Thursday, October 08, 2009

Why do I...

...use Natural Family Planning (NFP)? Why not use birth control? Isn't NFP just "Catholic birth control," anyway? [I do realize that NFP is not really part of attachment parenting, but it is a part of natural family living and Catholic family living.]

The short answer: Because the Catholic Church is opposed to birth control.

First, I want to say that I will not make this post "graphic" in the details of NFP, although I think most readers here would not be offended. But I won't be discussing the details of the how-to of NFP, so if you are unfamiliar with the method and want to learn more, it will have to be somewhere else! But I will attempt to write in a way that makes sense without going into the mechanics of NFP even for those unfamiliar with it.

Also, I want to start off with some thoughts that I alluded to over a week ago... on the topic of why birth control should not have to be covered by insurance companies, and why they may actually want to discontinue coverage of it:

Medical insurance is, in my opinion, important because people often need help with the expenses at times of health emergencies. Medical insurance is intended to help when we have illnesses. Prescriptions for drugs that help us recover from infections are often necessary - our health depends on it. I think in general, we are over-drugged as a society at this point in time, but I do see that many of these drugs are needed for people, and it is good to have insurance to help defray these costs that can be so high out-of-pocket.

But... is normal fertility an illness? Is being able to conceive a baby a medical problem? Quite the opposite... it is natural and normal for women of certain ages to be able to bear children. There are many women who cannot, and I feel for them. Then there are many women who have been blessed with normal fertility - yet they treat it as an illness, as an affliction which must be managed through medical means. It is ironic, in a troubling way, that there are women in the world who would give anything to be able to get pregnant, while there are others who at the same time have a deep disdain for their fertility. A woman's body was designed to be fertile and to bear children, yet it is seen as something that must be controlled medically to the point that there is a spot on the paperwork at my OB's office asking what method of birth control I use. It includes medications (the pill), barrier methods, and sterilization as the choices. It is just assumed that I want to "control" my fertility through some kind of outside means, often something medical such as a drug or a surgery.

Why do we want to fix what is not broken? The attitude about this is so prevalent that it just comes automatically to us unless we look elsewhere or happen to learn another point of view. Most people who use some form of birth control have no idea that there is another option (and it's not just to have dozens of children or to never have sex). I am eternally grateful to the Catholic faith for this, and to my husband for looking into this important Church teaching as he also looked into the Catholic faith - which strengthened my own faith and got me on the right path and out of the tendencies to overlook some of the Church's teachings. But without the Church - I do not even know what my attitude would be on birth control and the use of NFP. Thank God for these beautiful teachings the Church has on human sexuality!

So, if female fertility is not a disease, then why is a drug which alters it covered by health insurance? In fact, these drugs take something that is functioning well, that is a healthy aspect of the female body, and they alter it so that it is different! Health insurance is providing coverage for something that can actually take a healthy body and make it less healthy - there are side effects to birth control, some of which include blood clots, future infertility, and even an increased risk of certain types of cancers! Did you know that the World Health Organization's cancer research agency labeled estrogen-progestin oral contraceptives as a group 1 carcinogen in 2005? That means there is sufficient documented evidence of carcinogenicity in human beings! So, insurance companies are paying for a drug that is given to healthy individuals for non-health reasons, and it might actually endanger their health!

A pause here for me to say that I know some women take birth control pills for health reasons to regulate their cycles and other such reasons. The Church actually teaches that if this is determined to be the best way to help somebody who has an actual problem or medical abnormality, then that is morally permissible so long as it is the main reason for taking the pill rather than preventing pregnancies. As a side note, I believe that there are still many side effects of the pill that are undesirable and would prefer to seek other treatments than the pill. I have read too many bad things about it and would rather not take the risks associated with long-term use of the pill if I could find other treatment options.

I cannot think of very many other things that are covered by insurance despite being non-medical... some might say, "What about well-baby checkups?" I agree that maybe these are not so essential - at least, not as many as are scheduled typically - but these are also meant to be preventative. By checking the baby's growth and development, doctors can use these visits to help prevent medical problems such as failure-to-thrive (when baby is not gaining weight) or to catch developmental problems early on. What does birth control prevent? Not an illness or a developmental problem, but pregnancy. So it does not fall under the category of preventative medicine either, unless one considers a pregnancy to be an illness. Even more so in the culture of death, many view babies (especially "unplanned" ones) as a disease, sadly. In truth, they are all gifts from God, desired, planned, or otherwise!

