Where Logic Meets Love

Being Pro-NFP Doesn't Require Being Anti-Everything Else

Friday, September 28, 2012

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Being Pro-NFP Doesn't Require Being Anti-Everything Else | Faith Permeating Life
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government -- except all the others that have been tried.

-Sir Winston Churchill
Don't worry; this isn't going to be a political post, at least in the traditional sense. But I want to talk about some more problems with how people promote Natural Family Planning, and this quote seems to capture exactly the point I want to make: Rather than emphasizing what's great about NFP, some NFP advocates seem to spend more time talking about what's horrible about every other kind of birth control method.

It's as if one should use NFP not because there's anything particularly good about it, but because every other option is so horrible that it's the only option left. Eek!

Here are a few reasons I think this is a terrible approach:

Scare tactics don't work
If there's one thing social science research tells us pretty consistently, it's that trying to scare people into changing their behavior is one of the least effective approaches you can use. People simply don't believe that the worst-case scenario will ever happen to them, which is why there are still people who don't use seat belts or helmets. Everyone generally believes that they're the exception, that those horrible experiences happen to other people, not them. So why take this kind of approach with birth control? For the people I know who changed from some form of artificial contraception to Natural Family Planning, they did so out of a desire to be more in tune with their bodies, or eliminate added hormones in their body, or simply be more "natural," or remove a barrier between themselves and their partner... not out of a fear of the worst-case scenario. It was the benefits of NFP, not the fear/guilt about their current method of birth control, that was the primary motivation for switching.

You don't convince anyone by rejecting their personal experiences
A lot of the anti-contraception rhetoric I see focuses on the very worst possible side effects one could experience from taking hormonal contraceptives or having an IUD (intra-uterine device), which, as I said above, is intended to scare people away from wanting to use them. But what about all the people who are using artificial contraception and having only minor, or no, problems with it? Talking about the most extreme problems is going to seem to many people to be a vast exaggeration at best, and an outright lie at worst. Why would anyone want to listen to whatever you're "selling" if you start out by telling them all about problems they are supposedly having with their current method of birth control?

It denies people's autonomy to make informed decisions
If Natural Family Planning is truly the best choice -- and I don't necessarily think that it is for everyone, but certainly for many more people than are currently using it -- then people should be able to come to that conclusion on their own, given enough information about the various options and opportunities to have their questions answered. There is already a lot of information out there about oral contraceptives and condoms, and many people already have personal experience with some form of artificial contraception. But many people aren't even aware of NFP/FAM (Fertility Awareness Method) as a viable option, or believe it to be synonymous with the ineffective Rhythm Method of years past.

As I said in my post on motivational interviewing, the best place to start is with understanding other people's needs, goals, priorities, etc. A message that comes off as "You need to use NFP because the Pill kills babies and condoms are ineffective" is a combative stance that denies people's ability to make an informed choice for themselves, by suggesting that there's only one correct option and they're ignorant and wrong for not already choosing it. A more effective approach might be, "Are you concerned about the side effects of the Pill? Did you know there's another birth control option that doesn't require you to introduce extra hormones into your body? Let me tell you about how it works and some of the benefits so you can decide if this is right for you..."

It creates more negative associations for NFP
Natural Family Planning, among those who are aware of it but don't know much about it, already seems to have a not-so-great reputation. Artificial birth control is the cultural default, at least in America, so NFP is "abnormal" -- that thing that people do because they're hippies afraid of putting anything unnatural into their body, or because they're Catholics with a misguided fear of birth control beat into their heads. It's confused with the Rhythm Method, about which most people know nothing except that it's ineffective. So hearing seemingly normal people talk about why they love NFP and how it benefits their body and their relationship? Totally intriguing. But hearing NFP promoters talk about how the Pill is evil, or feminism has destroyed women's relationships with their bodies, or how the use of birth control normalizes abortion? Yup, definitely a bunch of crazy weirdos...

There are already plenty of negative associations with NFP -- let's work to create more positive ones!

Reiterating the point of Wednesday's post on abstinence, if you practice NFP and love it (I do!), then shout to the heavens about how happy you are and why you love it so much. This does not require putting down anyone else's current form of birth control. There's already enough work to be done just letting more people know that NFP exists, educating women about how their monthly cycles work, and talking about all the personal and relational benefits that come from using NFP.

What do you think? What one's thing you'd like to hear more NFP advocates talk about?

30 comments:

  1. I definitely agree about the need to NOT use scare tactics. If it really is a good method, then the facts can speak for themselves.

