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.
It would be helpful to hear more about :
“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.”
If there are medical issues which render NFP impracticable, to what extent are medical correctives, such as contraceptives, morally acceptable ?
Good question, Chris. Benedict XVI famously noted that in cases of HIV where one spouse is positive, use of a condom might be a lesser of two evils. The same is true of prostitutes and sex trafficking workers. The presence of many STDs would make NFP impractical. I can also imagine situations where one spouse is committed to using NFP and the other isn’t which would make it impossible to practice NFP since it requires mutual commitment. And then, of course, there are cases where one spouse is sterilized which would make NFP irrelevant (unless the spouse wanted to reverse the sterilization). So there are lots of situations (you could probably imagine more) where NFP is just not practical.
Humanae Vitae makes clear that drug therapies that have a contraceptive effect can be justified so long as the contraceptive effect is unintended and the drug is used for a therapeutic purpose (e.g. the Pill for endometriosis). I think there is a good case to be made under a similar logic that the same can be said for the therapeutic use of a condom (e.g. in a couple where one is HIV positive). The operative principle here is Double Effect. But applying Double Effect is not for me, a moral theologian, to necessarily do in every case. I think in tragic cases like those above, couples (or individuals as the case may be) should seek pastoral guidance and counseling in order to figure out how to try to live according to God’s law and the teachings of the Church in their particular circumstances.
In what way would a couple be ‘one flesh’ if they were using condoms (for whatever reasons)?
And if they are not objectively ‘one flesh’, then could it still be said that they are performing the marital act?
Good question, though a very difficult one. Could a couple be one flesh if they never had intercourse (after, say, the marriage was consummated)? Say you have a couple that marries, consummates the marriage, and then the very next day, the husband finds out he is HIV positive. Women are much more likely to contract HIV from male partners and even pass the virus on to their offspring. What is the couple to do from here? In the case of HIV, for example, there aren’t a lot of ideal options for a committed, monogamous couple. They could abstain for the entirety of their marriage. There may be some heroic couples who could do that, and it might the most ideal option, but most married people I suspect simply would not. That leaves either (1) condoms or (2) possible transmission of the disease (including to progeny). This is where Benedict XVI weighed in. Both (1) and (2) are evils in the sense that there are serious privations in the marital act. But can we agree that if only (1) or (2) are viable options, (1) is better?
As for the “one flesh” part of your question, I would love for other, more expert voices to weigh in here. In the Church’s sexual teachings, “one flesh” has both a metaphysical and physical dimension. The latter, which JPII pushed in his Theology of the Body, talks about the totality of self gift that leads to total union. As a woman, I give my spouse my body, my heart, my fertility, everything. I hold nothing back. Same for the man. But there is also a metaphysical dimension. I may not be able in each and every sexual act to offer everything in an objective sense (couples who have had sterilizations, for example, cannot offer their spouse their fertility), but can still achieve real union through the sacramentality of the marital union, not just in the individual sexual acts but in the marriage in its entirety. What are your thoughts?
One more thing. JPII talks about the nuptial meaning of the body in his Theology of the Body and he argues that those who commit themselves to the celibate religious life more perfectly reflect the nuptial meaning of the body because of their more perfect union with Christ. So, I think the language of “one flesh” and “union” is not only objective (which I do agree it is, at least in part) but also metaphorical.
If 1 or 2 were the only options then in most cases 1 would be the lesser evil. But in cases like that I don’t think there is any real unity of the kind signified by ‘one flesh’.
I think it’s both metaphorical, metaphysical, and physical, but the physical is primary because it’s the foundation of the others.
Some theologians denigrate the physical part of it, the part that is emphasized in the canonical tradition where the marriage act requires insemination (which is blocked by condoms).
But I think that’s a mistake. The human meaning rests on those facts of nature and isn’t any more shameful than St. Paul’s assertion that we are saved by the blood of Christ.
Thanks for the article, well time too since Humanae Vitae turned 45 years old on Thursday!
I also started out dismissive of natural family planning options, and have been impressed by the testimony of many friends who swear by it and its place in their faithful living of their sex lives. Married to a gynecologist, though, I also have been impressed with the dire medical need for many women to avoid pregnancy, for whom even an 88% success rate is too low. Children are an amazing blessing, but for some, pregnancy is as dangerous as the HIV case you discussed above. I hope that the same logic applied to that case can be extended to help these women.
Finally, a technical note: I’ve been wrestling with the ontology of the act that allows the distinction in HV between NFP and artificial birth control. Bracketing questions about whether it makes sense to identify the object of an act apart from the intentions of the agent (this is a big set of brackets, I’ll grant), I’m interested in how in this view such an act relates to our relationship with God. Darlene Fozard Weaver’s book, The Acting Person and the Christian Moral Life, has what I think is a view that can help people see the logic behind HV’s prohibition in a new light (and manualist views of action before that). In short: an act is an instantiation of one’s relationship with God, and there may be aspects of an act that, even if totally separated from one’s intentions, belie fidelity to that relationship.
What that aspect might be in artificial birth control, if not the object of the act-in-itself, or its consequences, I’m still working out. But I think Weaver might be on to something helpful here.
Hope you’re well! Hi to the family,