The Truth About Natural Family Planning
My wife, April, and I will celebrate our 20th anniversary this August, not long after the U.S. bishops’ Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, July 22-28. We have, in fact, been very aware of natural family planning throughout the two decades of our marriage. We learned the mechanics of natural family planning from a religious sister at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco as an engaged couple, and April learned the moral framework of it while studying at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.
In the 20 years since, we have used natural family planning to space our children, to defend the Church’s teaching about sexuality and to help prepare couples for marriage. But through it all we have discovered that certain myths about natural family planning have persisted.
MYTH: NATURAL FAMILY PLANNING IS UNSCIENTIFIC
Natural family planning describes a number of fertility awareness methods that married couples can use to space their children or limit their family size. It involves abstaining from sexual activity during fertile periods in a woman’s cycle and is entirely different than contraception: Couples using NFP avoid the marital act, rather than rendering the act infertile.
Modern natural family planning is also far advanced and very different from the “rhythm method” of days gone by.
When April and I were married in 1992, the NFP movement was already more than 20 years old. John Kippley reminded me of that when I spoke with him last spring. He and other NFP pioneers began promoting natural family planning in the late 1960s. They systematized and applied the discoveries Dr. John Billings had made in the 1950s and founded the Couple to Couple League in 1971.
While working for the Melbourne Catholic Family Welfare Bureau, Kippley documented the relationship between ovulation and changes in cervical mucus — a primary physical sign that women tend to notice whether they are practicing natural family planning or not. Kippley succeeded in building a model that allows women to judge the fertile point in their cycle by observing signs exhibited by their own bodies.
Dr. Marc Pecha, who has practiced medicine in San Antonio for 17 years, has seen how modern NFP methods have benefited his patients.
“The old rhythm method relied on an unrealistic expectation that every woman’s menstrual cycle was 28 days,” explained Pecha. “The advances in medicine and the understanding of the physiology of fertility has radically upgraded both the accuracy and the usefulness of certain physical signs which indicate when a woman is fertile or not. … This has tremendous consequences both for those trying to conceive and for those who are not.”
In fact, studies have demonstrated that NFP methods are very effective for couples not seeking conception. In 2007, researchers in the medical journal Human Reproduction Today reported that NFP methods are “as effective as the contraceptive pill for avoiding unplanned pregnancies if used correctly.”
Natural family planning is also an accurate way to predict pregnancy, as discovered by Anthony Flott, director of communications for the University of Nebraska–Omaha Alumni Association and a member of Archbishop Bergan Council 6429 in Papillion, Neb. Flott was tracking his wife’s cycle on an NFP chart when he noticed an irregularity. “Based on what we were taught, I figured she was pregnant,” he said.
Flott’s wife, Roberta, rejected the idea, and a pregnancy test suggested she was right. But Flott pointed to the chart and insisted the test must have been wrong. A couple of days later she took a second test. This one was positive.
“Not only was natural family planning so telling that I was able to ‘beat’ a pregnancy test, but I was able to tell my wife she was pregnant,” Flott said. “How many guys can say that?”
MYTH: COUPLES PREFER CONTRACEPTION
Even when they learn about modern natural family planning, many people assume that couples would prefer contraception because it seems a lot less daunting.
Pecha compared natural family planning to a weight room: “It can look frightening, require too much work to master, and demand one be in it and use it to reap the benefits,” he said. But for those who do it regularly, “the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience.”
Pecha said that natural family planning requires a discipline that improves “every aspect of life … the depth of married love flourishes; and into that flourishing of marital love comes the fruit: a new soul reflecting the love of the Maker.”
John and Penny Harrison of Kansas City, Mo., came to accept the Church’s teaching on contraception not just theologically, but “based on our own lived experience,” John said.
When the couple married in 1983, they used contraception as a matter of course, believing it was irresponsible to do otherwise.
“Our conversion away from contraception was incremental; small grace-by-grace steps, if you will,” said John. “Neither of us liked the way the pill altered [Penny’s] body and her attitude.”
Other contraceptive methods also negatively affected the couple’s intimacy. “Our sexual relationship — the very cause and center of our marriage — was actually a block to knowing each other better, not an aide,” John said. “We had a ‘gate-keeping’ and ‘gate-crashing’ dynamic in our approach to each other in our desires for intimacy.”
Penny said her attitude started to change when she began breastfeeding, which “schooled her heart” for conversion.
