by Angela Franks, PhD in Contraception and Catholicism, releasing Nov. 2013
A Catholic who has a big family and eschews contraception has likely had the following experience: Someone dismisses NFP by saying, “But that method doesn’t work; look how many kids you have.” In response, I like to say, “Define ‘work.’” If I had wanted to, in theory, I could have foregone the children I do have by using NFP to avoid pregnancy. But NFP has worked on me at a much deeper level.
I grew up with two siblings, one of whom was a late addition. For most of my childhood, I was the girl half of a two-child family. Almost all of my friends’ families, headed mostly by professors, were two-child families. The Mormons across the street with four girls were just plain exotic.
My sense of reality began to change when I started researching the twentieth-century eugenics movement and its contraceptive advocacy. Thinkers as irreligious as feminist Germaine Greer gave me a new way to think about motherhood and children. Maybe it was not healthy for women to view their bodies, especially their reproductive systems, with fear and loathing. I also met more young families in which children were being cared for by stay-at-home or work-at-home moms. Then, our loving heavenly Father gave us the gift of our first child.
This gift was the direct result of the flexibility and pedagogy that NFP provides. While I was doing my doctoral coursework, we had a serious reason to avoid pregnancy, and we practiced NFP carefully. But once that reason became less serious, we reassessed our situation and began to cheat a little on the margins of my fertility window. This ability to reconsider one’s reproductive plans is a great benefit of the method. NFP enables a couple to avoid sexual autopilot. The Pill or, even worse, the IUD or sterilization facilitates oblivion: the user never has to ask the important questions about what God wills for her fertility right then. In contrast, NFP-practicing couples tend to address these questions every month, usually right around the fertile time!
My bigger point is that NFP worked in a way that statistics can’t easily measure. NFP worked on me by making me more open to life—more open to the reality of sex itself as procreative. NFP enabled me to welcome the beautiful gifts that are my children, because it made sex not all about me or even about us, but also about children and the future of our love. My fertility is not an annoyance to be controlled but rather a means for God the Father’s plan of loving goodness to work itself out in my life.
The communication that NFP facilitates and the growth that it encourages explain why NFP-practicing couples have such a low incidence of divorce—around 2 to 4 percent—while the divorce rate for contracepting couples hovers around 45 percent. NFP fosters happiness in marriage because it promotes human maturity. A person who is willing to welcome children has to be less self-involved and more generous than someone who sets definite limits to accepting children: I’ll be this generous, but no more. As numerous studies of marital happiness have shown, generous and selfless people are easier to live with than stingy and selfish people. (Who knew?)
The fact that NFP has positive effects on people, in contrast to contraception, evinces the truth that using NFP is an altogether different reality from contracepting. We find this tough to understand. We are so used to living like egoists instead of grateful receivers that we cannot grasp that actions have a reality that transcends the meaning we want to impose on them. Remember that meaning is a fruit of the encounter of an attentive and questioning person with the reality of the world. If we do not thoughtfully encounter reality, we cannot understand the world truly. Meaning eludes us.
For the egoist, reality is always constructed, not ever a thing received. All that matters is what happens between our ears. The egoist accordingly finds it hard to see a difference between the person who contracepts and the person who uses NFP to avoid pregnancy, because what happens between the ears—the intention—is the same: both wish to avoid pregnancy. The action must be the same, right?
The grateful person who attentively considers the fabric of the real, however, recognizes that another reality lies beyond what a person simply intends to accomplish with an action. There is the action itself. What is the person actually doing? Suppose my intention is to nourish myself. I could carry out that intention by making a big salad or by eating sand and seawater. The actions are not equivalent: one promotes my flourishing, the other frustrates it. Or suppose my intention is to get a promotion at work. I could do that by working hard at my job or by destroying a rival coworker through slander. Are the actions the same just because the intention is the same? Of course not, because a person can have a good goal and do either something good or something wrong in order to achieve that goal.
So it is with contraception and NFP. I can have the good goal of avoiding pregnancy at this time for non-frivolous reasons (my intention). Choosing to achieve that goal through abstaining from sex when I am fertile is a much different thing than deliberately trying to make sex non-reproductive. What is the contracepting couple doing? Taking a pill or using a barrier to deliberately sterilize their sex act. What is an NFP couple doing? Abstaining. The intention might be the same, but there is a big difference between abstaining from sex when one is fertile, and engaging in sterilized sex. Abstaining from sex is not morally problematic; as Christopher West likes to say, we are probably all doing it right now! God does not demand that we engage in sex only when the woman is fertile. If so, he would not make the woman infertile for most of her cycle. NFP honors the reality of the elegant cycling of the fertile female body. Contraception attempts to eliminate the fertility.
Janet Smith counsels people who do not see the difference between NFP and contraception to try NFP. If the methods are the same, you won’t notice a difference! But of course the reason we run from NFP is that it really is different, in profound ways, from contraception. Abstinence makes NFP different from contraception. Abstinence also makes NFP good for us, because temporarily sacrificing our desires for a common good makes us selfless and generous people. In other words, it makes us happy. (NFP also differs from contraception in another countercultural way, by channeling sexual desire to make it revolve around the realities of the female body.)
NFP respects the reality of sex and of the female body; it plays by the rules of the sex game. In contrast, birth control tries to change the reality of sex. The first promotes living as grateful receivers of the good and beautiful reality of sex, while the second facilitates living as sexual egoists. No wonder the effects of NFP are so much better. The next three chapters will explore in more depth the adverse effects of contraception on individuals and on society, that is, what happens when just about everyone tries to live out of egoism rather than out of grateful wonder for reality.