Dear Pre-Cana Coordinators: Please Stop Sugar-Coating the NFP Talk

The NFP portion of my husband and my Pre-Cana retreat was a bit of a circus. It began with a couple explaining how they came by their six children- two failed attempts at NFP that led to two sets of twins, followed by two separate surprises when the couple assumed children were no longer a possibility. The second couple to mention NFP had eight children, all about two years apart. The day concluded with a very scattered nurse who promised that NFP would make our marriages borderline magical. Let’s just say that by the time she mentioned the fact that couples using NFP are less likely to divorce, one young man leaned over to his fiancé and whispered, “We can take our chances with divorce.” Obviously, no one was able to take the nurse seriously.

The leaders of our Pre-Cana retreat made a lot of promises during that weekend. They promised that we’d be happier because we used NFP, that we’d communicate more, that we’d be less likely to get divorced. They promised that it would be easy, that it wouldn’t require significantly less sex, that it would be nearly perfectly effective. NFP sounded like a dream come true, the recipe for a picture-perfect marriage. But my experience with NFP was nothing like they’d promised. I felt betrayed and completely disillusioned.

NFP means saying “no” several times a month, even when you really wanted to say “yes.” Oh, it’s your birthday, your anniversary? Well, unless you want to chance becoming pregnant this month, it’s a no-go for tonight. Practicing NFP can be challenging at times. It demands that we be virtuous, and sometimes virtue is just plain hard.

NFP only involves communication if you want it to. NFP talk can completely revolve around whether or not you can have sex at any given time, if you let it. I once saw a NFP speaker tell a classroom full of Pre-Cana participants that her husband wakes up every morning when she takes her temperature so that he can write it in the little notebook he keeps on his bedside table. I think she expected everyone to sigh because of the cuteness, but all I could think was, Why would you make your husband wake up when he doesn’t have to? But maybe he wants to do it. Maybe my husband just needs to grow in virtue, and I need to give him the opportunity to engage in a daily act of self-sacrificial love. But probably not.

You’re not less likely to get divorced because you practice NFP. That’s a correlation, not a causation. It’s not like NFP is some magical remedy for marital dissatisfaction. It’s more likely the case that the type of couple likely to use NFP (and stick with it) is also the type of couple that’s less likely to divorce. And that probably derives from the fact that many couples who don’t believe in using contraception also don’t believe in getting a divorce.

NFP is not easy. Yes, it requires virtue, but it also can require some trial and error. My husband and I tried a few forms of NFP before finding a method that worked for us. It’s wonderful that there are so many different types of NFP out there, but that also means it might take a while before you find the type that works best for you and your family.

NFP often does mean less sex, especially if you’re really adamant that you not become pregnant. Many of the cheaper forms of NFP require several days (around a week for many women) where abstinence will be required if you’re trying to prevent pregnancy. The window of possible fertility can be quite long depending on what form of NFP you choose, which might be tough for some couples to accept.

Some forms of NFP are very effective, and some methods are less so, but most of them need some room for user error. NFP relies on human virtue, and some of us struggle with chastity. NFP can only be really effective at preventing pregnancy if couples have the virtue necessary to say “no” when they need to. Many methods can also malfunction. Thermometers might break. Predictions of fertility might be off by a day or two. Most methods of NFP are very effective, but they have to be used correctly.

I think there’s a feeling among Pre-Cana coordinators that if we’re up front and honest about NFP, no one will give it a try. But if we’re not up front and honest, most couples won’t stick with it. They’ll feel disillusioned and betrayed like I did, and they might not have the moral conviction that my husband and I had to stick with it even when it is difficult. And I don’t think we give couples enough credit. They can handle the truth. And they can detect a lie. So don’t tell them NFP will always be easy. Tell them why it’s worth it even when it’s hard. Don’t tell them that it’ll improve communication. Tell them that communication and prayer are always necessary for a healthy marriage. Don’t tell them that NFP will be 99% effective. Tell them that it’s effective when it’s used correctly, but NFP will require virtue and chastity.

