Yesterday, I saw that today is World Contraception Day. I had no idea that was a thing until I saw it on several fertility awareness accounts I follow.
On the one hand, it’s heartening to see fertility awareness (FA) enter the conversation since hormonal birth control (HBC) has done so much harm to women’s bodies. On the other hand, FA is not contraception. So, today, I thought I’d explain why I don’t refer to FA as such.
Now, of course, I’m a Catholic, so I’m against contraception in general. But when I was going through marriage prep, NFP as FA is known in Catholic circles, was sold essentially as contraception. The practice was primarily emphasized as a means to avoid pregnancy that was equally as effective as HBC. I experienced first hand the harm that is done when fertility awareness is sold as contraception, and I know I am not alone in that. I could make my argument against calling FA contraception using my faith, but I don’t have to.
Fertility awareness is not about *birth* control. It is about *self* control, self-mastery achieved through self-knowledge. Each method is simply a system by which women can learn their fertility, nothing more. It requires discipline, and it requires that the information is shared with one’s partner. It debunks the idea entrenched in our minds by birth control that fertility is a woman’s problem to deal with. FA forces men and women to reconcile with the fact that fertility is a shared responsibility, as men (unless there is an issue) are always fertile.
Now, the knowledge acquired with FA can be used as a highly effective means to avoid pregnancy. But since it is simply identifying fertility, it is also a highly effective means of achieving pregnancy. Further, it gives women a diagnostic tool to understand the root causes for issues ranging from cyclical mood swings, to heavy and painful periods, to why she may have difficulty achieving or sustaining a pregnancy.
It is not about controlling birth. It is about understanding the way one’s body works, and working with that, not against it. It’s effectiveness at preventing pregnancy is solely a result of abstaining during fertile times, a practice that does not by extension make it contraception, rather a powerful testimony of self-sacrificial love. Not having sex is not contraception. It is possible to use non-hormonal contraceptive measures (ie condoms, diaphragms, withdrawal, etc) during fertile times in conjunction with FA, but that is contraception.
FA is not intrinsically against conception. In fact, learning to understand our fertility as God designed it is very much “for” conception, in the sense that it helps us understand what the purpose of our fertility is. That understanding leads to a deeper respect and awe of our fertility, which in turn leads to a deep distaste for its abuse.
The truth is ovulation occurs in order to make a baby. Ovulation is the result of a symphony of hormones that in turn only function as the result of a healthy system – an in-tune symphony, if you will. Thanks to the science of fertility awareness, we know that ovulation is a sign of health, and the menstrual cycle functioning properly has vitally important health benefits for every woman. In FA, women learn their fertility is a gift, and even the source of their strength as women.
Hormonal birth control does the exact opposite of FA. HBC introduces synthetic hormones into a woman’s body, effectively shutting off communication between her brain and her ovaries, suppressing ovulation and the health benefits of a healthy cycle. Its side effects range from loss of libido, to mood swings, to depression and anxiety, and an increased risk of cancer and heart diseases. It teaches a woman that her fertility is something to be feared, a hindrance to her success, a burden not an asset.
To set FA on the same plane as HBC is to do it a gross injustice. It not only sells its users short, it gives them a false set of expectations. HBC is as simple as popping a pill or inserting a device, and is often fully covered by insurance. FA, by contrast, is not easy, and it is not free. It requires that we retrain our brains with regards to our fertility. In the beginning particularly, it is a deeply rigorous intellectual, emotional, and sometimes financial investment. It can often present challenges within relationships that couples are not always equipped to deal with. Again, it is because it is not about control, but rather understanding, and the learning process can be messy.
FA empowers women to advocate for themselves everywhere from the doctor’s office to the bedroom. Women are armed with practical tools to adapt to their daily life based on the knowledge of their cycles, everything from understanding that cervical mucus is a healthy and normal bodily fluid, to recognizing that it’s normal to feel energetic and creative leading up to ovulation, but feel more inclined to rest immediately following.
