Contrary to popular belief, Natural Family Planning (NFP) is not “Catholic Contraception” like it is commonly misconstrued. It isn’t the outdated “calendar rhythm method” either, where a woman estimates when her fertile period is, based on information gleaned from her previous six cycles. This method is quite unreliable indeed. So what exactly is NFP and what’s all the fuss about?
Natural Family Planning or NFP is an umbrella term for scientific, natural and moral methods of family planning that can help couples either achieve or postpone pregnancies by observing the fertility signals of a woman’s body to determine the most likely days of conception in the month. Some methods of NFP include the Sympto-Thermal Method, the Creighton Model System of FertilityCare (CrMS), and the Billings Ovulation Method (BOM).
The BOM is the method taught locally at NFP Singapore. Essentially, NFP is an approach to fertility awareness and management; a way of life and responsible parenting.
Natural Family Planning vs Contraception
Contraception (“Contra” means against and “ception” refers to conception) is the deliberate use of artificial substances, methods and techniques to interrupt or sterilize an act of sexual intercourse with the use of a host of drugs and/or devices, to prevent pregnancy. The more common forms include the condom or sheath; the contraceptive pill, which contains synthetic sex hormones to prevent ovulation in the female; intrauterine devices (IUD) which prevent the fertilized ovum from implanting in the uterus; and male or female sterilization (vasectomy and tubal ligation).
In a very informative and enlightening interview on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), famed author and chastity speaker Jason Evert draws some clear distinctions between contraception and natural family planning and defines NFP as “the method of avoiding or achieving pregnancy based on observing the changes in a woman’s body that indicate her fertility. This method of planning a family, he explains, is scientifically endorsed by the British Medical Journal as 99% effective (with proper use), without the harmful effects of chemicals and devices. It is a “totally natural way to plan out one’s family if you have a good reason to space out your family,” says Evert.
He weaves in a great analogy about NFP vs Contraception being two women who want to maintain slim figures – one who’s dieting and the other who is bulimic. Both have the same goal of losing weight and keeping it off, he says, but their approaches and methods are entirely different. The woman who is dieting practises temperance by sacrificing and avoiding fatty foods while maintaining the discipline to exercise regularly. The bulimic woman, on the other hand, “binges on all kinds of fatty foods and then throws up to purge the weight-gaining effects of bingeing”. Contraception is like the woman who binges and throws up. NFP is the woman who practises temperance and sacrifice. Contraception is like bingeing on sex and then purging its life-giving effects, says the father of five, who is expecting his sixth with wife Crystalina Evert early next year.
NFP is Couple Orientated
NFP is also couple orientated and promotes sharing and joint responsibility in family planning. It helps cultivate intimacy in a marriage and enriches it, since the same qualities that make marriage work such as respect, patience, fidelity, regard, self-mastery, understanding and consultation are required and developed when a couple faithfully practises NFP. Since the methods of NFP respect the love-giving (unitive) and life-giving (procreative) nature of the conjugal act, they support God’s design for married love. It is an entire approach to life.
Love and Responsibility
In his book Men, Women and the Mystery of Love (Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility), Dr Edward Sri highlights that according to the canonised Pope, contraception is not just immoral, it “destroys the love between a husband and wife in marriage”. He brings to light four important points St John Paul the Great made:
Accepting the Possibility of Parenthood: for sexual relations to become a true union of persons, it must be accompanied in the mind and will by the acceptance of the possibility of parenthood. Sexual union itself does not automatically bring about a true union of love. One of the key ingredients needed to make the bodily union between a man and woman an expression of an even deeper personal union of love is a willingness to accept the possibility that through the sexual act, “I may become a father” or “I may become a mother” (227-228). This openness to parenthood is crucial if love is to mature in a marriage. He adds: “When a husband and wife are truly open to life in their marital relations, it is as if they are looking each other in the eye and saying, ‘I love you so much I am even willing to embark on the adventure of parenthood with you’”.
Rejecting Parenthood, Rejecting one’s spouse: Contraceptive sex is not just a rejection of the possibility of parenthood, but a certain rejection of the other person, in that it prevents the physical union of marital intercourse from blossoming into a full personal union of love, says JPII (228). When spouses reject the possibility of becoming parents together in the marital act, the focus of their experience in sexual intercourse becomes merely “centered on sexual pleasure”. It is as if they are saying
“I want the sensual pleasure from this act, but I reject the possibility of you becoming a parent with me” (234).
Periodic Continence: While couples should never reject the possibility of parenthood in sexual intercourse, John Paul II teaches that they do not need to “positively desire to procreate on every occasion when they have intercourse” (233). Couples may face certain situations in which they desire to postpone the conception of a child. In those cases, they may choose to abstain from having sexual relations during the times the woman is most likely to be fertile.
Still open to life: According to St John Paul, the most important point to consider involves the couple’s attitude towards procreation. Periodic continence may be used to help regulate conception, but it should not be used to postpone having a family. The Pope explains, “We cannot therefore speak of continence as a virtue where the spouses take advantage of the periods of biological infertility exclusively for the purpose of avoiding parenthood altogether” (242), pointing out that the good of the family should be weighed seriously before practising periodic continence, as he notes that “giving children siblings can contribute in an important way to a child’s education and upbringing, since brothers and sisters form a natural community that helps shape the child”.
Fertility is a gift
Jason Evert puts it beautifully: “There is no reason to interrupt the sexual act at the moment we are supposed to be renewing our wedding vows. If we are going to come together as one flesh, it should be as God designed: in the love of husband and wife”.
After all, fertility is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love tends to be fruitful (CCC 2366).
I am married, not on birth control, and do not really want to become pregnant (if it happens, it happens, if not, woohoo!). I’m not on birth control because I don’t like excess chemicals and hormones in my body–I already eat enough of that crap. So, I keep a close eye on my fertility tracker and keep a wide margin of error around my fertile days. We’ve done this a year without conceiving a baby.
The common problem with this method is that women aren’t REALLY trying to stay not pregnant. Many who practice NFP for religious reasons feel that “children are a blessing from God” which ends up meaning that they’re secretly feeling sinful when faced with the choice of denying their husband penetration because a child might be conceived. They may tell their husband of the circumstances, but you have to admit that KNOWING you have a higher chance of pregnancy this week and deciding not to have sex is just as defying of God’s will as having sex with a condom. Then there are the husbands who don’t have much to do with the childrearing anyway and will cajole their submissive wife into penetrative sex even when she’d rather avoid another pregnancy.
By the way, my husband has a choice between a condom, which he hates, or non penetrative sex when I am confident that I’m fertile. While NFP causes me to tell him of my cycle, he doesn’t get much say elsewise.
Thanks for your comment Catherine. It is true that NFP can be used as a contraception, that is solely to avoid pregnancy. However, the idea of NFP is for both parties to be consciously aware of their conjugal acts knowing that it is both unitive and procreative. The two are not mutually exclusive.