Why do many Catholic women – including Alaskans – use contraception? Area experts say couples aren’t hearing enough at church, from their doctors, or at home about Natural Family Planning (NFP), the natural and ethical way to regulate the birth of children.
Lana Persson of Anchorage said she has never heard a homily on NFP. There was no mention of it in her catechism class before she converted to Catholicism as an adult — or before she and husband Brad had their marriage blessed in the church. According to April and Pete Smith, who live in Interior Alaska, the lay leaders of their Catholic wedding preparation class didn’t mention NFP but wrongly told them vasectomies were okay.
“There are a lot of misconceptions out there,” Dr. Sarah Hennemann, 37, told the Catholic Anchor. She is a general medicine physician in Wasilla. Often those misconceptions come from family members who haven’t kept pace with reproductive science.
“I see this over and over again with young couples who are trying to practice NFP: their parents and in-laws and aunts and uncles make all the disparaging comments about NFP,” she said. The naysayers, she added, think today’s modern NFP is just the “old rhythm method” — the long-outdated and mostly ineffective method of avoiding pregnancy.
But many Catholic couples who used to contracept — like the Perssons and Smiths — are discovering the truth about NFP and the dark sides to contraception. Now they are eager to clear the air on what the church really teaches about marriage and childbearing.
“I wish I could just talk to every woman out there,” Persson said.
WHAT THE CHURCH TEACHES
Christianity has always recognized that the marital act has a two-fold purpose: to foster loving unity between spouses and to produce children. Citing the Old and New Testaments, the Catholic Catechism notes that “God himself said: ‘It is not good that man should be alone,’ and ‘from the beginning [he] made them male and female.” And in order to “associate them in a special way in his own creative work, God blessed man and woman with the words: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’”
The church teaches that marriage is designed for total self-giving with spouses meant to embrace each other wholly — including the other’s power to become father or mother.
Each time a couple rejects the life-creating nature of sexual intercourse by using contraception, that falsifies “the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality,” explained now Saint Pope John Paul II in his 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio.
“Logically, if you are not giving yourself entirely to your relationship with your spouse, then it makes marriage very difficult,” observed Judy McCarthy, a registered nurse in Anchorage who teaches Natural Family Planning. “Each party has to give totally to this relationship to make it work,” she said. “When you’re using contraception, it’s still kind of in the back of your mind, like ‘I’m reserving my fertility; there’s this little bit that I’m not giving up to my spouse.’” Nor is the other spouse embracing all, she added.
FERTILITY AT ALL COSTS?
But it is not “as if the church supported an ideology of fertility at all costs, urging married couples to procreate indiscriminately and without thought for the future,” Pope John Paul II observed during an address in 1994.
The Catechism notes that for “just reasons,” spouses may wish to space the births of their children. The couple must ensure their desire is “not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood,” and their actions must respect God’s design for human sexuality.
McCarthy noted that some couples might choose to postpone pregnancy when they’ve unexpectedly lost a job or are confronted with a serious illness.
Natural Family Planning methods are morally sound approaches to achieve and avoid pregnancies. These methods are based on a woman’s observations of naturally occurring phases of fertility and infertility. Couples seeking to avoid pregnancy abstain from intercourse during fertile periods — typically a few days each month.
“When you practice NFP and see all the signs that our female body gives us, it is truly amazing,” explained Lana Persson, who has used NFP for the last 10 years. “You’re watching this process, you know when you start ovulating, and you know when you’re done ovulating.”
There are a number of modern NFP systems, including the Billings Ovulation Method, the Creighton Model FertilityCare System, the Marquette Model and the Sympto-Thermal Method – and there are several trained instructors in Alaska.
According to these women, NFP is highly effective in avoiding pregnancy. When followed properly, the Creighton and Billings methods are 99.5 percent effective and the Marquette method is 98 percent effective. McCarthy explained that the “old rhythm method” was ineffective for most because it was based on “historical data [observations from a woman’s past cycles] and not what your fertility is today,” as is the case with modern NFP.
But couples seeking to achieve pregnancy can also benefit from using NFP.
Dr. Hennemann of Wasilla has helped a number of sub-fertile couples become parents through NFP.
“A lot of times those moms will come back to me when they’re pregnant and I get to follow their pregnancy and deliver their baby,” Hennemann said.
NFP does not require any drugs, devices or surgical procedures. It is low cost and all natural.
“The main reason why I teach it is because it’s good for your health,” said McCarthy, who has taught NFP for the last 11 years. She and fellow nurse Rachael Fogal lead a class every month at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.
“Oral contraceptive pills and other hormonal contraceptives have been proven to cause cancer,” she said, “and they also cause other problems, such as weight gain and blood clots.”
And because hormonal contraception unnaturally changes hormone levels, it negatively changes a woman’s libido, McCarthy added.
Hennemann teaches the Marquette Method. Half of her NFP clients are non-Catholics “just looking for a more natural way to either achieve or avoid pregnancy,” she said.
