Apologies for the blog silence – I did hope to post Part II yesterday, but Part II ended up being too long (as you might imagine). So this post only deals with one ‘point of collusion’ as I mentioned in Part I and is one of many potential future installments on my thoughts on possible points of collusion in the ABC (artificial birth control) and NFP (natural family planning) debate. (See the first post if you haven’t already.)
Real Lives – Unrealistic Sex
One of the points Bethany Patchin and others who jumped into this discussion is that NFP doesn’t seem very realistic. For example, Patchin says in the New York Times column:
Wanting to make love to your spouse often is a good thing, but NFP often lays an unfair burden of guilt on men for feeling this,” the Torodes wrote. And it is “a theological attack on women to always require that abstinence during the time of the wife’s peak sexual desire (ovulation) for the entire duration of her fertile life, except for the handful of times when she conceives.
This is one of the often-made arguments against the idea of contraception, which is that it just isn’t realistic because it just isn’t where real peoples’ lives are. This argument is made in a number of ways:
1. NFP isn’t “realistic” for peoples’ sex lives especially because couples have to avoid each other at precisely those times of the month they often most want to have sex
2. NFP is irresponsible because it leads to high numbers of children
3. NFP isn’t scientifically based
Of these statements, the first is often true (though dependent on the couple), the third assumption is largely false (though dependent on the method of NFP in use and by what a couple means when they say they use NFP – the withdrawal method, for example, is NOT a method of NFP but surprisingly, sometimes people see it as a natural family planning method… see the above link for more on the various efficacy rates), and the middle assumption is so dependent on cultural ideals about what constitutes a “high number of children” and what it means to be “irresponsible” that it just doesn’t carry much meaning at all.
But, there have been many other people who have dealt with all these questions in the past. What I want to say that may be distinctive is: I don’t think most of people – no matter how they’re understanding contraception – are all that “real” about sex.
There’s a common (and really, really old) joke about NFP: that it makes parents. The flip side of that is the presumption that using contraception is responsible and pretty much never leads to pregnancy. That’s just an unreal statement – sex makes parents. Not all the time, of course – and maddeningly, never at the “perfect” time. I always seem to be in those conversations where women discuss surprise pregnancies – it’s always a pill baby or a Depo Provera baby – or just last week, I met two someones, one whose husband had had a vasectomy several years ago, and another who had had a tubal ligation following her third pregnancy a few years ago. But – “Oh, my word – we’re pregnant!”
So the joke should really be that sex makes parents. But that statement comes with a lot of caveats: sex makes parents sometimes. You don’t always get pregnant when not using contraception; you often don’t get pregnant when you want to; and the most apparently fail-safe artificial contraceptive technique will, in fact, fail sometimes and in unpredictable ways. Infertile couples try really hard to time sex just right to get pregnant, while others struggle because they seem to get pregnant just by looking at their spouses the wrong way.
Sex is not entirely predictable – and that’s the reality. But moreover, this is exactly why sex is not just a “private” thing that affects only me (or only the couple).
Our efficient and technologically driven society isn’t prepared to deal with the mystery that still remains about sex and pregnancy. If someone gets pregnant, she is more often than not labeled as irresponsible (because of using the “wrong” thing or because of using the “right thing” the wrong way). Workplaces that employ women aren’t prepared to think about the fact that the women who work there aren’t, in fact, machines whose bodies can be efficiently regulated; government policies are similarly situated.
We, as a whole society, need to be more honest about the ways in which our view of sex and the contraceptive technology that links to it and makes us think that pregnancy and babies happen (or not) at will, affects in a false way our ability to be understanding, responsive and compassionate toward women and children.
We are uncompassionate toward women with infertility (“just relax”), women who get pregnant while on the job (“did you mean to do that?”), women have have a lot of children (“don’t you know there’s something to fix that? It’s called contraception”), women who are poor, women who are on the so-called career track, and so on.
So what do you all think? Point of collusion, or not?
