Family and planning are two pretty innocent words on their own, but when you put them together, sparks tend to fly – and not necessarily the good kind. People tend to be pretty opinionated about this topic that affects all of our lives in one way or another at some point. Neither young adults nor middle-aged couples are immune to the discussion. Some teenagers grapple with it whether they realize it or not. It even affects priests, who should become familiar enough with the subject to have intelligent, thought-provoking, and inspiring conversations with the people who look to them for guidance. Marriage prep mentors, pastors, and parents are all in the same boat. When we consider the topic of family planning, there are two different camps of people who emerge – those who have chosen to practice (or discuss) self-control and those who have chosen not to. For those who are educating and inspiring conversations, we have one more choice to make – how will we communicate the truths of each option so that the information remains of value to the user?
It’s not unusual for a teen girl to become sexually active in our culture. If she does, she either becomes familiar with barrier methods or visits her doctor who prescribes birth control without question. If a young woman presents with any symptom ranging from acne to severe pain at her average physician’s office, the prescription will not be different. Many women will continue on that path into adulthood until they are ready to have children and then resume artificial contraception in some form when they are “done.”
It’s not much of a surprise that this is the preferred option for many who are avoiding pregnancy. At first glance, the most difficult part about popping a daily pill is remembering to do it. It also tends to be inexpensive. If the patch or implanted device is chosen, even less effort is required. And just like that, those synthetic hormones are touted to suppress fertility for the purpose of sex without pregnancy. Barriers can be messy, but can also be readily available. Sterilization is a bit more invasive, but serves as a mindless option with the same expected outcome.
It is the mindlessness of contraception that makes it so attractive, at least at first. We have been generally conditioned to view birth control as the gold standard for avoiding pregnancy due to its relative ease of use. That is why it is called birth control – its purpose is to give women (and men) at least some perception of control over their fertility. But at what cost? Some women may nod, but others will cringe while reading certain parts of that third paragraph because of how those wanna-be hormones have wrecked their lives due to unwanted and sometimes severe side effects that were not explained to them by their doctor or educator. It was sold as an “easy fix,” but it has not proven to be so simple for them. At second glance, this so-called easy option may not be worth all that it is claimed to be. And side effects are not limited to the physical. Yet, it is still very popular.
According to the Guttmacher Institute*:
-more than 99% of women aged 15-44 who have had sex have used at least one contraceptive method
-60% of women of child-bearing age are presently using a contraceptive method
If you’re Catholic, you may or may not perceive these stats as a problem.
According to a 2012 Gallup poll**, 82% of Catholics perceive birth control to be morally okay.
The Catholic Church has long held to her teaching that there are two primary purposes of sex: unity and procreation. Contraception intentionally subtracts one of them (procreation) while not appreciating the full context of the other (unity). And with roughly 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, one may begin to wonder why and how the disconnect exists between understanding the purposes of sex and keeping them intact.
To the average birth control user, part of the unity aspect of sex is obvious. God has been quite generous out of love for us and the indissolubility of marriage to infuse such physical pleasure into the act that co-creates new life with him, continuing mankind. Orgasm triggers oxytocin and endorphins which enhance the bond between two people. But why is the procreative aspect equally as important?
If the purpose of each act of intercourse is to unify the couple and to be open to new life, what does that say about sex when it is intentionally rendered sterile? When the act intends to exclude new life, it makes use of our partner by elevating pleasure as the primary purpose of sex – and that doesn’t convey selfless love or even romance. Sex for pleasure alone communicates selfishness and makes use of another person as an object. Some will shrug that off by describing it as a vehicle for feeling close and intimate. But there are a plethora of ways that we can and should grow in intimacy outside of sexual intercourse.
In fact, for couples who rely on sex as recreation, those physical (outside the context of sex), emotional, spiritual, and communicative aspects of intimacy that are so important to healthy relationships are often underdeveloped, if present at all. And if intimacy means drawing two people as closely together as possible in every way, we can’t do that by excluding our fertility. The more closely we examine this option for family planning, the less appealing it becomes – despite its ease of use.
So, most will agree that a purpose of sex is unitive. It is the procreative part of the scenario that may provoke disagreement about the purpose of sex from the birth control crowd. But I would argue that it is hard to deny this purpose of sex when you consider the reason contraception was created in the first place – so that sex can happen without resulting in pregnancy. It should be no surprise to the average adult that sex makes babies.
If your face muscles have already tensed up because it sounds like I’m suggesting that couples should have as many babies as physically possible, allow me to swiftly address that concern. And if, on the other end of the spectrum, you are pleased because it sounds like that is what I’m suggesting, allow me to address that as well. Although one of the purposes of sex is, in fact, to procreate, it does not mean that God has intended for every woman to have as many babies as possible and “succomb” to pregnancy at His whim. You will often hear me remind my readers that women are not fertile every day like men are. God has designed us, therefore the couple, to naturally fluctuate between periods of fertility and infertility. And let’s not forget that new life is grown from our lives as individuals and as married couples in countless other ways besides making babies – take it from this infertile woman who has found a myriad of ways to bear fruit into this world.
So, God has intended for couples to be able to have sex without getting pregnant, and still be open to life, regardless of how long the window of infertility lasts.
Thus, we have the Catholic Church’s long-held method for spacing children, “Natural Family Planning.” With NFP, or what I think is more appropriately deemed “fertility awareness,” a couple selects one of several different methods to learn how to read the woman’s body and determine the fertile window within each cycle. Then she and her spouse can make decisions (informed by open discernment with God) about which days to have sex and which to abstain, depending on their intentions. This is called selective intercourse. No faux hormones required; just some good old-fashioned self-control for durations of time that vary and can last for weeks…except it’s not actually old-fashioned at all. Contrary to what we often hear characters joking about on TV and in movies, self-control is not an ancient practice which hasn’t stood the test of time.
The other big difference between this method and birth control – sugar coating not included – is that practicing it can be really. frikin. hard. But, at least it pays out in the end…
To be continued…