It’s hard to have a compelling conversation about birth control and IVF when you don’t have a clue where to start – or fear that you may offend someone. That is understandable. Having a handful of facts and practical knowledge on these two difficult topics will come in handy, hopefully improving comfort and confidence in future discussions and homilies. Part 3 spoiler alert: that’s what the people want! This second part of my NFP & the Church series continues here with everything you need to know.
4. Hormonal Birth Control
Remember how I explained that FABMs have advanced so much? We can’t say the same about hormonal birth control. Although the potency has been adjusted some, they still introduce a concentrated dose of synthetic hormones into the woman’s body almost daily! The goal is to stop ovulation in hopes of preventing pregnancy and/or to eliminate unwanted symptoms. It often replaces those with other unwanted symptoms.
It is not extremely common, but when breakthrough ovulation occurs, a woman can still get pregnant. One of the actions of the synthetic hormones is to terminate that pregnancy before the woman knows she is pregnant. This is accomplished by making the uterine lining thin, and therefore uninhabitable by the developing embryo. In these cases it is an abortifacient, which means that it is not licit for a woman to use even for “medical reasons” if she is having intercourse.
The perfect use effectiveness rating of hormonal birth control is about on par with the popular FABMs. However, it is rather striking that the typical use effectiveness rating of hormonal birth control tends to be significantly lower than most of the popular FABMs.
You’ll hear from many women that they can’t get off of their birth control because it is controlling their symptoms to some extent. This is understandable and should be addressed with compassion, but it does provoke further dialogue to help paint a full picture of the drug. That action of suppressing ovulation basically shuts the system down in an effort to suppress any symptoms it is causing due to some “system dysfunction.” It does not treat the underlying problem. When off of the synthetic hormones, symptoms will resume and can be worse. Some FABMs, like Creighton with NaProTechnology, are still preferred to birth control because it addresses the underlying problem(s).
Simply stating that the Catholic Church opposes artificial reproductive technologies (ART), or simply explaining that it is wrong because it destroys embryos or removes the unitive from the procreative does an injustice to both the Church and the couple. All of these statements are true, important, and should definitely be said. But they do not satisfy the longings of the heart of the infertile in isolation, thereby paving the way to IUI and/or IVF for many. There are also many who ART is not an option for, but still very much desire to be more included in the Church. Christ desires more for the 1 in 8 infertile couples whose desire for new life is very good. An even more loving and effective approach is to draw them into community by assuring them that they are equally capable of bearing fruit as their fertile counterparts and by providing them with IVF education and most importantly, a suitable alternative.
An infertile couple needs to feel the embrace of their Church despite their apparent inability to conceive a child. Many feel viewed as inferior to other Catholic women who bear children and it can be very isolating. All men and women are called to spiritual parenthood by using their unique and priceless gifts from God who does not consider biological children as superior to the fruits born of the infertile. Discovering this within oneself is rewarding and healing and this is a message that could be better communicated, because the teachings already exist within Church life and scripture itself.
If the ultimate goal of a couple is to grow in love of God and to improve health over having a baby at all costs, then they will almost always find fulfillment regardless of the circumstances. Many couples don’t understand that infertility is not a disease, but a symptom of an underlying issue that is often unaddressed. Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART) attempts to circumvent this symptom to force pregnancy, which makes it frequently unsuccessful or falling short of full term.
Believe it or not, sometimes the answer is as simple as identifying and using the couples’ actual fertile window. There’s at least five different FABM for that. When it’s not that simple, NaProTechnology is the medical and surgical extension of the Creighton method of fertility awareness, and promotes health and fertility by addressing the underlying causes. It is 1.5-3 times more effective than IVF and at a fraction of the cost. Everyone should know their options.
