Spreading the Good News about Natural Family Planning
Wednesday, April 25, 2012Tweet
Question: Why don't more people know about Natural Family Planning?
And of those who know about it, why don't more people use it?
I think there are a lot of possible answers to those questions. I'll touch on a few, but I think there's one large reason that no one is talking about.
Many doctors don't trust it or recommend it because they've seen too many couples unable to successfully avoid pregnancy when they wanted to. It doesn't matter that the couples weren't practicing it correctly -- easier to throw out the whole method than try to get people to do it right. (I could write a whole post on an angry conversation I had with a doctor about this.)
Without many doctors talking about it, it doesn't get incorporated into public school sex ed curriculum, which is where many people find out about their options for avoiding pregnancy -- and since we're teaching teenagers, we generally only teach them how to avoid pregnancy, not how to get pregnant, which NFP can also help with.
And if people never encounter NFP, or at least not until well into their adult life when they have a regular birth control routine established, then they're probably not going to provide information to their own kids about it.
Now, I'm mainly talking about non-Catholics here. A Catholic kid growing up is far more likely to encounter NFP at some point, either from their parents or Catholic school. I first found out about it while reading my mom's Catholic Digest in high school, and then I went off to a Catholic university where all the kids who had gone to Catholic high schools could fill me in on the details. That's not to say all Catholics know about it, but that the knowledge is largely contained within the Catholic community.
What I've been thinking about is why the practice of NFP hasn't spread out farther from Catholic circles. I know a lot of Catholics who would tell me that it's because non-Catholics are part of a "culture of death" (I sincerely hate that phrase) that accepts birth control and abortion as normal. But I don't think it's that simple. There are plenty of women who don't want to be on the Pill, either because they embrace a more "natural" lifestyle generally or because it has horrible side effects for them, but who want a way of preventing pregnancy that is more reliable than barrier methods.
And this is where I think the disconnect happens. Why hasn't NFP spread to more non-Catholics? Because the Catholics who are most vocal about it don't want to promote it as just another way to prevent pregnancy.
I started thinking about this after reading Jen Fulwiler's post about an article on NFP that, to her way of thinking, completely missed the point about NFP because the writer saw it through a "contraceptive worldview."
Now, if you ascribe to the Catholic Church's view of NFP (and therefore, their views about sex and contraception generally), everything Jen wrote makes a lot of sense. NFP isn't just another method for avoiding pregnancy, it's an entirely different philosophy about sex and childbearing than what the modern world teaches.
Except that it is. It is a method for avoiding pregnancy. It can be connected to Catholic philosophies and beliefs about God's intentions for our bodies. But the literal practice of charting your fertility does not require adhering to those beliefs.
However, in my experience, the vast majority of people teaching / publicly talking about NFP believe that it does. And that, I think, is one very large reason it hasn't spread.
Some would consider me heretical -- or, more nicely, misguided -- for teaching people about NFP without ever mentioning, or at least not going into great detail about, the entire Catholic philosophy behind it. Because theoretically, they are inseparable. But practically, they're not.
This is what I would call the "all in" fallacy. I talked about this in my post on the problem with labels, referencing the strange notion that it's somehow better to be a straight-up carnivore than being a semi-vegetarian who eats meat occasionally. Is it really somehow better to have someone continue to use artificial contraception than to persuade them to try NFP even if they don't ascribe to the entire philosophy behind it?
Note that I don't personally believe artificial contraception is evil, so I'm not saying we need to get everyone to stop using it any way we can. What I'm saying is that I think there are a lot of great things about NFP, and I believe more people should be introduced to it, in such a way that they're most likely to believe it is a reasonable possibility for them. When it's introduced as inseparable from Catholic teaching about the proper use of NFP, then I think that is more likely to turn people off who aren't ready to completely revolutionize their mindset about sex and openness to children.
And who knows? Maybe practicing NFP and thus becoming more aware of and connected with one's own bodily cycles, and necessarily communicating with one's spouse about one's current fertility level, would actually lead more people to shift their thoughts about sex, marriage, and children. Maybe if Catholics stopped trying to first convince people about the importance of the Theology of the Body in order to introduce Natural Family Planning, and instead focused on sharing the practical benefits of NFP, they'd end up shifting more people's beliefs in the end.
Having said all this, I want to introduce one potential caveat and then see what you think.
Natural Family Planning is difficult. There's no doubt that it requires some level of sacrifice if you are used to having intercourse whenever you feel like it. Whenever I talk to people about it, I caution them that they would potentially have to broaden their mind about what constitutes sex, and recognize that intercourse is just one way to be intimate with their partner. (Here I have already strayed from Catholic teaching.)
Here's the issue: NFP works extremely well at avoiding pregnancy if you don't have intercourse when you're fertile. And the question is whether a couple is prepared to deal with those moments when they are fertile and have a strong desire for intercourse. What I see in some Catholic circles is that people rarely want to admit that they failed at practicing NFP correctly because they got too horny; instead, they write it off as "God's calling" and see their child as an uequivocal blessing. I would imagine this is a lot easier to do when you are entrenched in Catholic teaching.
So from that perspective, I can see that there might be a fear that divorcing NFP from its Catholic philosophy would potentially lead to more abortions as a result of these "oops"/horny moments. But that idea chooses to ignore the fact that, in the absence of NFP, this same couple would most likely be using some form of artificial birth control and could also have an unintended pregnancy as a result of a broken condom or failed Pill. The difference with NFP is that the couple has definitively made a choice to open themselves to the possibility of pregnancy by having intercourse during a fertile period, and I would have to imagine that that has some positive effect on how that couple reacts to the pregnancy compared to "we did everything we could to prevent this!"
OK, I've talked enough. I want to know what you think. I'm already aware that my viewpoint is not the viewpoint of the Catholic Church, so you don't need to waste any time informing me of that.
Can and should Natural Family Planning be taught independent of the Catholic philosophy behind it? What would you say are the pros and cons of such an approach?