Catholic teaching on sexuality and fertility is being hailed as a moral alternative to hormonal birth control that embraces nature and respects the fullness of women’s lives and dignity.
Author Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted that many women, both religious and secular, are seeing the “terrible side effects” of artificial contraception and searching for “a better way” to monitor fertility.
“There’s increasingly an openness to what’s good for women,” she told CNA July 24, explaining that there has been a disconnect in society when “we buy organic milk to avoid hormones, but yet we’re putting these same hormones into our bodies” through hormonal contraception.
As hormonal birth control is called into question, Hasson said, the Church’s teaching on the dignity of women, fertility and sexuality offers an alternative.
“From the Church’s position, women are equal in dignity to men, but our maternity, our motherhood is a part of who we are,” she explained, adding that whether or not a woman has children, “there’s something about that capacity that is to be valued.”
Rather than artificial contraception, Hasson said, Natural Family Planning respects a woman’s capacity for motherhood while giving couples tools to expand or limit family size.
The mindset behind this approach recognizes that “this woman is a whole person who needs to take into account what is God’s will, what are the goals for our family, but you work with that: you don’t have to segment off this part of you.”
Natural Family Planning is the name given to a range of methods that can be used by couples to identify fertile periods, and can be used as a tool to either achieve or postpone pregnancy. The various scientific methods measure a range of fertility signs, including a woman’s basal body temperature, changes in cervical fluid, and the detection of reproductive hormones with a monitor.
Unlike artificial contraception, Natural Family Planning does not disrupt any natural fertility cycles, nor does it require any hormonal or physical barriers between couples.
The U.S. bishops have released resources offering information about Natural Family Planning – known as NFP – which is considered morally acceptable under Catholic Church teaching.
“NFP is unique because it enables its users to work with the body rather than against it,” they explained. “Fertility is viewed as a gift and reality to live, not a problem to be solved.”
When used according to their guidelines, these methods “achieve effectiveness rates of 97-99 percent,” the bishops said.
In addition, these methods can be used by women “during breastfeeding, just before menopause, and in other special circumstances,” as well to identify and treat special circumstances such as irregular menstrual cycles, reproductive illnesses, and risk of miscarriage.
A brochure posted online by the U.S. bishops’ conference underscored that the Catholic view of fertility values “responsible parenthood,” while respecting fertility. Natural Family Planning methods encourage spouses to “weigh their responsibilities to God, each other, the children they already have, and the world in which they live,” and prayerfully discern family size while untimely trusting God’s plan for their lives.
While the methods included under Natural Family Planning can be used to delay as well as achieve pregnancy, they are “different from and better than contraception,” the bishops’ resource explained.
Benefits of NFP include low cost, no harmful health or environmental side effects, and cooperation with fertility rather than suppressing it. In addition, the brochure highlighted that NFP is the responsibility of both spouses rather than just the wife or the husband, and how the mindset behind the practice works to “honor and safeguard the unitive and procreative meanings of married love.”
California writer Chrissy Wing recently wrote on Ethika Politika about what she sees as a disconnect between attitudes towards health and diet- particularly an emphasis on all natural and hormone-free products- and the promotion of artificial contraceptives.
She told CNA that while many people “scrutinize other products for possible toxins,” they often “seem to dismiss the much more blatant health risks” that accompany some artificial contraceptives, such as the formation of blood clots or contribution to early embryo death.
Wing suggested that Natural Family Planning “honors women's and men's ability to procreate and accepts the clear and natural link between sex and children,” while still helping families to plan their family expansion or limitation.
Hasson further critiqued society’s promotion of contraception, saying that the rejection of a couple’s procreative capacity says to women that “your fertility is a risk” and views that part of womanhood as “a problem.”
“It says that ‘something about the way you’re made is not really a good thing,’” she said.
In contrast, fertility monitoring and abstinence when necessary, to limit or expand family size, treats fertility as “a factor in who you are, and it’s a factor in your relationship.”
These Natural Family Planning methods, Hasson said, encourage couples to work with – rather than against – their natural cycles, recognizing that fertility shouldn’t be “controlled, circumscribed, limited or on the back shelf.”
While “we have a responsibility towards responsible parenthood,” she acknowledged, the Church’s acceptance of the entirety of woman, including her capability for motherhood, shows that “you don’t have to alienate this part of you – your motherhood – in order to do other things.”