Jana, interesting post… and I look forward to your further reflections. I’m reluctant to chime in because this is an issue that I feel strongly about, and yet it can be very polarizing. As a Catholic feminist (there, I said it), I see this as a particularly thorny issue.
The great thing about NFP (or Fertility Awareness Method- Toni Weschler’s book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, is much better than any NFP book I’ve seen) is that it is empowering for a woman to learn about what is going on with her own body, and to be able to interpret the signs of her fertility to help her to make better decisions about her sexual choices. I’m always amazed at how little my students know about female fertility when we discuss Humanae vitae in my sexual ethics class. NFP/FAM encourages a woman to know and respect her body, and it can be a very beautiful practice.
But your post was about whether NFP is “realistic” and “responsible.” And one of the things I struggle with is that official Catholic teaching on marital sexuality often seems highly idealized– sex as total self-gift between mutually loving partners in an egalitarian relationship. If we want to be “real” about sex, we need to face head-on the problem of gender inequality and especially of domestic violence. Simply put, most sexually active women are not in lifelong loving egalitarian marriage partnerships. This is why the ABCs of HIV prevention have failed women in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere: women can abstain from sex until marriage, and then only have sex with their spouse, and then end up HIV+ when they are infected through marital sex. One UNFPA report calls marriage a “risk factor” for HIV infection. Not exactly a glowing picture of the grace of the sacrament.
It takes two… when we talk about sex, we’re talking about the intimate relationship between two people. And too often these two people do not have equal power. So a woman can take her basal temperature, monitor her cervical fluid, and check the position of her cervix… she can even input this data into her smartphone or computer and print out fancy charts. But if she is unable to persuade her partner to abstain from sex to prevent her from becoming pregnant, this awareness about her body doesn’t do her much good. What does “responsibility” mean in this situation?
I’ve been going down to Tijuana recently to interview Mexican men and women who live in a safe house for migrants. I’ve heard some heartbreaking stories. One of the women, Teresa, who is a devout Catholic, has had nine children. She’s my age, and she’s been pregnant nine times. She finished 5 years of formal schooling, and left an abusive home when she was 12 years old (with her 19 year old sister). Her first experience of sex was coerced (with a much older man), and after years of living in the U.S. she was deported and is living in a migrant house. Her children are either deceased or living with relatives or foster parents. She told me that she has never had a sexual relationship that she would describe as an equal partnership. But she knows that the Catholic Church forbids contraception. My heart aches for Teresa, and also for her children and the people taking care of them. Obviously her story is messy, and needs to be further contextualized, but when I hear stories like hers, every bone in my feminist body wants to scream and cry and hit something. What is “unrealistic” for Teresa is an egalitarian marriage rooted in self-gift. She is not simply a victim, but her decisions were made within a context of constrained agency. So our understanding of “responsibility” needs to be much broader, I think. The Church has a role to play here–especially in terms of moral formation regarding respect for the inherent dignity of women and children.
From what I’ve read, most Catholics who promote NFP assume that married couples who will practice NFP are in egalitarian relationships and that both partners are willing to abstain from sex when the couple decides that they need to avoid pregnancy. But it is problematic to assume that this description fits every sexually active couple.
Emily – Yes, I think you’re right that often the assumption is some kind of egalitarian marriage – or least, the presumption of a monogamous marriage, which is also not the norm everywhere. But this is exactly what I worry about with Bethany Patchin – that she came from a culture that seems to support marital rape (at least as she reported in her blog), among other things.
But again, I’m thinking this isn’t about NFP or ABC, but about the burdens that women, in particular, have in relation to sex. Using ABC takes away some, but only some of the issues – because still, in the case of an ABC failure, people will blame the woman and leave child bearing and rearing up to her. No matter where a woman turns, no one has yet presented good solutions for the gender inequality that remains regarding sex, family planning, and child rearing. And, I worry that ABC use only presents a temporary fix for a problem that requires a much deeper set of issues – but the current tendency is to hold out ABC options as if they’re the final word on the matter.
