Review: “Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning” sparks needed discussion

By Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick

Three out of five stars

Simcha Fisher’s much-needed The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning brings a frank, humorous look at natural family planning, a group of methods of family planning so-called because they honor the purpose and nature of human sexuality.  Fisher, long-time blogger for The National Catholic Register and Patheos’ Catholic channel, is known for her wit, honesty and original approach to Catholic life, all of which are present in this book.

The book is not actually a “guide” about how to read signs of fertility, necessary for every method of natural family planning, nor is it intended to convince couples using contraception to stop, though people preparing to use natural family planning and those discontent with contraception might benefit from Fisher’s perspective.  The book, instead, is intended for those who already practice natural family planning, as well as those who leave the family planning completely up to God and nature, offering a helpful viewpoint on the struggles this practice can bring.

Fisher speaks with clarity about the benefits that natural family planning proponents tout as consequences of the method, such as increased intimacy and understanding within marriage.  These benefits are real, Fisher says, but, like all good things, they take both work and time.  As within all aspects of marriage, the spouses must strive to understand each other, to empathize with one another and to help one another. 

One section of the book is dedicated to suggestions of ways for married couples to support each other, especially in the periods of natural family planning when abstinence is required.  Many of her proposals consist of ways that husbands and wives can best encourage each other, as well as recommendations for more patient, loving and kind communication—all ideas that are easily applicable to other areas of marriage, as well. 

This section also includes insights into married sexuality generally, with reflective lines of thinking about how to become free to truly love one’s spouse.  Fisher says that becoming “untangled,” for her, “meant learning to let go of struggles for fairness and equality, and learning to look instead for unity and harmony.”

The section of the book, “NFP and the Rest of the World,” delves into both the importance of and difficulty in discussing natural family planning in a world that holds such a starkly different view of sexuality.  Additionally, it contains arguably the best chapter of the book, entitled, “You Don’t Know,” which deals with our inability to judge another person’s moral life and decisions, in part due to our lack of knowledge about his or her circumstances.  As Fisher lays out in her first main section, “NFP and Your Spiritual Life,” it is up to the individual couple to discern God’s will in their lives.  This discernment is such an important part of an individual’s relationship with God, she says, that the Church does not provide specific reasons that it is acceptable to delay pregnancy.  Instead, the Church says, in various documents, the reasons must be “reasonable, serious, just,” and “in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.” 

In addition to humor, Fisher deals with these difficult subjects with respect and sensitivity.  The book, though rife with thoughtfulness and much-needed insight, reads like a series of blog posts.  Some chapters are written in the off-handed style of a blog, while others are more appropriate to the book form.  Additionally, there is a lack of transition and continuity between the chapters.  In short, the book would benefit from a professional editor.

In spite of these shortcomings, Fisher’s book, from the discussion of personal discernment to the hardships of using natural family planning, offers a helpful beginning to a much needed discussion.

Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick is a freelance writer and math tutor living in Oklahoma City.