Once a woman learns her fertility, that is knowledge no one can take from her. Though certainly not easy, most women who practice FA can attest to the fact that the work is worth it.
Thank you for this brilliant post. DH and I have “used” NFP our entire marriage. As you point out, NFP is FERTILITY AWARENESS. I would like to see NFP changed to NFA–Natural Fertility Awareness. In my experience, when I began to take the daily temperature, I began to notice that my daily temperature gave me an awareness of my general health, too. If my morning temperature was elevated at a time when that didn’t normally occur in a cycle, I could tell some kind of illness was heading my way. The ability to know that and tend to the illness before it became full-blown was a great blessing.
Truly, the human body is a magnificent creation. I think the presentation of NFP as an alternative to HBC can be detrimental to understanding of fertility and the overall functioning of a woman’s body. It is important for women to understand how the female body functions, how her very own body functions. NFP can help bring about that understanding.
Again, thank you for this post. God bless you for sharing this.
yes yes yes! It’s so amazing how God designed us! I hate the “NFP” moniker too 😉 It’s just so darned limiting for all we can gain from practicing fertility awareness.
As a NFP instructor, one of the things I struggle with is presenting NFP as Catholic contraception. In my view, a healthy couple without significant financial distress should not be using abstention to space pregnancies for more than a year. I don’t want my couples I’m teaching to use NFP for contraception. I want them to have as many babies as health and resources allow. But if I said that out loud, I probably would never have another student. So instead we do what we can.
One of the most beautiful parts of NFP is how it teaches young women not to be afraid of their fertility. I think of NFP as unlearning or detoxing from the contraceptive mentality. Many of our young women have been sexually active and on birth control. Trying NFP and embracing abstinence for a period prior to marriage is a way for some of these women to recommit to the faith. For many of them at first even the idea of having sex without a pill or rubber barrier to make it “safe” is truly terrifying. Over time they adjust to the idea that they don’t need “protection” from their husband’s seed. Still, it often takes some coaxing and patience to get them to the point where they are truly freed from the anxiety of being “safe” with marital intimacy.
By being very patient and getting to know my students, I have been able to convince almost all of them eventually one step at a time to get relaxed enough about charting and “bending the rules” and taking a “cheat day” as a reward “just this once” that eventually they experience the joy and blessings of becoming parents. I try to get them there quickly, but sometimes they need a very casual sloppy NFP to feel okay about taking a chance to conceive.
It always warms my heart when one of these students asks me to “double check” her chart because it’s their anniversary or his birthday, and it’s super obvious that her chart says that being intimate would be perfect timing for a couple wanting to start a family or add another little brother or sister, but they really need and want permission from me that’s okay to “risk” it whatever that means. I always tell them “It’s a little risky” and then find some way to squint at their chart and find something that points the other way, too. That always leads to my favorite question, “What would you do?” Well, I have six kids, so I know exactly what I would do. At that point my work is usually done. Even if she doesn’t catch that month, I know they’ll try again.
But if we had started as the first step on this path by telling them that NFP is an alternative form of birth control, I think more than half my couples would never get to this point.
I cannot begin to describe how this makes me utterly sick to my stomach. My only hope is that you are in fact not an NFP instructor, and are simply a troll. Should that not be the case, I am praying fervently for all those who have the misfortune of calling you their “instructor.” Since you have gone out of your way to ensure I do not know who you are, I can only assume that deep down, you know just how wrong you are to be so manipulative and abusive. Should I ever find out who you are (and I plan to try), I will absolutely report you to the higher ups of whatever method you “teach” and make sure that others know who you are to steer clear.
Emily, I think you should listen with more charity to what “Anonymous” wrote. Especially women who have been sexually active before marriage and have used contraception may have a very different journey with NFP than a woman whose first sexual intimacy is in marriage and without contraception. Some of them experience tremendous anxiety about conceiving for no good reason. Modulating the degree of risk and how to talk about that risk is one strategy for getting them comfortable with “unprotected” sex. There’s nothing wrong with that. In general, I think one of the biggest problems with the way many approach NFP is this idea that discernment happens only with the husband and wife sitting at the kitchen table and making a list of the pros and cons of conceiving and having a plan the way an accountant might. Discernment comes from the Holy Spirit, and sometimes it moves us to a spur of the moment decision to be intimate when had planned not to or to look at a chart upside down sideways and backwards until we see what we hope to see. All of this is about human beings not computers, and the right guidance is about going with your gut and intuition. That is the way it is supposed to be.
