The Truth about NFP Leads to Responsibility

This NFP Awareness Week guest post is by CCL Teacher Gerri Laird.

Today’s giveaway: We will select one winner randomly from those who comment on this post by the close of NFP Awareness Week (Sunday, July 31 at midnight) who will receive a copy of Fertility, Cycles & Nutrition by Marilyn Shannon.

It’s Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week and Planned Parenthood is euphoric because this month the Institute of Medicine recommended that birth control be certified as necessary preventive health care for women – pregnancy will finally be codified by the U.S. Government as a disease that must be prevented.  While the proponents of birth control revel in their celebration, NFP has been taking a hit in a some blogs and articles, largely due to misinformation and/or poor instruction and follow-up.  What a great opportunity to show the beauty of NFP while addressing some of these challenges.

NFP is knowledge about a woman’s fertility. It is a common mistake to confuse NFP with responsible parenthood, the virtuous application of this knowledge to plan or to postpone a pregnancy.  But, NFP (fertility awareness) is much more than just biology and physiology.  The knowledge of NFP is incomplete if it is not accompanied by a proper understanding of what it means to be a human person and how to act in accordance with our nature as human persons.

In his writings and talks, Blessed John Paul II gave us a new formulation for the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, a way that speaks to a world that accepts behaviors that are degrading to our dignity as human persons.  He begins with the human person and how we are unique: persons with bodies, made in the image and likeness of God specifically so that there would be a visible expression of personhood in the world.  The late Father Richard M. Hogan further explains: “But if we are made in God’s image and likeness, then the body does more than reveal ourselves.  It also reveals God when we act as God acts, and express those acts outwardly in and through our bodies.  In this case, the body becomes a physical image of God Himself.   The body then has a dignity and value in its own right.”[1]

NFP helps us to “read” the “language” of the sexual powers; this in turn can lead us to act responsibly and to become more virtuous, less likely to want to use the body as a thing. It is essential that this is the context in which NFP should be taught. The body is the expression of the person.  “Violations of the human body are violations of the individual human person and violations of love.”[2] NFP is good because it does not treat a person as a thing or machine by altering a healthy, major functioning part of the body.

But does NFP work? This is why it is so important to define terminology.  As stated above, NFP is knowledge.  When properly taught and applied, NFP reveals externally what is occurring within a woman’s reproductive system internally.  Charting the signs that occur throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle often unveils problems that need to be addressed in order for her body to function properly.  NFP is definitely working because it is alerting a woman that her system is not operating correctly.  It is the body that isn’t working properly; not the NFP!

There is nothing more frustrating than confused fertility signs.  NFP teachers need to be available to assist women/couples who are experiencing difficulties in reading and/or interpreting their signs, and women should feel free to seek their advice and expertise beyond the completion of the initial course.  Let’s examine a few situations.

Some women, for example, complain about the confusion in reading their fertility signs during the return of fertility after childbirth, while using medications, after discontinuing hormonal birth control, or when they are premenopausal.  Women can research these and other symptoms that indicate their reproductive system is not working properly in the excellent book by Couple to Couple League (CCL) teacher and author, Marilyn Shannon.  Fertility, Cycles & Nutrition 4th edition (FCN) (recently updated) is loaded with self-help information to improve cycles and fertility, and tips on when it is necessary to seek medical advice.  This book is an essential part of the basic NFP material student couples receive when they register for the CCL main series of classes.

In addition to FCN, there are other ways to address these problems.  For example, assuming there is no ovulation associated with nonstop mucus postpartum, it could be a particular woman’s basic infertile pattern.  How would she know?  By detailed tracking of her mucus quality and quantity for 14 consecutive days, and then reviewing with her NFP teacher(s).

It might also be caused by cervical eversion: After giving birth (often after a second child), some women may have daily postpartum mucus which most often is caused by eversion of the cervix reacting to the acidity of the vagina.  This means that the cervix has not receded from the pregnancy.  This can be corrected by a physician.[3] Cervical eversion is not related to delivery; rather, it could be hormonal so women who deliver by c-section can also experience an all-the-time mucus that is caused by eversion.

One of the unique things about CCL is that it offers a postpartum class and student guide to help couples navigate through the return of fertility after childbirth, and a premenopause class and student guide to assist women during the transition from the fertile years to menopause.

With proper education and the availability of NFP teachers for follow-up, NFP does work; it reveals whether or not a woman’s reproductive system is functioning properly.  But it is up to each woman (and her spouse) to follow this knowledge with actions that will improve her health.

