I hate the term Natural Family Planning.
It was coined by bureaucrats back in the 1970s to show that the Church was OK with family planning, just as long as the means were in accordance with Natural Law.
The problem is that you really can’t plan your family.
It’s not that you shouldn’t plan your family.
It’s not that planning your family is sinful.
No, it’s not that at all. It’s that there is a good chance that if you plan your family, there is a good chance that your plans may not come true. It’s that the family you plan and the family you get may be two entirely different things.
Children are a gift from God. No matter how much you try, sometimes they come despite your efforts to avoid them. No matter how much you try, sometimes they don’t come despite your efforts to have them.
Making Idols of Our Plans
Contraception at its core is a lie. Contraception sells a false sense of security. It tells couples that they can plan their families with perfect precision. That they can put off having children now so that they can plan to have the family they want later. The problem is that things don’t always work that way.
When it comes to avoiding pregnancy, every contraceptive has a failure rate. Generally, the more effective methods of contraception are the more invasive. Hormonal contraception, the IUD, and permanent sterilization, all work by altering the body’s natural functioning and, inevitably, there is a price to pay for this alteration in unpleasant physical and psychological side-effects. Less invasive barrier methods are generally less effective. Condoms break, diaphragms slip, spermacide doesn’t work. Not to mention that couples don’t particularly like using any of them.
But perhaps the biggest danger isn’t when contraceptives fail, but when they succeed. Modern technology may allow people to live longer than ever, but our fertility is stone age. Women’s fertility starts to decline around age 30, and declines more rapidly after age 35. As a woman gets older, the risk of infertility increases. (Men’s fertility is important too, but men do not have a “biological clock” in the same way that women do.) If a couple waits until the “right time” to have children, they may not be able to have them or they may have a smaller family than they had planned to have.
The problem with family planning is when our plans become an idol. We see this in society. When contraception fails, abortion is used as a “backup”. When babies don’t come the natural way, artificial technology such as IVF and surrogacy “make babies”. Even if you have no moral problem with these procedures, they are often emotionally difficult and painful for those who go through them. The Church says “No”, not to restrict us, but to protect us.
Knowledge is Power
So if family planning doesn’t always go according to plan, then why bother with NFP?
Although “Natural Family Planning” can be used as a tool to help couples achieve or avoid pregnancy and try to “plan their families”, NFP is just fertility education combined with teaching women how to read the signs and signals of their own body.
The fertility charts give women critical information about their bodies. The charts are not just useful for determining when sex can and cannot lead to pregnancy, but as a general monitor of women’s health. If cycles are abnormal, this may be a sign that something’s wrong. If something is wrong, it often can be more quickly diagnosed and treated if a woman is charting.
It is useful for the couple because you both start to recognize how hormonal changes can change moods and attitudes. Husbands: Your wife may have very different reactions to the same situations right around ovulation vs. right before her period. Being aware of these changes can help couples avoid fights and frustration.
Charting gives a couple who would like to conceive a baby vital information that will make the process easier. But what do couples gain when they are avoiding?
One of surprising advantages of using NFP instead of contraception to avoid pregnancy is that the couple does not lose sight of the cost of avoiding. It doesn’t feel like an advantage, because it’s hard, but it is one. You see, avoiding pregnancy with NFP takes effort: You must understand the method, chart carefully, and abstain. And when you go to all that trouble, it really puts your plans in perspective. Is my plan really worth all this effort? Or would another plan be better? Do we really need to avoid pregnancy, or could we possibly have another baby?
The best way to promote Natural Family Planning is that not family planning at all. Comparisons with contraception are inadequate, and ad infinitum discussions about “serious reasons” among some Catholics are a distraction.
NFP is knowlege. It’s women’s health. It’s empowerment. It’s powerful. The best way to promote it is to share that empowerment with others.