NFP & the Church Part 1: Redefining “NFP,” Health Benefits, and Effectiveness

Natural Family Planning of “NFP” is often associated with the Catholic Church, even though, as fertility awareness, it is becoming increasingly more accepted by non-Catholic and secular women as a mechanism of holistic health. Under the limiting banner of “NFP”, many don’t bother to consider it as a valid option for family planning, health maintenance, and as a vehicle for certain treatments. You might even say that many leaders in the Church have not fully uncovered the profound beauty and possibilities lying within the different Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABM) that many refer to as “NFP” – or the need to drastically improve the quality and delivery of information on the topic.

When you get to know the Catholic faith authentically, you will fall in love. Despite being trashed since her birth on Pentecost and being constantly misunderstood, our Church shines and thrives. She never caves under pressure to conform to the times, which often drives people away because it is hard not only to comprehend, but to live a life of real love in accordance with Truth. But I would argue that this very reality only lends to her absolute beauty.

Our Church, in all of her splendor and in imitation of her Founder, is perfect because she has to be. It is through her that God reveals truth to us, guiding us back to Himself. I believe one of the many ways He is visible to us on earth is through the intelligent design of each human being – and there are few avenues that give us a more unique insight into ourselves than NFP. The fact that it is endorsed by the Catholic Church doesn’t mean it isn’t backed by solid scientific research, but it also doesn’t guarantee that every practicing Catholic understands its value and purpose.

Considering my history as a cradle Catholic, my women’s health struggles, my experience as a Creighton Practitioner, and conversations with many Catholic women and couples, I have put together a list of 11 key concepts that I believe will help us improve NFP education and accessibility. These points are separated into three distinct posts to make it easier to digest. Let’s kick it off with a chat about the term itself, understanding the extent of potential health benefits, and setting the record straight about effectiveness.

  1. Redefining “NFP

The term “Natural Family Planning” limits the full scope of possibilities for all of the methods by its very definition. Each natural method (referring to the 5 most popular- Billings, Creighton, FEMM, Marquette, Symptothermal) informs the woman of the state of her health to varying depths, depending on the method. This is in addition to the benefit of family planning by defining windows of fertility and infertility within each cycle. Those health benefits provide a major incentive to users regardless of faith practice.

Fertility awareness is a much more encompassing and accurate description. It also doesn’t hurt that it does not carry the same stereotypes as NFP, which gives us the opportunity to re-open conversations on the subject with people of all faiths and beliefs, including fellow Catholics. I have already seen some priests change the verbiage and it has been incredibly encouraging!

  1. Defining “Health Benefits”

In addition to learning how to naturally achieve and avoid pregnancy, at minimum, a woman will learn how her fertility system functions, the importance of a healthy luteal phase (essential to achieving and maintaining pregnancy), be able to predict when each period should start, good hygiene, and the effects of stress. At most, she will learn its connection to overall health, how to identify brown and unusual bleeding, and how to identify and manage PMS symptoms. She will learn if she is at risk for certain diseases, infertility, some miscarriages, hormonal abnormalities, and some cancers. She will even learn when to supplement hormones (if necessary), and much more. And she can accomplish all this with no side effects. 

Ovulation is not only a sign of health, but the action itself promotes health. See Lara Briden’s “The Secret Powers of Ovulation” to begin to wrap your head around the importance of a functioning fertility system. This is in contrast to the action of any form of hormonal birth control. So, the decision to avoid that alone is healthy, and the benefits only improve from there with use of fertility awareness. 

  1. Effectiveness/Scientific Research 

These popular FABMs have come a very long way from the guesswork used with the Calendar Rhythm Method, which is no longer practiced by serious FABM users. Thankfully, the CDC has recently updated the effectiveness statistics for FABMs (although the high end of the failure rate is still too high), but anyone who visits the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services or the Planned Parenthood website will find information that is incomplete and false. FACTS, Natural Womanhood, and provide up to date research, information, and/or statistics on modern natural methods. 

Regardless of method, natural or synthetic, it is important to consider both perfect and typical use effectiveness rates. Perfect use describes use of a method exactly according to instructions. Typical use considers human error. For a quick comparison of all popular methods, including birth control, scroll down on this page.

For the sake of opening up more conversations, it will be helpful to understand a few other nitty gritty details. Pregnancy can occur from genital contact even without penetration. There is a high concentration of sperm in seminal fluid. If sperm find their way to the opening of the vagina during a fertile time when mucus is present, pregnancy can occur. This explains why withdrawal is objectively not an effective way to avoid pregnancy.

From listening to Catholic podcasts to talking with couples who use withdrawal as a method, it’s alarming how few people are aware of these details. I hope accurate statistics, information, and the full scope of health benefits will become common knowledge so women and couples can be better served by them. These first three points are pretty straightforward, but only the tip of the iceberg. In the next part of the series, I’ll give you a run down on birth control, setting appropriate expectations for sex and NFP, promoting early access & use for singles, and a new take on the Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART) discussion.

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