    You're the only person I've seen write about NFP for reasons other than "well, contraception is evil... but seriously, we need to do SOMETHING to avoid having a ton of kids, so we have to do NFP."

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    1. Sigh... I'm sorry to hear that! There is so much that's good about it, I hate for it to be treated like a last resort.

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  2. Excellent points!!

    I'd like to hear more people talk about how NFP/FAM helps you understand what your body is doing and how this can be helpful for nonsexual daily life, for trying TO conceive, and in parallel with artificial contraception.

    What I mean about daily life is that knowing when to expect your period ensures that you're prepared hygienically, and if you have any problem with disabling cramps or anything like that, you can plan other activities around it instead of cancelling at the last minute.

    What I mean about contraception is that people using barrier methods (condoms, diaphragm, etc.) should understand that there are 3 levels of effectiveness:
    1. Using the barrier only when you think you're fertile, but continuing to have intercourse during that time
    2. Using the barrier all the time, paying no attention to fertility
    3. Using the barrier every time you have intercourse, and also abstaining from intercourse when you're fertile.
    The higher the number, the more effective. Unfortunately, #1 has been advocated by many FAM (non-Catholic) teachers as an option if you don't feel like abstaining--it IS a safer choice than not using the barrier, of course, but the odds of barrier method failure when you use the method only at FERTILE times are HIGHER than the published statistics for the method--because if it lets sperm through, you have an egg waiting. The effectiveness of condoms already is lower than most people think (about 1 in 7 couples using condoms as their only method of pregnancy prevention will conceive within 1 year) so it's really best to combine them with another method. I'd like to see that idea better publicized.

    FAM/NFP can be useful even for women using contraceptives that are supposed to suppress ovulation, because if you know the symptoms of ovulation, you can notice if your contraceptive has stopped working.

    (I think I've written about this in your comment box before...but I try to say it whenever I get the opportunity!)

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    1. Excellent points! Thank you!

      This is one that I especially think people don't think about: "the odds of barrier method failure when you use the method only at FERTILE times are HIGHER than the published statistics for the method--because if it lets sperm through, you have an egg waiting."

      I'm (finally) reading Taking Charge of Your Fertility right now and she makes a similar point, that statistics about birth control success rates are based on people having intercourse during a woman's entire cycle even though there's only a very small window in which it's even possible to get pregnant. I don't think a lot of people know that.

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    2. I know I didn't know that prior to reading TCOYF.

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  3. So I don't know if you saw this, but not too long ago some random guy came on my blog basically to convince me to stop using Nuvaring as my method of birth control, politely calling me a hypocrite for trying to live a natural lifestyle but still using a hormonal form of birth control. It was a lot of really rude mansplaining, religious cliches ("you can't fight against nature; nature fights back"), and implying that I was selfish because I expressed a hope in seeing male contraceptives, something like RISUG, approved for use in the United States. He told me to read this one book (yeah, not a suggestion, basically an order), ignoring the fact that I have actually studied female biology, fertility, pregnancy and birth, etc. and presuming my complete ignorance about my own body. Oh, and abstaining is easy and healthy for him and his wife so obviously it would have the same results for every couple in existence and it's so worth the sacrifice you know - so if I said it wasn't something I was interested in, I must just be a selfish, sex-crazed pervert.

    So yeah, needless to say I didn't even look at the book he recommended, and I stopped reading his comments. His judgmentalism, self-righteousness, martyr-for-the-cause attitude - it just soured my stomach on NFP. And I'd studied it in college! I know how it works and everything, but this guy just had my blood boiling, and I pretty much stopped considering it as an option. Thinking about it just reminded me of this guy, and I felt like this stranger was intruding on my sexual relationship with my husband and trying to control my body.

    I recognize that a lot of people are really happy with NFP, and it's not as if I would never consider for myself it again. But yeah, this guy's approach made me feel like NFP was about religion controlling people's sexual lives and calling them selfish and stupid if they don't use it - because that's how this person approached it with me. When we talked about it in college, it was presented as an equal option with condoms, hormones, etc. We actually had a whole class where a woman came to speak about the method - no other method got as much attention. And this made the whole thing a lot more attractive to me back then. So yeah, your attitude and tone matter when you're trying to advocate something like this.

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    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    2. Jim, I saw your comments on Mórrígan's blog and they did not come across as "honestly curious," they came across as combative and lecturing and assuming she was ignorant. If there's one thing Mórrígan's blog makes clear, it's that she does thorough research on EVERYTHING. I've deleted your comment here because it is sarcastic and rude. Disagreement is always welcome here; sarcastically attacking other commenters is not.

