NFP: 19 years later


It's NFP Awareness week. This year, there's a bold, fresh website on the scene to take on the challenge of introducing Natural Family Planning to a new, decidedly digital generation. There's a great new collection of articles there that I'm sure will enlighten most everyone. And there's more: is another new site–this one run by two young women–designed to promote the value of natural family planning. 

I heartily applaud the efforts of these young people (and I feel a bit like my grandmother calling them "these young people."). As I read them, I remember being young and married and not at all a part of the contraceptive culture. While I think these sites do run a calculated risk of sounding a bit like "The Natural Approach to Contraception," I think the good outweighs the potential for misinterpretation. They're definitely getting good information out there, information that is not readily available on the maintstream information superhighway. Over the years, I've grown to appreciate the spiritual aspects above all the rest. Openness to life is the ultimate self-improvement –God-improvement– program. Hopefully, that, too, will come from these young writers.

My early NFP days predate said superhighway. I learned about NFP mostly from another young teacher who was also a newlywed at the first school where I taught. I had heard of it during an Engaged Encounter just before the school year began (we were married the first week of school), and Betsy followed up with her own experience. She was open and frank, but not nearly as frank as what's floating out there now. From there, I did some reading on my own and we took a Couple-to-Couple League class. 

We had decided on that Engaged Encounter not to contracept. And, frankly, we were pretty much open to whatever God had in mind. We welcomed our first baby just after our first anniversary. And I would do it exactly that way in heartbeat, if I had it to do again. It wasn't really until after that baby, and after cancer, that we started to understand the theology behind NFP. Our early marriage story is pretty different from most, but it's dear to us. 

Anyway, that's a rather longer introduction than I planned. All that to say, I figured that since I'm old enough to call the folk "these young people," I should probably go back and dig up my own words before I share what I thought about NFP back in the beginning. I have three artcles from exactly 19 years ago today to share over the next three days. These were originally published in the Arlington Catholic Herald on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the very prophetic Humanae Vitae. I'm going to try to refrain from editorializing too much. The articles are just as I wrote them, with my comments today in pink.

Here we go:

There are table tents set up all around the waiting room of the OB/GYN office where I teach childbirth classes. "Ask about your birth control options," they scream from every corner of the room. Ask indeed. I wonder what I would be told.

Would I be told that the pill is an abortifacient? I don't think so. Rare is the doctor who sit down with a patient and discusses the fine print. Most couples know that the pill often prevents pregnancy by suppressing ovulation and altering the cervical mucus. But how many people understand the ultimate "back up"? When a baby is conceived, he is aborted without his mother's knowledge because hormones have rendered the uterus inhospitable to life. Some option! Before a woman could even consider her choices, the hormone in the pill she takes so routinely can abort her baby. All hormonal contraceptives work in a similar manner.

Norplant, new and trendy though it appears, is merely a steady stream of hormones for five years. A woman will never have to give birth control a second thought. But will she think about what those hormones are doing to the natural chemsitry of her body?  [Note: Norplant was discontinued in the United States about ten years after it was introduced. Hmmm]. 

Depo-Provera, a recently introduced injectable hormone contraception, provides up to three months protection against pregnancy, while remaining in the body and preventing the resumption of a normal cycle for up to eighteen month. Of course, once it has been injected the woman is stuck with it. Once they give her the shot, she can't take it out–for better or worse, no matter what the "side effects." ["Side effects" is a joke term. All efects of a drug are just that, effects. They may not be what you signed up for, but they are effects. Incidentally, Depo-Provera is Melinda Gates' drug of choice. You can read more on that here.]

Let's consider the side effects. "Side effects" are what the pharmaceutical companies call the unpleasant effects of drugs. They all listed in a rather lengthy insert included with every prescription of hormonal contraceptives. A woman may not experience every effect of the drug. But the list–which includes risk of blood clots, heart attack and strokes, gallbladder disease, liver tumors, headache, nervousness, depression and hair loss–is pretty scary reading material. Most couples never even glance at the insert. 

