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.