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    3. Mórrígan -- Sorry to hear that turned you off from NFP. I'm actually reading the book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, right now because I need something less Catholic-y to recommend to people than CCL's book, but I don't think it would have any new information for you; it's aimed at women who don't understand how the phases of their cycle work and have never heard of NFP/FAM.

      You bring up another good point, which is that even though most women are not familiar with NFP, it's important not to assume that because someone's not using it, they've never heard of it. Whenever someone mentions to me that they're unhappy with their birth control, I will usually ask something like, "Have you considered something like Natural Family Planning?" Then I get one of two responses -- "What's that?" or "Yeah, but here are all my concerns about it..." It would be ridiculous to assume that everyone either knows about NFP and is using it or has never heard of it. A good example is Tony and Alisa of One Extraordinary Marriage -- they recommend Taking Charge of Your Fertility frequently as a way for women to get familiar with their cycles, but Alisa doesn't actually chart and they use condoms as their form of birth control.

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    5. I did ask a question in the hopes of starting a conversation and got a reply that seemed like a request for help. Perhaps I misread this.

      And she definitely misread what was intended as help as ordering her around. I was rather shocked and hurt by the reply. I've made a lot of people angry and stuck my foot in my mouth quite a few times, but I've never had any one compare me to a rapist when I was trying to help them.

      Misunderstandings are easy on the internet and you know I am always the most tactful person in the world, but I was intending to help.

      Which is why we should be careful about assuming things about others.

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  4. Now that I've calmed down a bit, I will respond to the article.

    I understand why you want to promote NFP as strictly a positive option. But, unfortunately, being pro-NFP DOES require you to being anti-everything else.

    NFP is hard. It requires learning biology in-depth. It requires charting. It requires modifying your behavior based on circumstances beyond your control. It requires figuring out what in the world to do or not do with the fertile period. (Full disclosure: Yes, I believe that in theory that one way is best. Realistically, what is best will be different for each couple. No, the theory does not match the reality in our marriage. That's life. Does it make me a hypocrite? I'll let you decide.) Figuring out what the best way is for each individual couple to use the method is not easy.

    A lot more than just taking a pill and having sex when you please.

    And some of you have no idea how hard NFP is. We have some true horror stories from our own personal experience, including an instructor who didn't think we had good enough reasons to avoid a pregnancy. And I'm not the one who had to do all the observations or worry about actually being pregnant.

    The ONLY reason why we are doing NFP is because contraception was even worse. Seriously. When I say "Don't fight nature because nature fights back", this is not a theological statement, this is a very painful lesson for us that was learned the hard way.

    Yet we didn't know what was going wrong until someone told us. We thought the IUD was the solution to all our problems until someone mentioned the possible side effects and that these side effects just happened to match some health problems she was having. We didn't realize her problems with the Pill until she stopped taking it and felt so much better.

    And there were plenty of other problems we have had with contraception that we wish we had known about but no one had ever told us. Big Pharma sure isn't going say anything.

    Call me cynical, but proposed male contraceptives just switch the unpleasant side effects to the man. Not good either.

    So, perhaps I can get a bit negative and pushy at times, but I do have my reasons and they are not trying to control anyone's sex life. (I find it far easier to promote FAM over NFP. NFP has its rewards, but it is a tall order for most couples. And it's easy to wreck your marriage if you do it with the wrong attitude.)

    It's not a religious thing either (at least it didn't start out as one). Here are some articles from very pro-choice, non-religious people.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/why-ill-never-take-the-pill-again-1970488.html

    http://sweeteningthepill.blogspot.com/2012/01/and-that-pill-robbed-me-of-six-years-of.html

    Yes, I understand your concern about fear mongering and yes, some NFP promoters go so far overboard that they lose credibility. But you do have to give people a reason to go to all that trouble.

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    1. I am not following your argument here. It seems like you are figuring that because you switched to NFP after having problems with artificial contraception, no one will practice NFP without having problems with artificial contraception. But that's simply not true -- myself, case in point. And it seems strange to me that as such a vocal advocate of NFP, you don't think it can stand on its own merits but is simply what people will choose because they have to or as a last resort.

      Even if your premise were true -- that no one would use NFP except because of having problems with other forms of contraception -- it still does not logically follow that presenting negative information about their contraception is the way to turn them onto NFP. If they are already having problems and are open to an alternative, then providing positive information about NFP should be enough for it to be considered as a viable option. If they are using artificial contraception and having no problems with it, then telling them everything horrible about it will be seem silly and extremist at best and condescending and rude at worst.

