Let’s face it; couples who embrace the practice of natural family planning (NFP) are countercultural. They are swimming against the tide. They bear witness to a value that has lost its luster in our society, the beauty and goodness of fertility. NFP couples recognize that fertility is neither a nuisance nor a curse, but a great blessing. It is not a disease to be treated and suppressed with chemicals, but a gift to be received with respect and reverence.
Contrary to both medical evidence and common sense, our federal government treats fertility as a disease. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandates that all government-approved contraceptives (including abortion-inducing drugs) be included among the “preventive services” in all health insurance plans. This policy decision is a betrayal; it manifests a profound bias against life and fertility. It is a sad irony that the widespread availability of chemical contraceptives coincides with a rising demand for infertility treatments among couples who are unable to conceive.
Each year the Catholic Church in the United States observes Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. This year’s observance is from July 21 to July 27, corresponding with the anniversary of the papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (July 25, 1968), which lays out our Catholic beliefs about human sexuality, conjugal love and responsible parenthood.
The Catholic Church is often portrayed as a Church of prohibitions – the Church of “no.” In fact we are fundamentally a Church of affirmation; a Church of “yes.” Because we are pro-life, we oppose abortion, euthanasia and many other practices contrary to human dignity. Because we are pro-woman, pro-man and pro-child, we oppose the use of all forms of contraception. There is a better way.
What is NFP? Natural family planning is an umbrella term for various methods used by couples to achieve and to avoid pregnancy. All of these NFP methods are based on the observation of naturally occurring signs of fertility in the woman’s monthly cycle.
Though rooted in real science, NFP’s effectiveness cannot be judged only by its high degree of success in avoiding pregnancy when properly used. Its effectiveness is also demonstrated by the positive enrichment it brings to marriages. NFP is true family planning because for many couples it helps them recognize the optimum time for conceiving a child. They know when they will be most receptive to God’s creative power working through them and the gift of their fertility to create new life.
Because it involves the cooperation of both the husband and wife, NFP enriches marriages by fostering communication, mutual respect and self-mastery. Husbands and wives must talk about their readiness for pregnancy and decide together whether this is the time to abstain from sexual intimacy. This conversation and shared responsibility for their actions fosters respect for one another’s emotional and physical needs and encourages true tenderness in responding to one another during fertile times.
Natural family planning is not contraceptive. When used prayerfully and responsibly by couples it helps them remain open and faithful to God’s plan for marriage as both love-giving and life-giving (unitive and procreative). Unlike all forms of contraception, NFP does nothing to avoid or suppress conception. Instead, couples adjust their behavior according to their prayerfully discerned family planning intentions.
All married couples are called to responsible parenthood. For Catholics, this ultimately means living all aspects of their marriage as an expression of their discipleship and offering their marriage to God in openness to his wisdom. The way a couple accepts and respects their fertility is an expression of this duty to remain open to God’s creative plan and to form their consciences and make decisions according to the truth revealed by God.
A couple practicing NFP as an expression of responsible parenthood may prayerfully consider the physical, economic, psychological and social conditions of their marriage and generously welcome a large family, or, for serious reasons, they may choose to avoid a new birth for the time being or even for an indefinite period. Natural family planning offers a way for couples to enter more deeply into God’s plan for marriage and the family. It is truly “Pro-woman, Pro-man and Pro-child.”