Discovering the Catholic apologetics movement and the Couple to Couple League also helped open the Harrisons to natural family planning. According to John, it became for them more than just a birth control practice. “We had come back from the ‘dark side,’” he said, “and saw with such clarity the gift of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.”
The Harrisons now understand marital intimacy to involve and require total self-giving.
“Each and every marital act is truly a renewal of our marital covenant, and continues to grow and enrich our understanding of each other, and through that, our love of God,” said John. “We experience the ‘mystery’ of matrimony — entering into something that is never exhausted in its power and ever new in its ability to satisfy our hungry hearts.”
Sergio Castillo, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, also talks about how natural family planning preserves the mystery of married love.
Ask him if he and his wife, Jessica, are “converts” from contraception to natural family planning, and he will tell you “it’s complicated” — partly because of bad pastoral advice the couple received before they were married. But eventually, natural family planning “went from being a rule, to a method, to a possibility, to a way of life, to a deepening in our vocation,” Castillo said.
“As a man, the greatest challenge in using NFP has been learning to live the abstinence,” he added, “not as a negation of myself or my desire, but as a deeper union with my wife.”
A 2006 graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Castillo added that practicing natural family has also deepened his faith.
“Only Christ at the heart and center of our union can give us that true and lasting intimacy,” he said. “Living NFP has been the concrete way, precisely though my vocation, in which I am learning with Christ’s help to love, day by day.”
MYTH: EVERY NFP FAMILY IS ENORMOUS
What other couples are missing, say NFP users, is intimacy and self-discipline — and a more organic way to space their children. What they need not fear is another myth of natural family planning: that it inevitably leads to very large families.
As Pecha put it, “I know of many couples who use NFP and some have no children; some have many. Each marriage is different, and the reasons to avoid conception for a while also differ.”
In addition to being a homemaker, Barb Szyszkiewicz is also a blogger and a freelancer writer. She and her husband, Stephen, a computer programmer, have three children, who range in age from 10 to 20.
Szyszkiewicz first learned about natural family planning during her senior year religion class at a Catholic high school. “Our teacher asked another teacher — a young, cool, newly married, NFP-using teacher — to speak to the class about NFP. It was a wonderful witness.”
Not only have they used natural family planning throughout their marriage, but the Szyszkiewiczs have also taught the practice to other families in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.
“What people expect of natural family planning, in our experience, is that it will not be able to work as a method of limiting family size,” Szyszkiewicz said. Even when telling people she has only three children, Szyszkiewicz said that skeptics still “want to tell us how it ‘doesn’t work.’”
Natural family planning does, in fact, “work” for families who use it to space children, but it is also true that NFP-using couples tend to have larger families. That is because natural family planning does something else. “It invites you to consider — daily — whether your family is open to the possibility of a child right then,” said Szyszkiewicz. For some, that means limiting family size for a while. But for many, it means more openness to children.
“I don’t spend time judging folks for their lack of ‘generosity,’” said John Harrison. “I have learned that as long as they aren’t using contraception, God can mold hearts to be generously open to new life.”
Unlike contraception, natural family planning goes hand in hand with periods of discernment and conversations about intimacy, Harrison added. “Decisions about family size and the timing of marital relations are integrated with all the other discussions common to marriage.”
That is what April and I have found to be true. She sums up the benefits of natural family planning in one word: communication.
In our 20 years together, natural family planning has opened our hearts to each other and opened our lives to the adventure of a large family. Our nine children have come every 2-3 years and have matured and deepened our hearts immeasurably.
Natural family planning has helped us love each other better — and love each other more. After all, that is why we got married in the first place.
TOM HOOPES is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
Common NFP Methods
There are a number of different methods of natural family planning, most of which involve charting a woman’s fertility cycle according to bodily signs. Here are some of the most common.
•The Billings Ovulation Method (WOOMB.org), developed by Dr. John Billings in Australia, involves observing physical changes in a woman’s body.
• The Creighton Model (CreightonModel.com) is a modified version of the Billings Ovulation Method. It is used by FertilityCare centers (fertilitycare.org), which specialize in treating infertility and offering morally acceptable reproductive health services.
• The Sympto-Thermal Method relies on observations as well as changes in body temperature. It is more effective and more complex than observation-only methods. The Couple to Couple League (CCLI.org) and Serena (serena.ca) teach this method.
• Ecological Breast-Feeding can allow new mothers to delay the return of ovulation for weeks or months after giving birth. During this period, an NFP-using couple does not need to practice periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy.