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by Richard J. Fehring, PhD, RN, FAAN
Pope Paul VI shocked the world on July 25th, 1968 with the release of the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (HV), sometimes titled “On the Regulation of Birth.” The reason that this short, 14-page document caused great commotion was that it did not change Church teaching, but rather confirmed the Catholic Church’s position on birth control — the same position that all Christian churches held up to 1930.
Humanae Vitae begins with the recognition of worldwide population increases and the need for birth control. It also recognizes the development of the contraceptive pill and the confusion that arose from that development. However, the document then enumerates licit and illicit means of regulating birth. Paul VI states clearly that any means responsible for a direct interruption of the generative process are immoral. Sterilization also is not to be used as a means for child limitation and, above all, intentionally procured abortion is unacceptable. The document goes on to explain that the use of natural rhythms and the recourse to naturally infertile times of the cycle may be used to space births for serious motives. The document carefully points out that there is a difference between natural birth regulation and contraception. The use of contraception impedes the development of the natural process, whereas the use of natural birth regulation uses the natural disposition of fertile and infertile times of the woman’s menstrual cycle.
In the final section of the encyclical, the pope provides pastoral directives for health care professionals, scientists, clergy, couples and others who will be affected by the teachings of this document. Realizing the need for more a more complete understanding of natural methods of family planning, Paul VI called on scientists to help provide more thorough explanations for the various conditions favoring a proper regulation of birth. He also felt it was the proper role of physicians and health care professionals to acquire all the knowledge needed in this sector and thus provide a scientific basis for the regulation of birth based on the observance of natural rhythms. The proper role of reproductive science, the pope insisted, is to provide married couples with wise counsel and healthy direction.
Popes as early as Pius XI have sought the help of scientists to address the problem of birth control and to promote what we now call natural family planning (NFP). In Humanae Vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI was persistent in that call, even pleading with scientists to bend over backwards in the effort. Fortunately, much of the scientific work on the basic methods of NFP was conducted before Humanae Vitae, and since then a handful of basic and clinical scientists have continued their research — despite an academic and scientific world that denigrates those efforts.
Today, a growing number of scientists continue to seek more accurate natural biological markers of fertility, easier-to-use NFP methods, more effective methods and methods that can adapt to special reproductive circumstances. Even a small number of social scientists are seeking more evidence to verify Pope Paul VI’s claim that NFP’s call for periodic abstinence — far from harming marriage — actually strengthens the marriage bond. Finally, thanks to web-based online systems, social networking and fertility monitoring apps, scientists have made NFP more digestible and accessible for our demanding modern world.
— Dr. Richard Fehring is the Director for Marquette University’s Institute for Natural Family Planning.
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