We need to be honest because we’re not doing couples any favors by sugar-coating the reality of NFP. If we want couples to stick with NFP, we need to give them a reason why it’s worth it. We can’t make false promises. We can’t romanticize what many couples find very difficult. We need to help couples see the beauty in God’s plan. We need to help them recognize the great good that is the gift of children. We have to change their hearts with the truth because we’re not going to change their minds with our sugar-coated lies.

NFP Myths: Fact or Fiction?

ContraceptionTwo weeks ago, I had my six-week postpartum appointment, a visit that many Catholic couples dread.  They often find themselves on the defensive as they try to explain why they don’t need to be sent home with a pack of condoms and a prescription for the pill.  But when they try to explain that they plan to use Natural Family Planning (NFP) to prevent pregnancy, many doctors will try to convince them to consider other options.  And the criticism often extends beyond our doctors.  Couples who choose to use NFP are often criticized by friends and family as well, people whose opinions matter to them.  In my experience, a lot of the arguments against the use of NFP revolve around three myths, each of which emerges from a misconception regarding the nature of NFP. Some of these myths do have some truth to them, but it’s important that we sort out what is fact and what is fiction before we make any judgments on the value of Natural Family Planning.

Myth 1: Natural Family Planning is unscientific.

There’s a common misconception that NFP is the same thing as the rhythm method, an outdated mode of preventing pregnancy that was erroneously based on the falsity that all women have a 28-day cycle and/or that ovulation takes place halfway through a woman’s cycle (I’ve heard it explained both ways). Both of these assumptions are wrong.  Most women do not have a 28-day cycle. In fact, most women who are considered normal don’t have a 28-day cycle. Theirs might be 24 days or 32 days, but just those few days of discrepancy would be enough to make the rhythm method useless. Even if your cycle is only off by a few days, unless you choose to leave a huge margin of error, there’s a chance you’re going to wind up with an unplanned pregnancy.  Similarly, if a woman’s cycle is shorter or longer than the typical 28 days, then ovulation will not take place at the halfway point, but a few days before or a few days after.

GandhiSo yes, the rhythm method is not overly scientific. And the science that it is based on is inherently faulty. A family planning method that simply takes the length of your cycle, splits it in half, and tells you not to have sex at the halfway point is not highly scientific. But NFP is not the rhythm method.

In fact, there is not just one form of NFP. There are actually quite a few, and many of them are based on sound science. As a DRE who does Pre-Cana, trust me, no one in the Catholic Church takes the rhythm method very seriously.

Other forms of NFP are much more scientific. Many methods take into consideration women’s hormone levels and the resulting physiological changes that go along with changes in those levels.   Creighton model relies on changes in women’s cervical fluid. Sympto-thermal also considers the change in women’s basal body temperature at ovulation.  Ovacue uses the electrolytes in a woman’s saliva to chart her fertility. Each method is different, but they’re all based on sound science.

There might have been a time in history when the rhythm method was considered revolutionary and ahead of its time.  It applied mathematics to the woman’s cycle and was based on what was then considered sound scientific observations.  The rhythm method seemed incredibly logical, and it wasn’t until the discovery of one incredibly important fact- that ovulation is not always the halfway point of a women’s cycle- that the entire method fell apart.  Its science was finally debunked.  It was not the first or last time that a theory that seemed like “sound science” became highly unscientific.  The fields of science and medicine can both attest to that fact- advances in science depend on it.  Today’s methods of Natural Family Planning are undeniably more scientific than the rhythm method.  I would even argue that the science that supports modern methods of NFP are also more scientific than most forms of contraception used today.  There’s nothing scientific about a condom or an IUD.  They’re just pieces of plastic that act as semen-blockers.  And as for the pill, considering all the negative side effects (discussed here), I would feel much more comfortable trusting the science of NFP rather than the science behind the pill.  At least I can understand how NFP works with my body.

Good for MarriageMyth 2: Natural Family Planning is unreliable.

This myth is occasionally tied up with the first myth.  If NFP is considered synonymous with the rhythm method, it will inevitably be considered unreliable- because the science is faulty.  Consequently, the second myth can be debunked in the same manner as the first.  The rhythm method is NFP insofar as it is natural and a method of family planning, albeit a poor one.  And for a small percent of women, it actually does work- not because the method is reliable, but because some women’s cycles are that reliable.  But as I said earlier, most, if not all, women using NFP to monitor their fertility are not using the rhythm method.

