It is National NFP Awareness Week. I have spoken on the blog before about my support for NFP. I have not always loved NFP the way I do now, but much of reticence was based on inadequate knowledge on what NFP is and why it is important. As such, I thought it might be nice to clear up a couple of things about NFP.
NFP Myth #1: NFP is the same as artificial contraception. After all, both include an intention to prevent birth.
This is a common mistake. In Catholic moral theology, we do not just judge actions based on intention. The object, intention, and circumstances all must be accounted for in the moral evaluation of the act. In the case of NFP and artificial contraception, the object of the action (what gives the action its moral species) differs even when the intention is the same. With NFP, one abstains from intercourse during fertile periods. With contraception, one engages in intercourse during fertile and infertile periods, but uses a chemical or physical means of preventing pregnancy. This is not a perfect analogy, but it is kind of like a person deciding they need to lose weight. They might decide to abstain from certain foods like sugar and simple carbohydrates. Or they might decide to keep eating sugar and simple carbs while taking diet pills that help them lose the weight anyways. The intention in both cases is the same–to lose weight. But taking diet pills and avoiding foods that lead to weight gain are two very different types of actions. So it is true with family planning. Choosing to avoid sex is very different from having sex but taking the pill, for example, even in both cases the intention is to prevent birth. It is not just the end or goal that matters, but the means one employs in achieving that goal.
NFP Myth #2: NFP doesn’t work for me.
Many people don’t know that there are multiple methods of NFP to suit the needs and lifestyles of the couples using them. In college, I only learned about the method of charting basal body temperature. This is a great method for many, but never has been for me since I tend to wake up a lot at night (especially now with a baby) and I have trouble remembering to grab the thermometer before I move around too much for the reading to be rendered irrelevant. There are other methods that rely on charting cervical position and mucus (the Billings and Creighton method) which are relatively easy and painless. Sympto-thermal methods incorporate both charting BBT and cervical mucus for a much more precise monthly picture of fertility. And many women I have talked to have incorporated ovulation predictor kits into their method of choice, both in order to avoid pregnancy and to try to conceive.
Calendar methods do not rely on any symptoms. The Standard Days Method shows that if a woman avoids intercourse on cycle days 8-19, she is highly likely (95% perfect us, 88% real use) to avoid pregnancy. And, of course, there is the old rhythm method. The point is, good scientists and health care professionals have worked hard to design NFP methods that work for everybody.
Now, there are cases of illness and disability that may make it very difficult or virtually impossible for a couple to practice NFP. These cases require pastoral guidance. But when I talk to people about NFP, I often hear them dismiss it out of hand as unsuited to their lifestyle without adequate knowledge of the different methods that are out there.
NFP Myth #3: NFP takes the fun and spontaneity out of sex.
This myth assumes that sex is only fun if it is on-demand. On the contrary, periods of abstinence can increase desire and pleasure, and not just because waiting for the moment makes the moment better. NFP requires that the male in the relationship learn about the intricate and subtle rhythm of a woman’s body and conform his own sexuality to that rhythm. Rather than a woman denying her fertility, NFP requires that the whole woman, including her fertility, be accepted and cherished by the man. The level and intimacy and knowledge about the other is fostered by the practice of NFP, and this in turn can increase the level of sexual pleasure. Studies also show that couples that practice NFP are less likely to divorce, showing that NFP does help keep relationships together.
It is true that couples sometimes find it very difficult to abstain during fertile periods. Especially when there are kids in the house or erratic work schedules, it can be hard to find intimate moments. Couples using NFP, just like couples using artificial contraception, have unplanned pregnancies. But NFP teaches couples to be open to the procreative dimension of sex in every sexual act. This means that couples using NFP are less likely to see an unplanned pregnancy as a catastrophe, and more likely to be able hospitably welcome the new little life they have been given to foster.
NFP Myth #4: NFP is bad for women.
This myth deserves a whole series of posts but I’ll be brief. One of the reasons I feel in love with NFP is because I discovered how good it was for women. NFP, particularly the Creighton and Billings methods (and sympto-thermal methods) provide women with an intimate knowledge of her body and her fertility. This is empowering. In addition, NFP requires that women learn to communicate with her partner about things like cervical fluid, giving the partner a greater appreciation for the woman’s body.
Women are so often taught that their bodies are problems. Women see their period as a burden or something to be ashamed of. Some contraceptives even help a woman not have a monthly cycle. NFP, on the contrary, teaches a woman to appreciate what her body does naturally. It teaches a woman that her body is beautiful and powerful, not a problem to be solved. And it teaches men who practice NFP the same thing.
NFP is also natural. It doesn’t require that a woman put hormones into her body with unforeseen side effects. Although hormonal contraceptives are statistically quite safe, they are still hormonal drugs that may cause mood changes, weight gain, and blood clots (not to mention a possible correlation with an increased risk of certain cancers). We are starting to realize the importance of vigilance concerning what we put in our body. We buy hormone-free meat, milk and eggs, and yet we still find it perfectly acceptable to pump hormones into women’s bodies to keep them from procreating. Women have a strong feminist argument to make for NFP. It’s a great time to start making it.
There is so much more I could say in response to some of the misconceptions about NFP, but I want to close with a brief personal testimony. I used to join my friends and colleagues in joking about NFP (What do you call a woman who practices NFP? Mommy.) but I have come to realize that NFP is very good for me and very good for my relationship. The most important consequence of practicing NFP for me has been falling in love with my body. I have a long history of body image problems, but as I started learning more about NFP, particularly the Creighton Method (which is also used to help women get pregnant who are having trouble), I started to see that my body was governed by an intricate and subtle rhythm. Websites like the My Beautiful Cervix Project taught me more about my body than I ever knew, and it was . . . neat. I understand that many women (and couples) still struggle with the Church’s reproductive teachings but I think we need more positive testimonies like my own about the many benefits of practicing NFP.