      If a woman I knew personally told me she was having unknown health problems, I might ask if she had considered whether her birth control might be the culprit. But in general, if I want people to consider NFP as a viable option for them, I'm going to share positive information about it and refrain from making broad negative comments about other forms of birth control. That has worked very well for me in getting people interested in NFP, while I've seen the opposite approach have disastrous consequences.

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    2. I am not saying that NFP can't stand on its own merits, nor am I saying that there are no positive benefits from it.

      Nor will I say that NO ONE will practice NFP without having problems with artificial contraception. Obviously some people will, yourself included.

      What I am saying is that WE would never have chosen it simply for positive reasons. WE chose it as a last resort, and I know others who have done this as well. And no, we weren't happy about it at the time.

      We didn't discover the positive benefits--and they are significant--until AFTER making the switch. And no, we wouldn't go back.

      So yes, promote NFP in a positive way. And, of course, no one should not exaggerate the benefits of NFP or the drawbacks of the competition. But don't gloss over the problems with other forms of contraception either. Because some people might need to know that.

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  5. I have basic knowledge of NFP. I want to learn more about it because I think it's the method of family planning I will want to use, but at the same time, I'm not in a relationship, and I don't feel the need to get in-depth about exploring options until there's a reason to do so.

    That being said, with what I do know, I started finally paying attention to my own cycles two years ago, and as soon as I actually paid attention, I knew when my period was coming, and I knew when I was ovulating. It's no extra work, and it really is wonderful to know when to expect my period. One of the reasons I'm really interested in NFP is because I think that awareness of your body and how it works is so important. I've been really surprised a few times by friends who have sexual relationships but don't know when or how they can get pregnant (and using birth control so, in theory, it doesn't matter if you know). For me, I appreciate the self-knowledge.

    Also, you have to take the Pill every day at exactly the same time and be on top of this. My understanding of NFP is that you have to take your temperature at the exact same time every day. Is it really that different to take a pill or take your temperature? We're all human, and you can just as easily forget one as the other, but I don't see them being that remarkably different in what they require on a daily basis. (Minus the abstinence piece, of course.)

    This post came at a good time. Earlier this week, I was reading an article about overpopulation in other countries in a very liberal magazine which I enjoy, but they were totally capping on the "Rhythm Method," and it frustrated me.

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    1. I've said it before, but this is exactly why I think fertility awareness needs to be part of sexual education in schools. It's so helpful to be able to know what your body is doing! I think if more women were used to seeing the phases of their cycle play out every month, they'd be more hesitant to put a stop to their normal cycle with hormonal birth control. Unfortunately many people never hear about NFP/FAM until they're already using a birth control method that prevents them from ovulating, so they don't have a chance to see what a regular cycle looks like.

      From the friends I've discussed it with who are on the Pill, it's the abstinence piece of NFP that's the issue, not the regular temperature-taking since, as you said, the time commitment is essentially the same. Those who have concerns with a daily requirement are going to be seeking something different, like an IUD.

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    2. Speaking as someone who tried both methods, this is the difference between taking a pill at the same time every day and taking your temperature at the same time every day: When it's a pill, you can choose the time. Accurate temperature charting requires taking your temp shortly after awakening and before beginning much physical activity. For me, that is a very confused moment in the day; it's a long story, but after a few weeks of temp charting I was making myself and my partner crazy and not getting anything like accurate results. My experience with the pill was no fun, either, but for different reasons.

      It is possible to do FAM/NFP without temperature charting, though, if you can get adequate info from your cervical fluid, breast changes, etc. While I was learning about that, I also used a saliva ferning detector, which was very helpful once I got the hang of getting a good sample.

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    3. That's a good point -- thanks for sharing your experience. By now I'm so used to taking my temperature as soon as my alarm goes off that sometimes on weekends I fall back asleep right away and have no memory of even doing it. But it wasn't the easiest habit to get into, and I thankfully started charting well before we got married so I had time to create the habit with no consequences for forgetting. I've heard of fertility detectors using urine, but not saliva -- that's good to know about.

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  6. Any thoughts or experience or reference material on taking birth control pills to regulate hormones? We are currently using NFP and love it but a doctor suggested the pill to regulate my hormones. Does anyone know if there would be other options? I haven't done any research on this yet but was just curious if anyone had experience with that sort of thing. Thanks. I appreciate your blog Jessica. Your posts are very rupture provoking and inspirational!

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    1. I'm not sure what you mean by "regulating hormones." I don't have a lot of experience in this area, but my understanding is that if it's an issue of a hormone imbalance, there are a lot of different causes for that and thus different approaches to dealing with it. Sometimes I think birth control pills can be used as a one-size-fits-all treatment for anything related to a woman's cycle or hormones; I was put on the pill in college when I had midcycle spotting, which I found out several years later was normal and not something I should be concerned about. The pill creates sort of an artificially perfect cycle and I think my doctor thought that was what I wanted. That's not to say there aren't legitimate medical reasons for using hormonal birth control, as there definitely are. Is your doctor onboard with your practicing NFP? One option, if you took an NFP class, would be to get in touch with your NFP instructor(s) and see if they have experience with your specific situation. I hope that helps!

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    2. I had many years of bitter experience with doctors who wanted to "regulate" me with fake hormones of various types. If you want more detail than what I'm about to give here, feel free to come to my site and use the "contact" page to get my email address.

      Birth control pills will not "regulate your hormones" but will "regulate your cycle"--some doctors use these phrases as if they were interchangeable. The pills will give you a regular cycle, but it is a fake cycle controlled by the pills which suppress your natural hormones more or less completely. They will do nothing to treat whatever underlying condition is causing you to have long or irregular cycles, and they may make that condition worse and/or cause side effects.

      If you are bothered by long/irregular cycles or have symptoms of hormonal problems, a better option is an occasional "progesterone challenge" which means that you either get a shot of progesterone or take it orally for 5-10 days, causing your uterine lining to thicken, and then a week or so later you'll get a period. If this works, it means your reproductive organs are fine and your cycle issues are in the hypothalamus (gland that sends hormones to trigger the cycle), so there is no big health concern, and you can just take progesterone once in a while if your cycle has stalled out for a really long time like 4+ months. TAKE THE LOWEST DOSE of progesterone recommended, and try a higher dose only if the low one doesn't work. (I learned that I had been prescribed a very high and frequent dose only after I'd been taking it for years and suddenly had an overdose reaction, which was very unpleasant.) This approach means that your body is allowed to work naturally most of the time, and you avoid the risks of synthetic estrogen.

      If you are having a period at least every 4 months, and NFP is letting you know when to expect it as well as providing adequate info for conceiving or avoiding, then there isn't really a problem. Just Say No to the drugs! If your doctor is nagging about it, find a different doctor or a midwife.

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    3. Thanks, 'Becca! That's helpful advice.

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  7. *Thought provoking...not rupture.

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  8. Thanks for the advice. I will talk to my NFP instructor!

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  9. I agree with your method of portraying NFP positively rather than knocking other things. It was your thoughtful use of it that years later made me listen to a friend who was advocating for it (in the wrong way) by telling me about the horrors of the birth control. The problem was that she was wrong about pretty much all of it.

    We both ended up learning something, as I educated her on bc methods I'd tried (no, nuvaring is NOT an IUD, I promise), and she educated me on NFP. She loaned me her book and we both walked away from the experience smarter.

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    1. That's great to hear :) I think it's bad enough to try to "sell" someone on something by hating on what they're currently doing, but when the persuader is wrong and uneducated about what the other person is doing (e.g., not knowing what a nuvaring is), then it can make their case sound even worse -- if that had been your first encounter with NFP, I wouldn't blame you if you'd thought "Well, clearly she's using this method because she is completely uninformed about her other options..."

      It's easy for me to make the case that NFP is great from the perspective that I love it and it has a lot of benefits for me and my relationship. If I attempted to make the case that NFP was objectively better than any other form of birth control, I would probably end up either exaggerating or making broad generalizations about forms of birth control that I don't have any personal experience with.

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  10. Hi Jessica,
    I was just curious if you ever feel afraid that using NFP could fail for you? I absolutely never ever want to have children and have a huge fear of getting pregnant. This is partly because I have two special needs brothers and a lot of anxiety issues. But I was also raised to be very Catholic and part of that anxiety includes the fear and threat of hell. I'm not sure I could ever use contraception because I just picture the endless hell stretched out before me when I die. But on the other hand, I have too much fear that if I rely solely on NFP I would get pregnant and don't know if I could handle that at all. So I basically feel my only option is to remain single and hope that I reach my later years and can find a mate. It's just always been a dream of mine to get married and have love so it's hard to be so alone now. (I'm 26 right now.)

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    1. Hi Regina, I've responded to you in this post. I hope this is helpful to you.

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