Then there are the other "options" which society and the medical community present to us. Another abortifacient, the IUD, works to prevent an embryo [a real live baby] from implanting in his mother's uterus. Instant abortion. Barrier methods, especially the condom which the popular press holds in such high esteem, prevent the very physical intimacy that lovemaking seeks and deny the unitive as well as the procreative nature of intercourse. And as far as spontaneity and romance go, I don't think it's spontaneous or romantic to go to bed with barriers between us.

When the couples in my classes ask me about birth control and I mention NFP, I amost always get the "you-must-be-an-extremist-hope-to-have-ten-kids" look [I was 27, with two children, when I wrote this. I am well aware that this line is amusing now. In a very, very good way.] I've often heard that the Catholic Church is unrealistic, rigid, and chauvinistic in its approach to contraception. I disagree.

When my husband and I really looked at the "options," when we took the time to educate ourselves about what was being professed by the secular society versus what the Church taught, we found that the Church was not only reasonable, but very supportive of marital sex. Far from being evil, in a Christian marriage, sex is a high and noble thing–a gift from God. The Church approves of lovemaking, even if for serious reasons the couple isn't trying to achieve pregnancy. The Church's stand on birth control seeks not to make life difficult by to help married couples make a good thing even better. Sex is holy; it is God's idea. And openness to children is an integral part of God's plan. 

Artificial birth control isn't good for women. And it isn't good for marriages. It deprives couples the third party in their union. God. When sex denies life, it denies Life. That is, it excludes the Creator of Life. once He is exclueded, one third of the mrriage covenant participants has been asked to leave–the wisest one. In my nex tpost, we'll consider Natural Family Planning, a way to plan families that embraces God.

[Am I a bad witness for NFP because I have nine children? I don't think so. I don't think so at all. I think there is a danger to think that good or successful use of NFP guarantees that your family makeup will look just like that of pharmaceutical family planners. If so, then clearly you have excellent scientific charting skills and applaudable self-control. I've even seen blogs where couples have practiced for years and never knew these few lines existed in the Church's teaching: With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.  

We learned quickly that we couldn't out-give God. His generosity--of adequate wealth, but more importantly of grace and strength--was sufficient. Always. For us, NFP was there, an underpinning of an awareness of fertility and hormonal cycles. Every one of those nine children was welcomed enthusiastically. We knew there would be challenges. And we trusted He would equip and bless. He always has.]


  1. says

    Bravo! I had *the talk* at my 6 week check up. My doctor was insistent that it couldn’t work and the NP didn’t even understand what it was.

  2. says

    I had to argue with a mammography tech that I KNEW I wasn’t pregnant. “What kind of birth control are you using?” “Fertility awareness”
    She was very very dubious I would know what was going on inside by body if I wasn’t using something storebought to tell me.

  3. says

    I’m so proud of these new sites – NFP/FA is actually what drew me closer to the Church (I married a Catholic). The fine line of “NFP as contraception” is that really practicing it means that your willing to accept that it might fail, where as a “contraceptive” mentality gives you plan A, B, C, etc. when the previous method fails. Discerning through heartfelt prayer and discussion with your spouse about when/if it is a good time to be truly open to a new life definitely requires a different frame of mind. There are good reasons to delay or postpone children – you are right that we are called to be responsible for our actions and their consequences – but part of growing up and maturing in a marriage should be that you learn that you don’t always know best!
    I too get the eye rolls and snarky comments in the doctors office. When I was recovering in hospital from my c-section it was the first thing the residents wanted to talk about at 6:30 in the morning. And yet the nurses and medical assistants are always surprised when I can tell them the exact day of my last period and I have to bite my tongue to keep from informing them that NFP/FA actually helped me conceive my son (fertility issues) and that he’s about to turn 18 months old and we haven’t had a surprise second pregnancy, unlike a number of relatives and friends who use the other stuff. So yeah, medical professionals go ahead and tell me that I’m crazy. ;)

  4. says

    NFP has been such a blessing for our marriage. I just turned 28, and I am pregnant with my 7th baby (my oldest just turned 9). I have c-sections and would have stopped at 4 c-sections had I believe our contraceptive culture. As it turns out, I am completely healthy and doctor’s are always very surprised that I’ve had so many c-sections and still my uterus looks great. As we try to be generous with our lives, God is faithful. We can now be an example for others in similar situations (no matter how unworthy we are :)

  5. says

    Bravo again Elizabeth…My hubby and I took NFP classes before we got married then we both felt the Holy Spirit ask “why, if you wants lots of babies?” I stopped practicing nfp and then got pregnant on my honeymoon…best decision we ever made!!!

