By Rebecca Oas, PhD
WASHINGTON, D.C., AUG. 8, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the last full week of July as national Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, with a focus on introducing people to the concept of NFP in general, debunking the common misconceptions that have been attached to it, and attempting to convince couples to use NFP in place of artificial means of contraception. This goal carries inherent challenges, as the target audience has already been at the receiving end of previous awareness campaigns: firstly, that unregulated childbearing is heartless and negligent, and secondly, that avoiding such irresponsible behavior demands the use of physical and chemical restraints on one’s reproductive faculties.
The sale of these contraceptive measures is a multi-billion dollar business worldwide, and that money also goes toward spreading awareness, from slick professional TV ads to calendars and notepads in doctors’ examination rooms that bear the logos of the latest contraceptive pill or device. In contrast, NFP does not have the backing of a huge industry or lobbying group, and its use does not promise increased income to doctors or pharmaceutical companies — or anyone else, for that matter. Additionally, in a society where changes in health care organization mean that doctors must see more patients in less time, training couples in the use of NFP becomes impractical in that it requires multiple training sessions and a level of commitment on the part of teachers and learners alike that extends well beyond the time it takes to write a prescription.
If the use of NFP fails to generate billions of dollars that may be spent on advertising, the flip side of this is the fact that it is free to the user, with no need of monthly co-pays, insurance coverage, or taxpayer assistance. However, studies that have assessed the demographics of NFP users in the United States have found the women who use modern NFP methods are most often white, Catholic, stably partnered, and college educated (1) — a population which, even in times of recession, is not at the lowest end of the economic spectrum. While NFP has been associated with low divorce rates (2), good communication in marriages, and increased awareness of one’s own fertility cycle, it is important to note that the causal relationships between these things go both ways. Communication, fidelity, and collaborative self-denial are pre-requisites for NFP, even as improvement in those areas may well be a fruit of its use.
So how, then, does one go about educating the public about natural family planning in a world where divorce is rampant, single-parent households are common, advertisements for contraceptives permeate the airwaves even as their byproducts permeate the environment, and the birth of children is either demanded or prohibited, but never simply accepted?
To begin, we can tout the benefits of NFP using some of the standards typically bandied about by the promoters of contraception, phrases like “efficacy,” “failure rates,” and “side-effects.”
This approach works not only because this is the language of much of our culture, but also because NFP has been shown to compete very effectively on those fronts when compared with artificial contraception (3). But to leave the conversation there, in a place where the conception of a person with an immortal soul can be labeled a “failure,” would be to fail, indeed, as the letter P in NFP stands for “planning,” not “prevention.” While advocates for NFP education point out that it can also be used to help couples achieve pregnancy, as a balance for its more commonly referenced use in preventing pregnancy, it bears pointing out that this goal has been successfully accomplished for millennia by simply increasing the frequency of attempts, and that any underlying fertility problems cannot be fully diagnosed nor treated through the use of NFP alone.
As we attempt to educate the world, beginning with ourselves, about the use of NFP, it helps to be mindful that western culture is already a chief exporter not only of contraception, but of the perceived need for it. Even as Melinda Gates pledges billions of dollars to increasing contraceptive “access” worldwide, experts are pointing out that the demand for such products does not currently exist, often due in part to religious or cultural norms (4). Ecological breastfeeding, which results in a period of postpartum infertility, is a natural method of spacing births, but the export and marketing of commercial infant formulas from industrialized nations to less developed areas not only undermines the benefits of this natural practice, but results in increased infant mortality due to formulas being prepared with contaminated water. Furthermore, comparatively wealthy and well-educated societies which, ironically, would be able to support larger families than they typically have, routinely issue documents labeling cultures that encourage large families as retrograde and reckless.
NFP stands in contrast to much of what western culture offers the world: it elevates commitment over cost, individuals over industry, and stewardship over stranglehold with regard to one’s fertility. Furthermore, it emphasizes the interdependence of couples rather than the absolute autonomy of women, persistence in self-control over quick fixes, and collaboration over individualism. To practice NFP correctly means more than reducing the number of one’s children; it involves strengthening one’s ability to love, and to desire to extend that love through the gift of self and receptiveness to the gifts God gives, even if it means re-examining our priorities.
The benefits of Natural Family Planning cannot be separated from the benefits of family itself, since it is highly unlikely to be practiced outside of a stable, committed relationship of people who respect themselves and each other. However, despite the fact that many of the people who currently choose NFP over artificial contraception are practicing Catholics, it is important to spread the word about NFP throughout our own communities and the world at large. For just as contraception is the Trojan horse by which hostility toward new life is spread, NFP can be a Trojan horse that introduces the culture of life in places where other, more overt approaches might not gain entry.
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Rebecca Oas, Ph.D., is a Fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International. Dr. Oas is a postdoctoral fellow in genetics and molecular biology at Emory University. She writes for HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum.
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1)Stanford JB, Smith KR. Characteristics of women associated with continuing instruction in the Creighton Model Fertility Care System. Contraception. 2000 Feb;61(2):121-9.
3)Pallone SR, Bergus GR. Fertility awareness-based methods: another option for family planning. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. 2009;22:147-57.