6. Expectations/Long-term Use
A well-rounded understanding and appreciation for fertility awareness is important, especially since the enemy chooses to attack families. According to Pope Francis at the 37th National Convocation of the Renewal of the Holy Spirit, “Families are the domestic Church where Jesus grows in the love of a married couple, in the lives of their children,” the Pope said. “This is why the devil attacks the family so much.” Don’t forget about Sr. Lucia dos Santos, one of the three children who witnessed the apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Fatima. Before her death in 2005, she predicted that the final battle between Christ and Satan would be over marriage and the family. Consider the widespread use or approval of contraception, abortion, divorce, and ART by Catholics as exhibits A through D.
In order to set individual women and couples up for long-term successful use of fertility awareness, their expectations need to be set appropriately and they need to connect with the method that fits best. NFP is not Catholic birth control and shouldn’t be likened to such. FABM educates and informs a woman of her health and her fertile window, empowering her/the couple with knowledge to help them make choices about sex depending on their prayerful discernment about bringing children into the world. It is a completely different and far more impressive animal than birth control.
Some like to compare it to birth control in order to make it sound more favorable in the sense of control and limiting days of abstinence. I admit that I described it this way until I spoke to people who actually use it to avoid pregnancy, which is not something I have done due to my infertility. The Christian lifestyle has never been about control, but submission to and in communion with God’s will – whatever that may be.
When avoiding pregnancy, it is rare for a couple to need to abstain less than 9 days within a given cycle and it is often more than that (not including the period flow). Fewer than 9 days could mean a problem with fertility. Fertile days vary from woman to woman, from cycle to cycle, and can also vary between methods. In the long run, couples greatly benefit from being given realistic expectations about how much sex they may be saying “no” to at certain times within marriage. A surprising amount of women have expressed a desire for this in retrospect! Tell them the truth – it will be very hard at times, but it will also provide ample opportunities for growth.
Finally, there is no one method that fits best for every woman/couple. A woman or couple should be encouraged to talk to instructors and friends, or find resources to help find the one that is best for them – if we expect them to stick with it. Luckily, my friend Emily has done a lot of that hard work for us in this FABM comparison via interviews. You can also find a good comparison at managingyourfertility.com. It’s also okay to switch methods.
7. Early Education/Fear of Sexual Promiscuity
The idea that NFP is only for engaged or married Catholics fosters a significant misconception. This is another reason why fertility awareness is a better term to use – inviting women of any reproductive age and circumstance to begin learning about her fertile health. It’s ideal for a young girl to have a basic understanding of her fertility prior to menarche, her first period. She should keep track of each cycle, including when she observes mucus and any other symptom until the depth of a defined method becomes more relevant. If there are clear problems like moderate-severe pain or PMS, she should begin charting with Creighton right away, due to its medical extension. FEMM may be a viable option here as well – I just don’t know enough about it yet because it is more new. I do know that it does not offer surgical benefits, but can still be a good option for other purposes. It is beneficial for couples to be comfortable with their chosen method of fertility awareness before they get engaged. If a woman has been charting as a single woman, this will really help facilitate the transition into use while married.
What about when she gets engaged later in life or never? It is just as important for single women to comprehend that they are included in the full spectrum of purposes of fertility awareness. Countless single women who receive the health and medical benefits of natural methods are grateful for it. Many others are simply unaware that it applies to them.
It’s understandable to initially be apprehensive at the thought of teaching teenage girls when their fertile window is. But they are more likely to be curious about and interested in sex when they don’t fully grasp the purposeful connection between sex and new life. An in-depth understanding of the beautifully intricate way God designed her body to work is more likely to foster respect for the reproductive process. Krause, H. And Kardatske, D. show a dramatic decrease of between 30-62% in sexual activity of teenage girls when using knowledge acquired from the Billings Ovulation Method (“Experiential Learning of Fertility Delays Teens’ Sexual Debut,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology).
These four topics are some of my favorites to talk about, but there is still a lot more worth bringing to the table for discussion. We will round out this series with an assortment of four different important topics including boys and men, ease of access to information, financial concerns, and the opportunities provided by social media Platforms.