A Few Thoughts on NFP

Sometimes you run across an argument which strikes you as wrong in such a way as to crystallize and clarify your thinking on a topic. Such a case, for me, was running into this debate from last week at InsideCatholic on the topic, “Is NFP Misogynous?”

The “yes it is” argument contained the following key elements:

Assuming any methodized sexual intercourse devised to avoid pregnancy by an otherwise open-to-life-marital-couple can actually “work,” who bears responsibility for the method? I seriously question whether NFP, for many, isn’t a misogynous practice — imposing upon women an undue share of the physical and emotional burden of the theologically questionable quest of planning pregnancy.

First, we must be real. Modern NFP practices demand daily bodily measurements of women, not men…. A woman most desires sexual intimacy when she is at her most fertile…. This is also the moment when we are most likely to conceive a child. It’s the moment NFP-practicing women measure and chart and predict as “fertility awareness,” a “maybe-child” zone. For NFP-practicing women avoiding pregnancy, it is the moment they must say “no” to both themselves and their spouses….

I don’t buy it. It sounds like a scheme to impose on women who wish to time pregnancies an almost penal practice of self-measurement, self-control, and self-denial, while requiring, at a minimum, a sort of suffering acquiescence from a spouse whose interest in the chart becomes rather strategic….

NFP needs to go the same way as the rhythm method — which did not “work” and was, more importantly, female unfriendly. In its place, perhaps we all need to suck it up and admit what the theology asks of us: Have sex whenever you both want to… and expect a baby every time. Otherwise, don’t copulate. That’s a fair burden on both spouses.

The woman presenting the “no it isn’t” view did a perfectly decent job of presenting the standard arguments for NFP, but I’d like to dig into one aspect in particular, especially given that by the sixth comment on the article we already see a theology student trying to argue that the “planning” involved in Natural Family Planning is really no different than the use of barrier methods of contraception since it involves “the intention of having sex without baby” and is thus “using one’s intellect to create a tool which limits the possibility of procreation”.

I’d like to start from a point of biological realism. The bodily organs which are used in this very pleasant thing we call sex are part of the reproductive system, which means than whenever we have sex we are performing an action which is at a biological level meant to be reproductive, in the sense that our bodies would not have this capacity were it not for the fact their function is reproductive in nature. (Interesting side note: think of all the most pleasurable things the human body can do and ask yourself, how does each one of these relate to a basic element of human survival. Generally speaking, the greater the physical pleasure, the greater the relation to survival.)

Within the overall structure of intercourse, a normal, healthy man is capable of begetting children any time he has sex. However, women (like females of virtually all other mammals) are only biologically able to conceive a few days out of the month. (Both of these reproductive strategies make a lot of sense for the individual and the species as a whole at the evolutionary level, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go into all that here.) Even at the “right time”, a woman may or may not conceive as the result of having intercourse. Conditions have to be right for the sperm to reach the egg, the egg has to be healthy, and the sperm has to successfully implant. What this boils down to is that while the probability of getting pregnant from any one random act of intercourse is perhaps 1-10% depending on the people involved, having sex frequently will almost invariably result in pregnancy unless there is a health/age problem involved.

Other creatures, our non-rational brethren in the animal kingdom, do not worry about when they should not reproduce. Driven by instincts and natural compulsions, they mate when it is their season, have as many offspring as they can, and hope (if one may apply that word to the unthinking) that those offspring will thrive. If there are not enough resources to go around, the young, weak, and old die off. We humans see this kind of suffering as something to be avoided, and so human societies in all times and places have striven not to outgrow their resources — using methods ranging from self denial to slaughter.

From a Catholic point of view, human life is sacred and thus abortion and infanticide are completely unacceptable as means of population control; and the sexual faculties have a moral integrity resulting from their relation to the creation of new human beings and so the sex act should not be modified (as with birth control) to remove its inherent fertility. Thus, for Catholics, the answer to the need not to have more children than one can provide for is to have sex less. Because sex has a clear and inherent reproductive aspect, which we consider it wrong to try to circumvent artificially, if you want to not get pregnant you will have to avoid having sex at least some of the time.

Now, this is where the question of whether Natural Family Planning (NFP) as practiced by modern Catholic couples is “natural” comes in. The woman’s body gives certain signs of when it is likely to be fertile. These signs are rather less obvious than those of many of our fellow mammals. Female chips, for instance, have a large pink swelling around their genital area when they become fertile, such that one can tell if she is fertile from quite some distance away.

Signs of human female fertility are much more subtle. (The evolutionary reason for this would make a very interesting inquiry, I can think of a few very interesting reasons.) However they are now pretty well understood and easily learned.