One writer recently lamented: “Whereas Catholics once accepted fertility and procreation as a natural part of every marriage, we now feel we have a measure of “control” over these things, in a way that tempts us into thinking that controlling fertility is a virtue in itself.”  NFP does not control anything.  The “control” involved is with self – self-control!  It is the self-control with regard to the sexual powers that leads to virtue.  But, it is a fallacy to think that NFP is only used to avoid pregnancy; rather, there are numerous couples whose application of NFP led them to a greater openness to children, and thus to greater generosity in other aspects of their lives as well.

I’ve read some online comments from those who did not think NFP classes provided the proper reverence or discretion for what is a sensitive and very private topic. Couples attend NFP classes of their own free will; they are there voluntarily to learn more about their fertility.  However, NFP classes should always be conducted with utmost respect for the individuals in attendance and the material covered.  Properly taught, NFP classes do not need to include details about couples regarding sexual intimacy.  Pope Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II encouraged engaged and married couples to learn NFP as a means toward responsible parenthood[4] and as a tool to use on the path to holiness,[5]respectively.  As stated previously, NFP must be taught within the context of the dignity of the human person and responsible parenthood.  It is not a plumbing class!  Rather, it is a class unveiling the beauty of God’s creation.

It is difficult to act responsibly if we are unaware of the truth.  How does a couple make decisions about having a child if they have no knowledge of whether or not the wife is fertile and ovulating regularly?  Once a couple understands their joint fertility, they can certainly decide not to chart indefinitely if they so choose.  On the other hand, having NFP knowledge helps them apply this information when needed (e.g., postpartum, post-miscarriage, premenopause, postponing/planning pregnancy), and can add great confidence and mutual appreciation within their relationship.

No matter what a spouse’s temperament may be, marriage is about love.  Love is a decision – giving for the good of the other.  As images of God, we are called to reflect His love within marriage as well.  This means dying to self.  Each spouse must choose to give himself/herself as a permanent gift to the other.  This choice to become a self-gift involves knowledge of the value and dignity of the spouse.  Furthermore, man and woman are created so that this intimate physical gift of love can be life-giving[6].

Hopefully, this discussion has provided a “reality check” as to why NFP is good – so good in fact that it was elevated by Blessed John Paul II as an apostolate, “a tool for all to use on the path to holiness.”[7]

“The necessary conditions (for marriage) also include knowledge of the bodily aspect and the body’s rhythms of fertility.  Accordingly, every effort must be made to render such knowledge accessible to all married people and also to young adults before marriage, through clear, timely and serious instruction and education given by married couples, doctors, and experts.”[8]

“Of course, there will always be some who use the natural methods irresponsibly by excluding children in the intentional order.  This failure is on the part of the irresponsible couples, not on the part of the instructor couples.  Further, the best way to encourage these couples to act more responsibly is to teach them about themselves because, as we have seen, the truth leads to responsibility.”[9]

– Gerri Laird has been married 41 years and is the mother of 5 children, and grandmother of 7 children.  After coordinating programs offering pregnancy assistance and post-abortion healing for the Arlington, VA Diocese, she was the Coordinator of Education and Training, adapting all educational programs within the office to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s new theological construct.  Gerri also assisted CCL in re-writing and editing their current Student Guide and Teaching Guide on the Art of Natural Family Planning, to include the new Postpartum and Premenopause Student and Teaching Guides.  Together with Bob, she has been a CCL NFP teacher for over 27 years.  Gerri has written and spoken extensively on numerous topics related to family life.

[1] The Art of Natural Family Planning Student Guide, (The Couple to Couple League, International, 2007), 8.

[2] Ibid, 143.

[3] The Art of Natural Family Planning Supplemental Teaching Guide, 2008, PP-89, PP-90.

[4] Pope Paul VI, Of Human Life (Humanae Vitae).

[5] Revs. Richard M. Hogan and John M. LeVoir, Covenant of Love, 1985, 260.

[6] Rev. Richard M. Hogan, The Human Body…a sign of dignity and a gift, (The Couple to Couple League International, 2005).

[7] Revs. Richard M. Hogan and John M. LeVoir, Covenant of Love, 1985, 260.

[8] Blessed John Paul II, Familiais Consortio (The apostolic Exhortation on the Family in the Modern World), Article 33, 1981.

[9] Rev. Richard M. Hogan, Is NFP Good?, 2005, 24.