I Love NFP,
I have read the Anonymous with the utmost charity for his or her unfortunate clients. There seems to be a dramatic misunderstanding of what birth control mentality actually is, and how fears of pregnancy are constructively addressed. There is a dramatic difference between true discernment guided by the Holy Spirit and manipulating people, and the fact that there is possibly more than one person who is confused on that front is even more concerning.
Emily, your very harsh response to Anonymous is still bothering me. Some of this gets very abstract, so I want to give you a real world situation that is typical. I am assigned a young couple in Pre-Cana. They both have prior sexual history separately and together with condoms and for her the pill. They are getting serious about their faith as they approach marriage and commit to abstaining while they learn NFP and start charting. They have secure incomes and want to start a family but think they should “wait awhile.” One reason they are willing to try NFP is because even though they want to wait, it wouldn’t be a “disaster” if they got pregnant earlier. She is working and they “want to save some money up,” but she is going to stay home once they have a child. This is my classic couple. And once they gone a few months to learn the method, what’s wrong with speeding things up a bit so their first is a little sooner than later.
All it takes is some encouragement from me that they can relax a little with how strictly they follow the rules and then a little imaginative chart reading by me to help them relax a little more combined with a little more encouragement for me to bend the rules even a little more and soon they’re pregnant. As long as they’ve made the decision they are willing to “take a little risk” and know they are being intimate when conception is “possible,” what’s the harm if I sprinkle a little baby dust on their chart. I mean, if they’re okay with taking a chance anyway, why shouldn’t I do what I can to get their “a little risk” to be within a day or two before ovulation? Knowing I’ve helped is such a wonderful feeling, too.
Even though you have now commented and emailed me from 3 different IP addresses, I must assume you are all the same person. The fact that you describe your guidance as “sprinkling a little baby dust” simply serves to further disturb me. Sadly, proper discernment is vastly misunderstood on many fronts. I have brought your comments to the attention of several fertility awareness instructors of various methods, all Catholic, who have all come back with the same response: your approach is utterly unethical, and not in keeping with the guidelines that instructors receive from their training regarding these matters. I continue to keep your clients in my prayers.
I Love NFP,
I am also very much concerned with what you feel your role is as an NFP instructor. What your describing does not foster the couple to invite the Holy Spirit into the discernment process. You have made yourself the third person in their relationship. Although I’m sure it is unintentional, it sounds very much like manipulation. It is a great gift and responsibility to be an NFP instructor and we have to be very careful and intentional in understanding our role, which is to empower a woman/couple to determine their fertile window, the instructions of the method you teach, and to allow them to make decisions on when to have intercourse allowing no personal influence. I implore you to reconsider this way of handling your clients.
I Love NFP/Anonymous,
I find your comments extremely disturbing. Though I agree that women with a contraceptive mindset are often needlessly fearful of having babies (and a baby is truly a great gift, always), this absolutely does not add up to it being okay to ‘sprinkle a little baby dust’ aka misuse your authority and take advantage of a couple’s ignorance. Even if you are correct in judging that a particular couple would be better off with a baby than with continuing to avoid (and this is something you really can’t know), tricking them into taking chances is not the same as the couple realizing and deciding to do the better thing for themselves. You’re changing situations but not hearts.
Moreover, you’re likely sowing a belief that NFP is ultimately risky inherently, and that it doesn’t really work, or doesn’t work for that couple. Not every woman who ‘accidentally’ has a baby will suddenly decide that ‘wow! Babies are great so I should have one every year now!’ Having an unintended baby while using NFP is as likely to make a woman decide she can’t really depend on NFP anymore and should return to contraception.