So, what are the options for the Catholic couple who are seeking to remain true to the Church’s understanding of human sexuality and the human person and also seeking to avoid having more children then they can raise and support?

Ms. Campbell advises, “Have sex whenever you both want to… and expect a baby every time. Otherwise, don’t copulate. That’s a fair burden on both spouses.”

The thing is (leaving aside the dangerous problem of trying to figure out what is “fair” for both spouses in some sort of power politics sense) that this is in a sense not actually all that natural. We are not made such that sex results in a baby “every time”. Sex is somewhat likely to result in a baby perhaps 30% of the time, and highly likely to do so only about 10% of the time at best. Since unlike a lot of our fellow creatures, our sex drives are not only “on” when we’re fertile, the rest of the time sex serves to strengthen and deepen the bond between a couple who are going to have a lot of work and difficulty together raising children. So if you only, ever have sex when you absolutely expect to have a baby, you’re actually using sex in a more minimal fashion than we’re physically designed for.

If they know anything at all about their biology (from experience if nothing else) a couple is going to know they won’t get pregnant every time. And knowing this, the drive is strong to say, “Surely this time is okay.” Though husbands should try hard to be sensitive to the greater difficulties that pregnancy means for their wives than for them, this line of thinking is naturally going to appeal more to the man than to the woman. Desires for “fairness” aside, pregnancy is naturally going to effect the woman more directly than the man.

Given that we have the understanding of female fertility signs available to us quite easily in the modern world, it is going to cause significantly less stress without couples to use that knowledge to actually know “we might get pregnant now” versus “we almost certainly won’t get pregnant now” rather than relying the more more amorphous “chances are decent we won’t get pregnant this one time” or the inaccurate “we shouldn’t have sex unless we’re absolutely sure we want to get pregnant.”

NFP works within the natural structure of what sex is — a natural act which has both unitive and procreative elements. It encompasses self denial in that it accepts that if you want to avoid pregnancy for a while you are going to have to forgo having sex, but it provides system and achievability to that self denial by telling a couple when it is that they need to forgo sex. If you need to avoid having another child for the next year or two, you may end up having to avoid having sex nearly half the time. However, that is much more achievable and healthy for a couple than attempting to avoid it entirely for those same years — and the differentials of fear and desire that would result from such an attempt.

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  1. I suppose pregnancy is rather misogynistic as well. Women bear this responsibility as well, and bear is a literal word. Men just sit around the house smoking cigars and pounding the table and grunting whenever they want some food. Then when the baby finally comes they’re out buying more cigars and drinking with their friends, bragging about how fat their wife is.

    Well, your mileage may vary. I hope it does.

  2. That’s a pretty cynical view. It is not without truths, but I’m not sure there isn’t a bit exaggerated — or rather, the whole ordeal is reduced merely to this activity.

  3. If we look to the Orthodox, it amounted to roughly half the year they were required to abstain from relations. Many moons ago, sex wasn’t to be had on Sundays. I’m not sure if abstaining was ever required during Lent. I think we moderns tend to underestimate our ability to regulate our sexual desires.

  4. MZ,

    Lent plus Sundays still add up to rather less than half the year — and I must admit to a certain curiosity as to what percentage of people actually lived up to that. However, I would say that there’s also a big difference between giving something up for religious reasons as a known sacrifice and doing it for pragmatic reasons.

    Example: I find it quite easy to give up alcohol for Lent, but rather hard to “not have much” beer in order lose the proverbial last ten pounds. I would say that by the same token, it would be rather easier to say “we won’t have sex on Sundays” or “we won’t have sex during lent” than “Well, we shouldn’t have sex very often.”

    More to the point, that is simply not our discipline in the Catholic Church at this time, and given that we do have a full understanding of human fertility I’m not clear how it would do people a great deal of good to urge them to maintain ignorance in order to bind up a heavier burden for them to carry.

    Honestly, the approach described by the woman in the InsideCatholic article sounds to me like it’s practically designed for (or perhaps from) spousal conflict.

  5. Having learned and practiced NFP myself, I see nothing misogynistic about it. If nothing else, charting one’s cycles helps you to know when to expect your next, ahem, monthly visitor, thereby enabling you to avoid lots of potential embarrassment 😉

    Don’t forget, it’s also a very cost-effective method for both avoiding and achieving pregnancy; once you learn the method, you don’t need to spend a single penny more on it (you can create your own charts). Also, some methods (Creighton, Billngs) do NOT require the daily temperature taking that can be a hassle for those following the Couple to Couple League’s Sympto-Thermal Method.

