Yesterday I sat down to write this post and realized I have wayyy more to say about this issue than I thought possible, which means this will become a two-blog-entries topic. I have so much to say, in fact, that I distinctly remember having a discussion at a bar during my Bachelorette Party with a few Catholic acquaintances from my college parish that showed up to say hi to some of the girls; what was the topic? Natural Family Planning, or NFP. That's right. I'm pretty sure this discussion was the result of them asking me how soon we'd have a baby or if I was excited to get married and someday become a mother, etc. In response I gave them the typical answer Michael and I had crafted saying that we'd "probably wait about a year before we try" and went on to tell them there is SO much to learn about NFP. This seriously happened. The fact that we were in a bar on my Bachelorette Party with me telling them that there is so much to learn about NFP was probably - to them - hilarious, weird, awkward, or perhaps all of the above. I don't really care, though, because I stand by what I said. I was encouraging them to learn more about it sooner rather than later to help them if'/when they all get married...and this is something I would encourage any young woman to do.
I'm sure that many of you reading this blog that are Catholic already have some level of knowledge about NFP and perhaps you even practice it in your own life. However, I know I have some friends who probably read this blog that 1) aren't Catholic, 2) don't realize NFP is not just for Catholics, or 3) are Catholic but don't know what I'm talking about. Don't worry - I'm not going to go into personal or medical details about what NFP entails (you can learn more about that on your own time and I'll provide some useful links throughout this entry). Rather, I'd simply like to talk about NFP - what it is and what it is not.
The second entry I'll write on this topic will focus on the Catholic understanding of NFP and why it is a good, moral tool to use with your spouse while birth control is not (this is a fact when it comes to Catholic teaching, not merely my personal opinion...so if you are a fellow Catholic who takes issue with this - stay tuned! The next entry is mainly for you and anyone else seeking to understand the Catholic teachings on love, sexuality, children, and birth control). For now, however, let's focus on things that are not of a moral or religious nature.
For some reason, the general public knows little about and often dismisses NFP as a valid way of spacing out having children because: people believe it's a method only Catholics practice (false!), that it's the same thing as the "rhythm method" (false!), or that it's an ineffective method that surely results in having a lot of children (false!). Don't believe me on that last one? Check out these statistics that compare the effectiveness of several NFP methods vs. the Pill and condoms. In fact, you can tell just by looking at the numbers that when it's used properly, NFP is equally effective if not more effective than the Pill...without all the nasty side effects and health risks.
This brings me back to the first misconceived notion that only Catholics practice NFP. Is it true that due to religious and moral beliefs more NFP users are Catholics? Quite probably, yes. However, there are several reasons individuals choose NFP over birth control and many of them have nothing to do with religion or faith. Borrowing from iusenfp.com's "Top 10 Reasons to Use NFP" I'll summarize their list (see the lengthier/full explanations here):
10. It's free.
9. It doesn't cause cancer.
8. Couples using NFP report having more sex than couples that use contraception.
7. It doesn't kill your sex drive.
6. It is complete healthcare.
5. No abortifacient properties. *Update 1/21/12: Unfamiliar with or don't believe how various contraceptives can possibly abort a child? Check out this brief explanation from Katie at NFP and Me.
4. It's "green."
3. It helps you (and your partner!) understand your body.
2. No side effects.
1. It works.
If you are an avid user or supporter of birth control, I hope this list allows you take a step back and think. Most people I know that use birth control use it because it's the only way they know to prevent pregnancy. I've heard the arguments before about how some people can't afford to have children, an unplanned pregnancy results in abortion, etc. etc. Regardless of the arguments or excuses, wouldn't you prefer women to be educated about their bodies and their sexual health in ways that empower them (rather than suggesting their fertility is something that needs to be suppressed), don't cost any money, and don't cause negative medical side effects??? At this point I feel dangerously on the brink of repeating something I already wrote about on my former blog, so for more discussion on this issue I'd redirect you to this entry about how contraception is not the best thing for women in impoverished situations.
So why else should women and their partners consider NFP instead of using contraception? While I think the list of 10 reasons above covers most of it, I'd simply like to reiterate what NFP is. Simply put, NFP is a way of learning about your monthly cycle through observation and tracking methods which you can easily chart online (I've personally used fertilityfriend.com but there are others as well), on paper, or on cool phone apps for smart phone users. By charting this information about your own body's signs you can begin to learn with great accuracy when you're fertile and when you're not (sometimes we forget that unlike men, we are not perpetually fertile!). This means NFP is great whether you want to prolong having a child or if you want to conceive. If you want to conceive you'll know when you should be having sex and may even be able to pinpoint your day of ovulation to increase the odds. If you don't want to have a child yet, you simply abstain from being sexually intimate when you're fertile.
It sounds simple enough, but often when I get to the point of telling someone that abstinence is an important part of NFP the response becomes one of indignance that refuses to put their sexual desires on hold for one minute. In my opinion, this is how society has twisted the notion of "freedom" and "women's rights." Is drugging ourselves with hormones (that have harmful side effects) just so we can have sex whenever and wherever we want healthy and liberating? I fully believe these are lies our society tells us: that you can only fully be a woman and enjoy life if you put harmful drugs into your body. Our fertility is not a disease and neither are children. In the second entry on this topic I'll dive further into detail about how abstinence for a short period of time each month can be hugely beneficial to a relationship.
I think at this point it's also important to point out that many women who are on the Pill or use other forms of contraception often have difficulty conceiving children once they decide they are ready. When the Pill was first invented we were ignorant of many side effects; nowadays we know better and it should be common knowledge that being on the Pill for an extended period of time can decrease or permanently damage a woman's fertility. Not only that, but if someone has been dependent on condoms or the Pill and then decides to stop and get pregnant, that woman is going to know wayyy less about their body than a couple who practices NFP together. In fact, I personally know of a woman who was on the Pill for 5 years, went off of it, and had problems conceiving. She had to learn about NFP just to learn about her own fertility because she realized she was clueless - but once she did, her body was too damaged from being on the Pill so long. If it's God's will for her and her husband to have a child I know He will bless them in this way, but it's been a long, challenging road that they have battled on for the past few years as they have tried everything to conceive.
At the end of the day I know I have friends who use contraception and they may even dismiss everything I've said here and that's their decision. But the fact remains that far too few women know that NFP does not require any sort of birth control and is more effective than contraception, let alone that it even exists. If nothing else, I hope this entry will help shed light on this matter and help women realize they do have options to take control of their fertility without harming their bodies (and it's FREE!). My older sister is currently undergoing training to be a certified NFP instructor so if anyone has questions I can't answer I'm sure I can relay them to her and help find answers. Stay tuned for Part 2!
"NFP is just as or more effective than typical contraceptives. Also an important difference between using NFP and using contraception is that a couple using NFP almost always knows when they are taking a chance. Couples using contraception have been sold a false bill of goods. One that says if they’re ‘smart’ they’ll use protection and a pregnancy won’t occur. True empowerment is full knowledge and being able to act accordingly.
NFP doesn’t just work for postponing pregnancy. Charting helps a couple trying to get pregnant recognize their most fertile windows take advantage of these optimal times. It can also help a woman recognize irregularities in cycle and help her physician diagnose her specific problem. Because of this customization, it has been proven more effective at achieving a pregnancy than IVF."
-iusenfp.com, emphasis added