventing pregnancy, which is equivalent to the efficacy of condoms or the pill. So why, when medical science allows for quick, convenient ways to prevent pregnancy as well as NFP does, do we still choose NFP?

1. It’s natural: Dr. James Linn, an OB/GYN I interviewed for a project in the human sexuality class I took over the summer, said it better than I can:

If you look at many of the methods of contraception, they have a long list of potential risks and complications. Take the very common form used by a lot of young women: birth control pills. Because of the higher than normal estrogen doses, she increases her risk for strokes, breast cancer and blood clots and those can break loose and go up to her heart and her lungs. Those are three big deals. Look at the side effects – things that aren’t really life threatening: mood changes, decreased sex drive. Depression and weight gain are common with Depo-Provera. … The other thing a lot of people don’t realize with a lot of hormonal contraceptive methods (is that) the more current birth control pills that have been around for the last 20 years don’t suppress ovulation a hundred percent. In order to make them safer, the dose has been lowered and in lowering the dose, they are less effective in suppressing ovulation. They alter the lining of the uterus so an embryo won’t be able to implant. So what could be happening some of the time is ovulation may take place, the sperm may meet with the egg in the tube and normally, an embryo implants about a week later. Well, it won’t allow implantation, so the embryo gets shed out. That mechanism of action is really an abortion, rather than contraception.”

2. It facilitates communication, and multiple levels of intimacy: A couple can’t practice NFP without talking about their relationship and sex. Additionally, since a couple that uses NFP can’t necessarily have sex every time they’d like, they are challenged to learn to be intimate in alternative ways. And while both communication and multiple levels of intimacy are generally a good idea for couples, both are rare in the average American relationship.

3. It wholly promotes the purpose of sex. The purpose of sex is twofold: babies and bonding. By using NFP, a couple works with the human body as it is designed, to achieve or avoid pregnancy by having sex when pregnancy is or isn’t likely, respectively. By using contraceptives, a couple works against the human body as it is designed, nullifying part of the purpose of sex and reducing pregnancy from “miracle” to “consequence.”

Plus, it encourages a couple to treat sex like the sacred act it is. And NFP requires that family planning is a responsibility shared by both partners, rather than the responsibility of either the man or the woman. Also, bonus, it’s free or cheap.

NFP, unfortunately, isn’t very popular. And I don’t expect — at least in a culture enamored by instant gratification and averted to doing anything if it’s difficult — that it ever will be. But there are lots of couples who use it, and use it happily. And in part two, I will introduce you to one of them. Check back soon.