    IMHO the fact that the “burden” of fertility awareness/NFP is on women is no more inherently unfair than is the fact that women often have to work harder than men at losing weight and keeping it off. As for the self-discipline required, I see it as comparable to the discipline required to maintain a healthy diet.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think NFP would be that big a burden to women unless their husbands decide to make it so.

  6. Also, in the “if you think we’ve got it bad” department: Orthodox Jewish practice requires abstinence throughout the menstrual period and for 7 days afterward — usually about 12-14 days out of EVERY month.

  7. Everything after the first sentence was Latin rite.

    Not to get overly personal here, but we withheld relations for a year.

    I tend to find a major premise of the NFPers false though. That premise is that sex unitive in the absence of desiring children. I’ve met plenty of people in sexual relationships that were otherwise sterile. Plenty of men and women have managed to have sexual relationships without a growth in personal affection. Outside the context of desiring to create a family, that seems to be the dominant case.

  8. I tend to find a major premise of the NFPers false though. That premise is that sex unitive in the absence of desiring children.

    That is not the major premise of NFPers—at least not of those who understand and accept the Church’s teaching that temporarily restricting intercourse to the infertile period must be for “serious reasons,” which do not include paying off the student loans or trading up to a better car. The major premise of NFPers is that NFP can respect the unitive dimension of sex, unlike contraception, which cannot.

    That is why you are right to qualify your statement with the phrase ‘the dominant case’. Sex that is both physically and spiritually sterile is indeed the dominant case in a materialistic and over-eroticized culture; but it is far from being the only case. I know plenty of cases of the right sort.

    I’m really getting tired of people overstating Catholic teaching and proceeding to knock down the resulting strawman. I usually have to deal with that in the context of discussing the papacy and/or the Marian doctrines. But since Catholic doctrine on birth control is almost as distinctive and even more unpopular, I suppose I should not be surprised it gets the same treatment.

  9. I tend to find a major premise of the NFPers false though. That premise is that sex unitive in the absence of desiring children.

    I guess I’m not entirely clear what you’re getting at here. Are you saying that NFP is a false paradigm in that in HV and elsewhere it is suggested that couples may continue to have sex during infertile times for unitive purposes while avoiding it during fertile times when there are serious reasons for them to space children wider than might be natural — but you don’t think that sex can be unitive unless one desires more children at that time?

  10. There are two common stress points I see in marriages. The first one is having the first child. The second one is the cessation of child bearing. Without commenting on the liciety of NFP, the unitive dimension of sex is lessened significantly when the marriage is no longer purposed toward the making and raising of children.

  11. The second one is the cessation of child bearing. Without commenting on the liciety of NFP, the unitive dimension of sex is lessened significantly when the marriage is no longer purposed toward the making and raising of children.

    I’m not clear that has anything to do with the unitive dimension of sex, so much as that when it becomes clear that the number of distractions living in the house is only going to go down from here, and the couple likely has another thirty years of life together ahead of them, couples either realize that they actually have very little in common and have problems, or else they look forward to getting the chance to spend more time actually interacting with each other than during the diaper changing, kid chasing, and fight breaking up period of life.

    Also, how would your explanation fit with your point that a certain number of couples run into problems not long after first having children?

  12. Darwin, I believe marriage counselors recognize certain statistical crisis points in the average marriage–if I recall correctly around 2 years is one (neatly coinciding with the start of a family for many.) Agreed that childrearing, empty nesting, and major life changes tend to make or break a marriage–the problem isn’t that you are no longer making babies together (as articulated by MZ), it’s that there wasn’t much besides the babies holding you together to begin with.

    My response to his view of the “major premise of NFP” would be that the level of communication necessitated by the use of NFP encourages couples to consider each other’s needs as well as their joint plans for a family. Does this mean there aren’t going to be unitively “sterile” marriages among NFP users as well as among nonusers? Of course not. But I think (and I believe stats bear me out) that NFP confers some advantages in terms of couple communication, and that those carry over into the post baby-raising stage of life. Are you sure you’re not overgeneralizing based on anecdotal evidence, MZ?

  13. In some ways, I think the effect that NFP has on marriages is sort of a “chicken and egg” (pardon the pun) effect — does NFP CAUSE couples to communicate better, or do couples who use NFP tend to have better communication and negotiation skills to begin with?

    I kind of lean toward the latter explanation since successful NFP practice requires give and take on the part of both spouses. If a couple is having serious problems communicating or learning to adjust their expectations regarding sexual intimacy, either they won’t try NFP at all, or one spouse will want to try it while the other flatly refuses to consider it or agrees to it only grudgingly and under protest.

  14. Actually, Michael, depending on how big the student loans in question are, how much other debt the couple has, and how long it’s going to take for them to pay those debts down or off, that COULD be a sufficiently serious reason to postpone pregnancy.