Some people who object to NFP know enough about it to know that there are multiple methods, and they also object to the reliability of the other forms.  How reliable can a method be that relies so heavily on human observations?  How can we trust a method of preventing pregnancy that is so open to human error?  If you forget to make an observation, you might get pregnant.  If you get negligent with your charting, you might get pregnant.  If you get complacent with your observations and start making assumptions based on the past, you might get pregnant.  If you decide to have sex when you know you’re fertile, you might get pregnant.  If you make one mistake, you might get pregnant.  Does that sound like a reliable form of birth control?

The PillBut it is.  It is not the method that is unreliable in the above scenario.  It is the user.  But an unreliable person is just as likely to forget or choose not to use a condom, or to forget to take the pill a few times.  Women who use NFP responsibly are much less likely to get pregnant. In fact, many methods of NFP are 96-99% effective if user correctly. That’s the same rate as the pill, and even better than a condom. If we believe that women can be responsible enough to take the pill every day or that men are responsible enough to use a condom every time, we should be able to say the same about the woman using NFP. If she can remember to pop the pill, she is equally capable of remembering to chart her fertility. And like most parts of our daily routine, if you get into the habit of charting regularly, it will become second-nature. Ultimately, many methods of NFP are very reliable, and I think we need to put more faith in our own sense of responsibility- which brings me to the third myth.

Myth 3: Natural Family Planning is unrealistic.

This is the myth that most people do not want to discuss, but is always taken for granted as being true. It draws from our own human weakness, something that many people want to simultaneously affirm and deny. We are told that we should be in control of our bodies, that no one should ever tell us how our bodies are to be used. It’s the basis of the whole female reproductive rights movement- women deserve to have control over their bodies. And yet, at the same time, we tell women that they cannot control their bodies- or at least their sexual drive.

NFPThough most people are more than happy to argue about how unscientific and unreliable NFP are, there is another argument that they often refuse to voice but assume to be true: NFP is unreasonable because it’s ridiculous to assume that people can say ‘no’ to sex when they are fertile. While we might fight to control our bodies, apparently there is no need or reason to control our sexual drive. Apparently, when it comes to sex, we’re animals. We can’t resist the urge. We can’t abstain for even a few days of the month. There is apparently no need for the virtue of chastity in this world. No need for self-control when it comes to one’s sexuality. Most people assume that NFP won’t work because men and women are apparently incapable of saying ‘no’ to sex at any time.

Just as the second myth assumes that we can’t be responsible, the third one assumes that we can’t be chaste.  Some opponents of NFP assert that it’s just not possible to remain abstinent during fertile times, that a method of family planning that depends on our ability to resist our urge to have sex is doomed to fail. Considering the fact that there are plenty of couples out there using NFP successfully, it would appear that the assumption that we can’t say ‘no’ is false.

But there are some people who would not go so far. Sure, it might be possible that people can and do say ‘no,’ but should they have to?

And I think that argument gets to the crux of the matter. NFP is hard. It requires that we find other ways to express our love for one another at certain times of the month. There are plenty of people out there who won’t give NFP a chance simply because they don’t want to have to say ‘no’ when they want to say ‘yes.’ But I would argue that a relationship will be healthier if both spouses can say ‘no’ from time to time. Because they’re saying ‘no’ to one thing, they are saying ‘yes’ to so much more. They are saying ‘yes’ to multiple date nights as couples find different ways to show their love. They are saying ‘yes’ to a method of preventing pregnancy that respects the man and woman’s bodies, their relationship, and the conjugal act itself. They are saying ‘yes’ to God and His plans for their lives. And those ‘yes’s’ mean so much more than that single ‘no.’

NFP: The Catholic Contraceptive?

Natural Family Planning (AKA NFP)- it’s one of the Catholic Church’s largest internal controversies.  There are very few other doctrines of the Church that are surrounded by so much mystery and shrouded with so much misunderstanding.  Depending on who you … Continue reading