  6. says

    I am writing about my journey to NFP at As much as blogs try to argue the “natural” approach as a good reason to use NFP, I find the only thing that has kept me true to openness to life is meeting Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Exchange your daily pill for daily mass. It took us four years to understand the truth of discerning monthly if God is calling us to have another child. The whole world depends on each one of our littles. God bless you and your littles Elizabeth

  7. Donna says

    NFP, one of my favorite topics! I graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Nursing in the 90′s and left school with only a vague knowledge that there was something out there like the “rhythm method”- I kid you not.
    When my husband and I were engaged we attended an Engaged Encounter weekend retreat, and the couple who did “the talk” mentioned that they had one boy and one girl, and that was the extent of their family planning. Then they added, “Oh, by the way, there is NFP for those of you interested. We have some pamphlets in the back, no wait, we are out. Give us your address and we will send you some info.” My husband and I eagerly gave them an address, but no info ever arrived.
    A few weeks later an ad showed up in our church bulletin that advertised NFP classes a few towns over. We signed up and have been grateful ever since. My husband is fond of saying, “NFP is so great. The Church should be shouting this information from the rooftops!” Thankfully, information and access to NFP classes seems to be steadily on the rise. I’m glad that women are talking about this topic and that the web is helping to increase awareness.
    I am no longer nursing, and we are a military family so we move frequently. Twice I’ve had the opportunity to have a Catholic physician knowledgeable about NFP. What a blessing it is to have like-minded health care professionals on your side. Alternatively, I’ve also had the classic, medical model MD’s, and I don’t need to tell your readers about the comments that I’ve received from them. Having been an unenlightened health care professional myself, I can relate, but it is nevertheless frustrating. We all need to pray for the medical community to respect life and encourage women who wish to take a natural and God-driven path.

  8. Anonymous (Due to the Question) says

    I’d prefer asking this question in private, but I couldn’t find your e-mail address, so here goes …
    I am in my late 40′s and my husband doesn’t want more children. I realize the chance of pregnancy at my age is slim to none, but because of the remote possiblity, my husband is very hesitant to be intimate except right before I begin my cycle. I don’t want to go on birth control, but I miss being with my husband. Over the last several years, only once has he agreed to intimacy during a “non-safe” time and we conceived that night. Unfortunately, we miscarried. Since then, my heart has been torn, desiring another little one, yet wanting to honor my husband’s wishes and also having the fear of pregnancy when I read the statistics of chromosomal abnormalities at my age. What does someone in my case do?

  9. Annie says

    Thanks for this, Elizabeth. I’m an MD and spend a lot of time teaching NFP but find, sadly, it’s a hard sell among folks who don’t see their bodies as holy or ordained. And if they can’t see themselves that way, they certainly don’t see their marriages in that light.

  10. debbie says

    i wish i could offer something helpful in terms of advice. i am in a very similar boat. my husband is and has been, throughout the 20something years of our marriage, been very upset about my insistence on following Church teaching with this. now that my cycles are so erratic in perimenopause, my life has become a nightmare, alternating between him yelling at me to stop this, to give in & use contraceptives or him ignoring me in a loving couple sort of way. i spoke to my confessor at length about this & he said that this is not so unusual. that makes me so sad. my ability to handle this is only through frequenting the Sacraments & clinging to the question: am i following God or man? in that simplicity it is a no-brainer, but not very easy to live some days. as i noted, i have no advice, but i do remember you & all who struggle with openness to life & NFP use in my daily morning offering. God bless…

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