    I remember reading a book on Catholic marriage that had belonged to my parents — written in the early 1950s — that had a chapter devoted to “periodic continence” (which, back then, meant calendar rhythm) and a discussion of various medical, economic, and social reasons that justified the use of the rhythm method.

    Having large amounts of debt (payment of which is an obligation in justice to one’s creditors) WAS listed as a justifiable reason to postpone pregnancy. However, trying to save money toward a child’s college education (which parents are not obligated to provide for their children, and was not an absolute necessity for their future well-being, at least not in the 1950s) was not considered a serious enough reason. Obviously, trading up to a better car or better house (assuming the house the family currently occupies is reasonably safe and sanitary) would not qualify either.

  15. Actually, Michael, depending on how big the student loans in question are, how much other debt the couple has, and how long it’s going to take for them to pay those debts down or off, that COULD be a sufficiently serious reason to postpone pregnancy.

    Which raises the question why the couple should marry into such a state in the first place. If you aren’t ready to raise a family, don’t get married.

  16. It seems that a lot of people get caught up in the worry about whether NFP can be contrary to God’s plan,m if motives affect the use of NFP, and the tensions involved in some marriages relating to same. Then there was the Inside Catholic article which really went all over the place. Here are my thoughts.

    1. Knowing NFP, whether one uses it or not is a good thing. Why? It teaches the guy something about women that he may not know. that is always a good thing = especially in a marriage.

    2. When God made us, he did not make the woman fertile every single day of the month. Yet he gave the desire to the guy all the time. And we guys know when our wives are most desirous. so this means a couple of things. Either the couple talks, or someone is not going to be happy. Early in my marriage, I encountered a powerful truth, and I know that it was a grace, to wit, the marriage embrace is not satisfying in the fullest sense if the beloved is not satisfied. That insight opened the door to a deeper understanding of God’s involvement in marriage and the freedom He gives to couple to work out in His presence the timing, placement and number of children for that family. Again we approach in wonder and awe, hoping to cooperate and open to God’s “blessing” which may or may not be “planned” or desired. given the limited time frame for such blessings, an openness to the self giving of the spouse to the other allows for the marital embrace to be a communion of souls in the mystery of the sacrament of matrimony. Simply enjoying the pleasure of one’s spouse in the beauty of the sacrament is in itself one of the blessings of marriage.

    3. for some this may mean great sacrifice given their personal situation: health factors, financial difficulties, stress, job loss, temperament, etc. God invites us to include him in dealing with any difficult situation. He gives us the freedom in the marital relationship to make the concrete decisions. He only asks us to respect the sacrament and mot violate the natural order. to consider this takes a certain maturity and understanding. This is what is hopefully taught to us both through family life and by the church.

    Finally after all is said and done, one may simply decide to chuck the whole thing and let God be the family planner. It takes a lot of faith or perhaps it is laziness. But in the end if we seek to do His will, we should be okay.

  17. Actually, I WAS going to add the argument that observant Catholics or Catholic couples who aren’t financially ready to have children shouldn’t get married in the first place, but omitted it as my post was getting rather lengthy.

    Also, not every couple who has student loan debt necessarily incurred it BEFORE they got married or had children. My own husband had to go back to college in his early 40s due to the fact that he could no longer get work in his chosen field without such a degree. Fortunately, he had veteran’s benefits that enabled him to do so without incurring a huge amount of debt.

  18. My few thoughts on NFP.

    It’s not misogynistic to use it and anyone who says that is is probably more motivated by Misandry than any high ideal of justice.

    If you have good reason to space children or want to increase your chances of conceiving a child, consider using it – but follow the rules.

    The Rules:

    1. The science is pretty good but not perfect, and often times leaves you wondering whether you’re still fertile or not. Don’t be anxious over it, wait a day or not, the worse thing that can happen is you get a little earlier than you were planning.

    2. Ignore Internet pontificators like myself. You know that whole opinions are like a-holes thing. It’s your life, your marriage, and your soul. God knows what “serious reasons” are and aren’t even if you’re unsure or mistaken. He will determine whether you’re culpable and to what degree. Besides, even if you are mistaken in thinking your reasons for spacing are valid, your desire to do it through NFP means you’re open to God’s grace, He will inform your conscience long before some guy on the Internet with his snarky comments or feeble attempts at Thomistic extrapolation.

    3. There are a lot of important things on a personal/marital level to consider as well, but those are as varied as each couple and I won’t mention them because you’d be a fool to think some dude on the Internet should have a role in your marital relationship – and you should be leery of anyone who insert themselves there.

    — Wives love your husbands and husbands love your wives.

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