At a nearby naturopath’s office, April Smith, who uses NFP, has advertised Hennemann’s class with “good response.”
“If you have no other reason to try NFP, it’s just natural. Everyone’s on Paleo, everyone’s on grass-fed beef…. You buy organic vegetables, but you have a chemical IUD?”
In fact, in recent years, there has been growing concern about the dangers of contraceptives to human health and the environment. The latest came in January, when researchers reported that the decades-long decline in human sperm counts is due in part to exposure to a hormone used in the contraceptive pill — which passes through sewage and into the environment and drinking water.
Hormonal birth control, including the Pill, Depo-Provera, Norplant, the so-called Morning-after Pill and others — have the potential to disturb or disintegrate the lining of the uterus and so if ovulation occurs, can cause an abortion of a developing, embryonic baby — a serious moral problem, as the Catechism observes, since the direct destruction of an unborn baby, “willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.”
Spreading the word about NFP in a secular culture that doesn’t esteem human sexuality as the Catholic Church does is an uphill challenge, local experts agreed.
“NFP was counter-cultural 35 years ago and still is,” observed Pam Albrecht, who has taught NFP in the Archdiocese of Anchorage for 30 years.
Couples intending to marry in the Anchorage Archdiocese are expected to attend NFP classes in person or online. But Albrecht believes one of the first places people need to hear the message is at church.
“The clergy really do need to promote NFP to encourage parishioners,” she said. More everyday education is needed at the parish level, she noted, like posters and bulletin notices highlighting NFP classes and couples’ testimonies.
In the medical community there is little awareness, according to nurse Judy McCarthy.
“Physicians don’t really know it…so they’re not promoting it,” she said.
Both McCarthy, who graduated from University of Alaska, Anchorage’s nursing program in 2002, and Hennemann said there was little time in their medical educations focused on natural methods of avoiding or achieving pregnancy. They both received additional, specialized training in NFP after graduating.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the lack of a “self-giving” culture, Hennemann observed. “Ours is one of immediate gratification, and it’s really hard for someone who’s been raised in that culture that hasn’t seen NFP before to understand that children are a gift and not a burden, and that fertility is a blessing and not a curse.”
“And it’s not their fault…this is something that six or seven-year-olds will say,” she said.
By the time they’re 25 and considering marriage, discussions are difficult because they have a vastly different perception of reality, she observed.
But it is possible to communicate the truth about human sexuality, Hennemann added. In fact a 2011 national survey conducted by the polling company inc./WomanTrend showed that while many Catholics don’t understand the church’s teachings on contraception and NFP, they are open to learning. Hennemann believes Catholics need to teach the truth in a “gentle, loving manner that people don’t feel like they’re immediately being condemned to hell because of what they’ve done in the past or something that’s happening to them now.”
FROM CONTRACEPTION TO THE NATURAL PLAN
To be sure, many couples fall into contracepting and stay there because few bother to question it.
Lana Persson started taking the Pill as a young teen. When she and her husband Brad married, they contracepted because “that’s just kind of what I knew.” Only years later did the topic of children arise. When using contraception, she said, “You just don’t talk.”
But with NFP, Hennemann noted, every month there’s an occasion for a deep conversation about what each spouse hopes for in terms of family, what possible reasons there might be to delay pregnancy and how to resolve those issues. She believes it’s a chance for the marital relationship to grow deeper.
“I think that’s a situation that a lot of contracepting couples don’t get to have, or if they do they’re infrequent,” she said.
Those NFP-inspired conversations have turned April and Pete Smith’s marriage around.
“Every month we have to talk about, are we going to have a baby, are we not going to have a baby, what are our reasons, what are we feeling, what are we doing?” April Smith explained. “Understanding the reasons why my husband wanted another baby, it was like, ‘Who are you? I’ve never met you before. I never knew you had these thoughts or desires or feelings.’”
While NFP is highly effective in postponing pregnancy, Persson and Smith believe it can also make hearts more generous about having children.
“First off you realize how precious kids are. And you realize it was God’s plan for you to have children, as long as you are able to care for them. And that you shouldn’t be shutting him out,” Persson explained.
“Our contraceptive culture is telling that message, ‘Hey, just wait, just wait, just wait. Put it off ‘til later,’” she observed. “That’s not what God planned.”
Persson understands that message can be unnerving to some. Her response: “Every month, you do have a choice,” but “you shouldn’t be afraid of having children. … I look back and have the regret, I think wow, we have 27 years of marriage, and all those years that we missed an opportunity to invite life into our marriage, and we totally ignored it. I think our family would be different today had we not closed our hearts and stuck with secular society.”
April Smith said that NFP has changed the way she thinks about family, too; it helps one “to decide to love,” she said. “You think, ‘Well, I only want three kids, I need to avoid having another baby. But then you get closer to God and closer to your husband, and you want to love.”
Smith says stopping the Pill and turning to NFP was the best decision she has ever made – for her health, her marriage and her relationship with God. “It was the best, most freeing, most healthy thing I’ve ever done.”