Secular Press Suggests Time is Ripe to Rediscover, Promote NFP
by Emily Macke
The For Your Marriage website welcomes Emily Macke, our new writer for the “Marriage in the News” column. She will be writing every other week on topics related to marriage (relationships, sexuality, mothers/fathers/children, etc.). You can learn more about Emily by reading her bio in the right column.
Two high-profile magazines recently admitted the discontent of today’s women with hormonal birth control.
Both The Atlantic (“The New Old-School Birth Control” by Katie Gilbert) and New York Magazine (“No Pill? No Prob. Meet the Pullout Generation” by Ann Friedman) recounted stories of women who are done with the unpleasant side effects of the Pill and its cousins, the Patch and IUDs. But in their quest for something better, have they found an answer or further frustration? How can the Church answer their desire for something more?
For the women profiled in New York Magazine, Friedman writes that “the pill is no longer synonymous with sexual liberation.” Instead, the withdrawal method is now the birth-control method of choice for many.
Friedman quotes an interviewee: “‘I’ve been on the pill for about six years and stopped after a dinner party last month when I realized that all seven women there were not only not on the pill, but had only good things to say about going off,’ says a 31-year-old friend of mine, a recent convert to using a cycle-tracking app, plus condoms while she’s ovulating. As another 31-year-old friend recently told me of her choice to use pullout-plus-period-tracker, ‘I kind of struggled with our method for a while. It seemed kind of embarrassing and definitely felt irresponsible. But after six or so years of this style, we have still never been pregnant.’”
The article continues: “It’s no coincidence that the pullout advocates I know are women who have been sleeping with the same man for years. More than any other birth-control choice, the pullout method requires women to relinquish control and put a significant amount of trust in their partner. But it also comes with the benefit of sharing the burden of preventing pregnancy. After years of being the ones who had to remember to take a pill or replace the ring, pullout puts the onus on men.”
Interestingly, these statements sound like the ingredients for Natural Family Planning – the need for trust between the spouses and sharing the responsibility of decisions about procreation.
Also interestingly, both the women interviewed and commenters on the article still expressed dissatisfaction about the withdrawal method. Users described it as messy, said “it ruins the act,” that it puts too much pressure on the man, and makes it hard to enjoy the moment. In fact, one got the impression that withdrawal was seen by many as the “least bad” option of preventing pregnancy. It is not hard to understand this sense of unease. Withdrawal disrupts the natural, bodily unity achieved in sex, a great good within marriage and something rightly desired by spouses. In fact, in his book Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla (Bl. John Paul II) wrote that out of love for the other person, a husband and wife should seek to ensure that sexual climax is reached by both of them. There is a profound sense of unity experienced by spouses in lovemaking that seems to be sacrificed by the aptly-named coitus interruptus.
The Atlantic’s article “The New Old-School Birth Control” attempts to offer an alternative to New York Magazine’s claim that the withdrawal method is the answer to women tired of the drawbacks of standard birth control methods. Its author suggests taking a second look at “fertility awareness-based methods” (FABM).
Gilbert explains recent studies that show that FABM are far more accurate than the Rhythm Method (which many people mistakenly equate with FABM). With the Rhythm Method, a woman counts calendar days to identify the presumably fertile time of her cycle. But since cycle length varies, both between women and for the same woman, the Rhythm Method is notoriously unreliable as a way of preventing pregnancy. FABM, on the other hand, rely on noticeable biomarkers of a woman’s cycle, tracked on a daily basis. These include cervical mucus and basal body temperature (a woman’s waking temperature), and because they are tracked in “real time,” a woman can determine with certainty whether she is more or less fertile at any given time in her cycle.
A 2009 study from the University of Iowa says that only 1-3% of women in the United States use FABM, although a sizeable proportion of women express an interest in FABM when it is described accurately to them. Gilbert also notes that many doctors are ignorant as to the accuracy and inner workings of FABM.
Mihira Karra, a leader in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) office of population and reproductive health, highlighted the latter point: “It’s interesting […] with all the other methods [besides fertility awareness], it’s usually at the client level where there are misperceptions that we try to overcome. With the natural methods, it’s the reverse; we have clients eager to use them, but our big barriers are sitting at the higher medical, policy, and programming levels.”
Another obstacle to more widespread use of FABM that Gilbert notes is the religious stereotype. She writes that Natural Family Planning is considered the religious version of FABM, largely because it involves abstaining from sexual relations during fertile periods if the couple is trying not to conceive. FABM, on the other hand, advocate using two methods of contraception (such as condoms and spermicide) when the woman is fertile.
It is encouraging to see the accuracy of FABM lauded in a secular publication as a viable alternative to women (and men) who have serious concerns about not getting pregnant but who are dissatisfied with the standard birth control options. Women are admitting their discontent with hormonal contraceptives. There is a desire for something more, something natural, something that encourages more responsibility, more sharing, and more freedom (more love) between the spouses.
The articles in The Atlantic and New York Magazine suggest that the time is ripe to encourage men and women to consider a third alternative, neither hormonal birth control nor withdrawal, but rather a sexual life that respects the bodies of both husband and wife, comes with no side effects, and encourages freedom and mutual responsibility. The Church invites men and women to embrace marital love as both unifying – drawing husband and wife closely together in an encounter of great intimacy – and life-giving – open to the gift of a child. (The Church also recognizes that a couple may have just reasons to avoid a pregnancy at a particular time; abstaining during the woman’s fertile time allows the couple to continue respecting each other’s capacity for fatherhood and motherhood.) Ultimately, husbands and wives have been given the awesome ability to image God in their love for each other. The Church’s teaching on sexuality flows from this truth.
This third alternative is not abstract or idealistic but is being lived by real married couples across the country and around the world. There is a great desire for something more, something better than what men and women have been offered. The moment remains ripe to advance the Church’s sexual teaching and continued encouragement of Natural Family Planning.
- USCCB, Married Love and the Gift of Life (explains the Church’s rich teaching on married love, openness to life, and responsible parenthood)
- USCCB Natural Family Planning webpage (includes FAQs about NFP, Current medical research, and how to find an NFP class)
About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.