Re: self gift. I would critique this idea along the same lines David Matzko McCarthy does in Sex and Love in the Home – I think it’s a problematic way of thinking about sexual activity. But it seems to me that the “total self gift” idea has had more traction in Western cultures? I haven’t seen it much in use by people outside the US – and even then, it’s still not a mainstream idea. I mean, will Teresa have heard about that idea?
I think my response was confusing in that I used ABC to mean Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms (the public health mantra), and you use ABC to mean artificial birth control. Sorry about that. I think we probably agree on a lot here. When you say that you worry that birth control presents a temporary fix for a problem that requires a much deeper set of issues, I agree. But I wonder if continued advocacy for NFP/FAM is going to address those deeper issues. Too often the whole debate is a distraction from those issues. The recent U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on marriage names contraception as a threat to the dignity of marriage. I think that is overstated. And so many official documents continue to promote rigid essentialist gender roles without any real dialogue with contemporary feminist theologians. It comes up in the Vatican resistance to maternal health programs that include “family planning” components, or the recent U.S. bishops’ advocacy against the DHHS guidelines that would mandate coverage of birth control by insurance providers (their pressure paid off in a religious exception clause). The USCCB didn’t seem to mind that most health plans cover Viagra and vasectomy, but the birth control pill is against Catholic teachings. Benedict has said that condoms are not a “quick fix” solution to the problem of HIV/AIDS. And I agree. But does that mean that they can’t be part of a wider complex solution? The term “pro-life” is thrown around a lot in Catholic circles, but if we really want to end abortion and reduce unwanted pregnancies, does it make sense that we would advocate against affordable access to artificial birth control? I think you make a compelling argument for the convergence of social ethics and sexual ethics. Sex is not just a private matter, and too often women bear the greatest burdens for child rearing. But that’s exactly why so many people in the public health sphere are looking for female-controlled methods of family planning and HIV prevention. Recognizing that sexual activity is not always within a woman’s control, they try to find ways of empowering women to care for themselves within those relationships (I’m thinking of the pill for pregnancy prevention or microbicides for HIV prevention).If a woman is financially dependent on her sexual partner but wants to avoid pregnancy, her physician might suggest something like Depo-Provera. Some might draw on principles from Catholic social ethics, medical ethics, or virtue ethics to say that within her constrained context, maybe this would be an acceptable and compassionate response (as we work to promote her wellbeing in other ways simultaneously). I think the norms from sexual ethics promote a wonderful ideal, but I wonder if their application in a case like that would be the most compassionate response.
I know my comment is a little late, but I just wanted to point out explicitly something that I think you’re both hinting at here – that often the NFP vs. ABC debate is really about two different things. I am very glad that the church holds up an ideal for marriage, but as Emily points out, sometimes we are so far from that ideal that engaging in the birth control debate may serve only to cover over the real issues.
I’m sure that the church’s teaching on sexual ethics should not be used to place additional burdens on those who are already in difficult places, but should be directed to those who are in places of power, who, as Jana points out, think that they should be able to control every aspect of women’s bodies or that women should be able to control their own bodies (in the way that society has dictated, of course).
I think that I am particularly sensitive to this issue because of where I am – I’ve recently started telling my doctors that my husband and I are “trying,” not because it’s true, but because I’ve just gotten tired of being treated as though I’m irresponsible or crazy for trying to avoid pregnancy with NFP. For some reason, actively trying get pregnant is seen as much more responsible than simply being open to having a child, I suppose because I’m expected to only “try” when the timing is perfect, and to “be open” indicates that maybe it isn’t the perfect time for me to have a child. Having seen this judgmental attitude arise at the very idea of me having a child at a less than ideal time, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a woman who, despite all efforts to the contrary, finds herself pregnant at a difficult time and has these judgements heaped on her besides. All that to say, I am in complete agreement with Jana that the attitude that we should completely control when babies happen is probably not particularly helpful or compassionate toward women.