Think of the money saved if insurance companies didn't cover this cost! And if many people chose to not pay out-of-pocket for contraceptives, then think of the increase in women's health overall. Some would say it would not be fair for insurance companies to suddenly drop their coverage of birth control... true, it would be a tough pill for many to swallow if this happened (pun intended - my husband will be so proud! ;), but perhaps the insurance companies would offer coverage of a course on NFP in order to make the transition smoother. NFP can be used as a diagnostic tool for a woman to understand her fertility and pinpoint problems, because she becomes very aware of her body and how her reproductive system works.

I know this is probably a very unpopular idea with the majority of America's population... especially since there are many who believe that elective abortions should be covered by insurance, particulalrly by government "universal health care." So, I realize that not covering birth control would be even less popular... and we'd hear all the old arguments about how lack of access to birth control would lead to more abortions, when in fact history showed that the opposite was true: increase in access to birth control led to more unintended pregnancies and subsequent abortions, because people began to feel "safe," and they continued to separate the unitive and procreative purposes of sex... that is, as a culture, we have put an ever-widening gap between sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction, and the idea of having the pleasure whenever desired without the natural outcome (pregnancy) is on many people's radars as being a positive thing. In actuality, it cheapens sex and increases the chances of people objectifying each other, since they are only viewing sex as being for their pleasure.

So... why do we use NFP? Yes, it is because the Church teaches us to, but this is not done blindly... rather, it is with an understanding of the beauty of the teaching. There is a reason for every teaching in Catholicism, and I love that!

First, I don't like to put chemicals in my body on a regular basis. I don't like the idea of taking a drug when I am not sick. I don't like the potential risks associated with the pill, which is actually what caused me to stop using it about a year after we got married. I was having some pain in my legs, which is something the birth control product insert cautions about, because of the potential for blood clots in the legs. When all my OB/GYN did was switch me to a different kind of pill, we were concerned. Since Chris was also looking into Catholicism at the time, he began to look into NFP as well, knowing it was something of which the Church approved. So the initial reason for learning about NFP was selfish - I wanted to be free from concerns that the pill could be affecting my health.

Another reason we like NFP is because it is cheap. Once you pay for the initial course fees and the thermometer, there are no further costs associated with the method, except maybe replacement batteries every once in awhile, or a new thermometer of you lose or break the first one. And the thermometers are less than $10.

The most important reason for not using artificial birth control is because of the teaching of the Catholic Church and how much sense it makes! Reading about this teaching makes it clear that this is God's plan for our lives - to embrace our fertility as a gift rather than to reject it as a burden and only embrace it a few times in order to have a couple kids, while continuing to enjoy the pleasurable part of it frequently.

Many people think, at first, that NFP is just "Catholic birth control." They think that, since use of NFP to avoid a pregnancy involves the couple choosing to not get pregnant, that it is just the same as a couple choosing to use the pill in order to not get pregnant. But the catch is this: the couple using the pill can still have sex throughout the woman's cycle, whereas the couple using NFP must abstain from sex when the woman's fertility signs are present. God made our bodies with built-in fertile times and built-in infertile times each cycle, meaning that there are times in the cycle when it is impossible to get pregnant. Working with the natural rhythms of our body - while giving up something (sex) during the fertile time rather than taking active steps to "disable" our fertility at these times - is what makes NFP morally permissible and other methods of birth control not permissible.

An analogy: binging and purging. Somebody who does this eats a bunch of unhealthy foods (or even just regular foods) because he or she wants the pleasure of the taste. But, they do not want the added weight and other unhealthy side effects associated with eating so much. So people who do this reject that consequence by causing themselves to throw up. They get the pleasure of eating but don't experience the negative side effects... and for somebody who is trying to avoid pregnancy, getting pregnant would be considered to be a "negative" side effect. God made our bodies to gain weight when we overeat just as He designed our bodies to get pregnant at certain times if we have sex. In using NFP, a couple is cooperating with God's design.

That being said, NFP can be abused, although it is more difficult to do so because of the sacrifice of periodic monthly abstinence. Some people think that the Church mandates that Catholics all have as many children as possible. In truth, the Church teaches that we be open to life and use NFP to space out pregnancies when we have a serious reason to do so. The Church does not define "serious reason" because of the differences between each couple. What is serious to one couple may not be perceived as very serious at all by another couple. So it is not up to us to judge how many children others should have - it is just up to us to pray about our own situation, to discern each month whether God is calling us to the potential of welcoming a new life, and to always be open to the potential for future children: to "never say never." It is quite common to hear people say (especially in this age of TMI!) with regard to having more children, "Oh, we're done!" And this is not because they have reached the end of their fertile years, but because they have decided that that door is shut and will not be opened again. People's circumstances can change, and a couple who thought that they may have to avoid pregnancy for the rest of their fertile years may have something change which makes it possible for them to once again be open to a pregnancy. When couples remain open to the possibility for the future, then often they are more generous with acceptance of children than they would have been if they had a pre-determined desired number of children. This is why many NFP families do have a "large" number of children - not because NFP failed to work, but because it did work, and it worked to open their hearts just a little bit more.

It is my hope that more and more people will understand the beauty of this teaching and apply it in their lives, for better health and a more natural lifestyle, while working with God's design for their fertility. It is still a relatively unknown thing, NFP... when the choices on the OB/GYN paperwork don't include NFP, when doctors scoff at it as being reliable at spacing pregnancies, then of course most young women in their childbearing years do not know about it! And that's a shame for them... knowing that this is a viable option is really what gives a woman freedom - the freedom to choose how to deal with her fertility.

Another thing that has come up regarding oral contraceptives recently is that some of our lakes and rivers have an high level of these chemicals in them. To put it bluntly, when a woman taking the pill urinates, the chemicals pass out of her body and then get into the waterways. There have actually been fish found with sexual mutations as a result of being in water with a high concentration of these hormones. It seems like this would be something that would set off alarms in the environmental activist community, but they have been quite silent on the matter. I am not surprised, though: the liberal environmentalist activist community sees humans as a problem, so they believe any method to limit more people - including birth control and often times abortion - is a good thing. When the methods to limit the human population are actually causing other environmental concerns, yet the environmentalists look the other way... there must be some other agenda there. And the agenda is this: often the environmentalist movement is closely tied with the more radical feminism movement, which touts birth control as "freedom" for women and equates control of fertility with this freedom, as a "right" that women have. The truth is, to really be "free," one has to know her own body. Using NFP gives women this freedom to know how their bodies are working.

Really, we are never "in control." We just aren't. God is. We don't like to admit that we aren't in total control. We don't like to think that we cannot choose the details of our life to happen exactly as we wish. Our culture tells us we can have it all and do whatever we want. But reality shows us that we really cannot control everything. We have to trust, to take leaps of faith, to trust in God even when we cannot comprehend why something is happening in a certain way. God's ways are not ours, and God is in control. He knows what He is doing, even when we don't.


Kris said...

Erin -- SO BEAUTIFUL!!! This is a subject I am also very passionate about and will speak to anyone who is willing to listen about NFP. We also contracepted in the beginning of our marriage, because neither of us really understood the teachings of the Church, and how beautiful they really are. We stopped for the same reasons - health and not feeling right about taking the pill. I feel blessed every day that God led us in that direction, ever so gently, when we were ready to hear the message. You really did a great job of covering both the practical and spiritual reasons for NFP. I would like to add that it really brings a couple so much closer, because you have to have that conversation virtually every day - what do we want today for our family? Where is God calling us today? During periods of abstention, we are practicing marital chastity, a concept which is largely foreign to most couples. I would also like to note that there are a number of methods for NFP out there now, not just sympto-thermal, which uses the thermometer. There is the Creighton method, which uses fertility observation (I won't go into detail in case someone is squeamish!), and also the newest method - Marquette - which uses the Clear Blue Easy ovulation predictor monitor. For those people who are more "science" based, you can't get any more scientific than this!! I have used it for 5 years, and was one of the first people in Atlanta to do so. It is very successful both for those called to avoid at this time, and also in helping women who are stuggling to get pregnant. I know this is long, but it's so important to get this message out. Thank you!!!! Again, wonderful job detailing NFP!!

Anonymous said...

This blog was really great for me to read. I sometimes pray, "God please don't let me have any more kids" because I already have 5 in 5years. This inspired me to pray differently for God's wisdom in planning our family and to follow his will not ours. He has done well even though they are closer than I like, I wouldn't trade them for anything. We have never used anything but NFP even though most people assume we have used nothing at all. We also learned the Marquette method from Dr. Raviele 7 1/2 years ago when it was starting and used it sucessfully before we decided to have kids. We are adding a new saliva monitor also this time, will let you know if that helps. Now I have found it trickier with breastfeeding to use NFP but still worth the effort. Even though we have toyed with the idea of birth control we have always decided there is no better option than NFP. Even my non-catholic husband thinks so! The kippleys are the best resource for NFP with an awesome online book for FREE. It is really helping this time as I just now found this resource.