What’s so ‘natural’ about Natural Family Planning?
July 14, 2011 (HLIAmerica.org) - In the last week, articles on Natural Family Planning (NFP) appeared in both secular and Catholic media. In the New York Times, David Oppenheimer chronicles the views of Sam and Bethany Torode, two conservative Protestants. In 2000 the young married couple co-wrote the book Open Embrace: a Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception. They advocated for NFP, a method of fertility regulation in keeping with the Catholic Church’s teaching. However, by 2006 both rejected NFP as a recommended method of birth control. They divorced in 2009. Both have joined liberal Christian communities. Mr. Oppenheimer offers their story as a testimony to how maturity and enlightenment lead to the rejection of NFP.
Then Danielle Bean, a solidly Catholic author, offers what she calls a “reality check” on NFP. She writes in Crisis magazine of “Five Ways I don’t Love Natural Family Planning.” She discovered that NFP is less precise for her when she is breastfeeding. Her reaction is disappointment.
Instead, I went into marriage all starry-eyed about how NFP was going to be an aid to our communication…and then wound up sad, lonely, and wondering what was wrong with me and my marriage when NFP seemed not only to be interfering with the way I wanted to mother my children, but actually hurting my relationship with my husband on occasion.
The response of the Torede’s is unsurprising if NFP is erroneously viewed as an organic chemical-free alternative to artificial contraception. The “natural” in Natural Family Planning has more to do with natural law than it does with a natural, environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Natural law is the objective moral standard of behavior that is derived from our human nature as created by God. Actions that are in accordance with natural law bring us closer to the ideal envisioned for us by God. Actions that conflict with natural law push us away from God’s plan.
God’s plan for the marital act is that one man and one woman, united in marriage, give themselves freely and completely to each other. The procreative and unitive aspects of this act cannot be separated. Any attempt to do so undermines the integrity, dignity, and sanctity of conjugal relations. In a faithfully Catholic marriage, the default position is to be open to the conception of a child. The Church does recognize that there are times, when for the good of the entire family, it would be better not to conceive a child.
Abstinence from sex during the fertile segment of a woman’s monthly cycle is a way to minimize the chance of pregnancy. Such abstinence, if done for serious reasons, is moral. This is in stark contrast to the contraceptive culture whose default position is opposition to conception. With the contraceptive mentality, openness to pregnancy is the exception, not the rule.
In 2006, the Pontifical Council for the Family created quite a stir when it made clear that practicing NFP does not guarantee that the avoidance of pregnancy is in accordance with Church teaching. Its document Family and Human Procreation states:
As a result, a change in the model of the family and also of conjugality is under way. Indeed, the situation of spouses with a single child or at most two children predominates. This means that the fulfillment of potentially procreative conjugal acts is no more than a sort of sum of brief parentheses within an entire conjugal life voluntarily rendered sterile. This fact obviously indicates a serious obscuring of the value of procreation.
As the Torodes family discovered, NFP is unsatisfactory if you expect the same control as birth control pills. NFP is not always easy, as Danielle Bean points out. Sometimes, it is a significant hardship. But perhaps this is as it should be. A Catholic marriage is called to be open to the gift of new life. A faithfully Catholic wife is not necessarily expected to monitor her temperature and other physiological signs of fertility every single day for the entire two to three decades of her fertility. This burden is only necessary if after prayerful discernment, a couple determines that a temporary avoidance of pregnancy is best for the entire family. Using NFP to avoid conception should be the “parentheses within an entire conjugal life.”
Our contraceptive culture has given us the illusion that we should be in complete control of our reproductive lives. Pregnancies occur only when we determine the conditions to be right. Our desire for pregnancy has become the sole determining factor a couple considers, and too often it is believed that a child is “unplanned.” The truth is that there is no such thing as an “unplanned pregnancy.” God has planned and brought into existence each and every child. He just may not let us in on his plan until we see the two pink lines on the pregnancy test. We are called to trust that His will and His plan are immeasurably superior to our own.
Denise Hunnell, MD, is a family medicine practitioner, a retired Air Force Major physician, and a fellow of HLI America. This article originally appeared on HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum.