Every married couple has the responsibility to prayerfully practice what the Catholic Church calls “responsible parenthood” as it pertains to the number and spacing of children. Spouses are to exercise this responsibility with generosity in receiving the gift of life, and with prudence, while avoiding selfishness and carelessness. Although children are the supreme gift of marriage, Catholic couples are not obliged to have as many children as humanly possible. While always remaining open to the possibility of a new life, couples may, when a serious reason is present, choose to postpone pregnancy.
How can a married couple practice responsible parenthood?
While our culture sees contraception as the best way to “plan” a family, the Catholic Church teaches that choosing to make oneself infertile through contraception is irresponsible and an “intrinsic evil.” Married couples are called to embrace and to be open to children, who are a living sign of their love.
Instead of using contraception, couples who have a serious reason to postpone pregnancy may use a method based on fertility awareness and then choose to abstain from intercourse when it is known that pregnancy is likely. Done with the right intention, fertility awareness—or Natural Family Planning—is fully supported by the Church, and it can be an effective and beautiful way for a married couple to embrace the gift of marriage responsibly.
What is NFP?
Natural Family Planning is an umbrella term for several different types of methods in which a woman monitors and tracks the signs of fertility in her body. These can include her basal body temperature, the look and feel of her cervical mucus, the placement and feel of her cervix, hormone levels, or any combination of these “markers.”
When using the Sympto-Thermal Method, a woman tracks her temperature, cervical changes, and her cervical mucus. If using the Creighton Model FertilityCare™ System, the woman tracks only the look and feel of her cervical mucus. When using the Marquette Method, the woman tracks her hormone levels with a Clearblue Fertility Monitor. She has the option of also tracking the other markers as well.
These methods all have several advantages—morally, psychologically, and physically—over standard methods of birth control
How Does NFP Differ from Contraception?
You might be wondering: What’s the difference between the “natural” method and medical or barrier methods? Isn’t the goal the same? To answer these fair questions, we can compare the use of contraception and NFP on such key issues as health, love, and morality.
#1. NFP Is Much Better for Women’s Health
Contraception: Medical journals have published countless studies indicating unwanted side effects of contraception. For example:
- Breast cancer risks are elevated for oral contraceptive users: The World Health Organization identifies synthetic estrogen as a class 1 carcinogen (the same category as cigarettes and asbestos).
- Stroke risk is higher for users of oral contraception, with studies showing a 50% to 300% higher rates. The Physician’s Desk Reference states it “is well established” that blood clots are a significant risk for women who use oral contraception, and the FDA warned in 2012 that the newest generation of oral contraceptives carries a 2-3 times greater risk of blood clots than prior versions.
- Oral contraceptive users have a greater risk of heart attack than non-users, and their arteries develop plaque at a faster rate.
- On top of all of this, contraception is used to debilitate a healthy and functioning organ system. By design, it works against the woman’s body. (See HLI’s brochure “Contraception Questions: Is Contraception Really Good for Women?”)
Knowing all of this, what man would want his wife to take these risks, especially when there is a healthier method available?
NFP: In a culture increasingly concerned with “going green” and “all-natural” products, it is ironic that we continue to encourage women to use harmful synthetic steroids when an all-natural, life-affirming, and healthy alternative is available. NFP not only allows women to avoid consumption of often dangerous drugs, it is often used to help identify health problems that only come to light when paying close attention to fertility.
For example, the Creighton Model of fertility awareness has a long and growing track record of identifying signs of underlying and previously untreated conditions, and women’s lives are being changed by their diagnosis and treatment.
Husbands should make sure that their wives maintain their health. Practicing NFP is one way of doing this.
#2. NFP Allows for True Love
Contraception: Marriage and sexuality are gifts from God by which man and woman unite in love and create new human beings. Contraception deliberately removes these intrinsic meanings (union and procreation) from sex and does harm to marriage itself and to one’s spouse. As Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae, “To use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will” (HV 13).
Using contraception involves the rejection of God’s design and the fertility of one’s spouse. It does not allow for true intimacy because in using contraception, spouses “protect” themselves from one another and the fruit of marital love—a child. Contraception undermines self-gift to one’s spouse, and when a child is conceived, often leads to the couple seeing the child as an “accident” that can be “fixed” with abortion.
NFP: NFP expresses a profound openness to God’s will for a couple and embraces both the unitive and procreative meanings of marital intimacy. It respects God’s laws and His careful design and also recognizes that we are not “the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.”
NFP allows for love and gift of self to one’s spouse and thus enriches and deepens the love of the spouses. Sexual intercourse remains a true act of love and never involves acting against a potential child. The couple is never opposed to the fruit of their love, and thus they are capable of giving and receiving the complete gift of self that they desire.
#3. NFP Leads to Better Relationships
Contraception: When Pope Paul VI wrote his encyclical Humanae Vitae, he made four predictions of what would follow widespread acceptance of contraception:
- An increase in infidelity
- A general lowering of morality
- A loss of respect for and objectification of women
- Governments forcing their populations to use contraception if they felt its use furthered the “good of the state” (HV 17).
Sadly, all of these predictions have come true, as the “contraceptive mentality” that follows its widespread acceptance has led to a culture that demeans women, often forces contraception on poor citizens, and increases societal acceptance of and dependence on abortion. As St. John Paul II emphasized, contraception and abortion are fruits of the same tree and are hallmarks of a Culture of Death.
NFP: The vast majority of NFP users find that it fosters a union between spouses that is fully human, open to God’s will, and allows for total gift of self to one another. It involves sacrifice, and so fosters a greater appreciation for one’s spouse and the gift of marital love. Among the positive benefits of NFP is that occasional sacrifice in the bedroom helps prevent selfishness from entering the marriage, and it fosters a more peaceful relationship between spouses who become more apt to resolve or avoid other problems.
Divorce Rates of NFP Users (top) and Contraception Users (bottom)
Further, NFP encourages couples to express affection and love for one another in ways that are not sexual and discourages couples from seeing one another as objects of pleasure (see Humanae Vitae 21). Perhaps it is no surprise that studies indicate that users of NFP report greater intimacy, a greater satisfaction with their sex lives, and significantly lower divorce rates than contraception users.
#4. NFP Is at Least as Effective as Contraception
Studies have shown that, when done correctly, NFP is as good as or better than hormonal contraceptives. For instance, according to the Marquette site, this method is 98 to 99% effective in postponing pregnancy.
A Creighton fact sheet on fertility states that this model “has a perfect use rate of 98.7-99.5%, and a typical use rate of 83-97%, as good as hormonal contraceptives (IUDs, the pill, etc.) and better than barriers (condoms, etc.).”
And the Sympto-Thermal Method is over 99% effective in postponing pregnancy.
While hormonal implants such as Nexplanon and IUDs are also over 99% effective, they come with a host of potential side effects, including more painful and heavy periods, the possibility of the implant or IUD moving into a different part of the body, and other dangerous physical and psychological side effects.
However, a woman need not worry about any of these side effects with NFP, as all of these NFP methods are safe and easy to use. Further, all require a woman to be in tune with her body, and they require good communication skills between the husband and wife. As we have noted, couples say that this increased communication strengthens their marriages.
#5. One More Comparison…
While much more could be said about the differences between NFP and birth control, perhaps another simple comparison will illustrate the problem with separating the goods that follow from our choices with regard to basic human needs.
Most people know intuitively that a healthy diet is better for a person than bulimia—the disorder in which one intentionally regurgitates food in order to avoid calories. The healthy eater uses her freedom and self-control to choose wisely what she eats, while the one suffering with bulimia acts from a corrupt notion of freedom that seeks to escape the consequences of her choices. She separates the good of the taste of food from its nutritional aspect.
While most of us can see why this is obviously unhealthy with regard to food, many of us have lost that intuitive understanding of why contraception is so unhealthy, even though both contraception and bulimia are unhealthy for the same basic reason. Both are very unhealthy not only physically, but because they both represent an abuse of freedom based on the desire to have the good “taste” without the consequences.
Ultimately, it is clear why rejecting the natural ends of such basic human goods as eating and sexuality yields very unhealthy results, both physically and spiritually. And using the virtue of temperance—of not overdoing a good thing—applies to every way in which we satisfy our basic human needs.
If marriage is your vocation, then you are called to responsible parenthood. Sometimes this may involve using NFP to postpone having a child or to achieve pregnancy. The vast majority of couples who use NFP instead of birth control find that it strengthens marriage because it respects freedom, and couples find themselves richly rewarded for their commitment both to God’s law and to one another.
This resource is available as an eight-page booklet that can be ordered from the HLI store. Order copies through HLI’s online store here.