Younger people, fearful of adding chemicals to their bodies, are re-discovering natural family planning, writes Susan Gately
Patricia and James – not their real names – made love for the first time on their wedding night in 2009. They were both in their late 20s. The couple met through work in Dublin, fell in love and decided to marry. As soon as that decision was taken, Patricia sought help on family planning and began to track her ‘bio signs’ so that when she and James married they could plan their family effectively.
“We were against putting chemicals into her body,” says James. At that point he admits, he didn’t understand much about female fertility and that there was a ‘window frame’ during which a woman was fertile and could get pregnant. So together they began to track Patricia’s monthly cycle using the Creighton Model Fertility Care system which teaches couples to “recognise, understand, and record the changes that occur during the fertility [menstrual] cycle”. These biomarkers show if a woman’s reproductive system is working and they also identify ovulation and other key events.
It is not rocket science.
At first, Patricia was worried about Natural Family Planning (NFP) thinking it would be a hard process and she’d spend all her time taking her temperature and so on: I’m working and I’ve a busy life, I don’t have a lot of time.
The method they chose involved observing her own body markers, notably her mucus before and after using the toilet and writing it down on a chart. “It becomes a habit, like going to the toilet itself,” she says.
A general criticism of NFP is that women have to abstain when their mucus is most clear and plentiful (around ovulation) and that is the precise time when their bodies are designed for lovemaking and creating new life. A woman may be a cold fish for the rest of the month but come ovulation time she will be hungry to have a sexual relationship with her husband. How do you square that circle?
“Yes, I’ve had feelings of frustration sometimes,” Patricia admits, “but we got through that time and distracted [ourselves] with something else.” Surprisingly, she says, that in their eight years of marriage it has happened “very few times, to be honest”.
“It doesn’t put stress because you really have respect for each other. There are other things you can do around intercourse.” Like what? I ask. “Even just being close to one another, you might just lie next to each other watching a movie. There is just that closeness and you realise that if you are going to make love at that time you are open to the opportunity for creating life.”
People don’t like to make sacrifices in this day and age, says James, but he and Patricia find that making small sacrifices pays off at that other end, and it is very special. “When you did make love two or three days later, it was a very special moment. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder!”
Patricia points out that periods of abstinence are not long with NFP. “You are usually talking about four or five days [of abstinence]. People think it’s the end of the world – it is not!”
Unlike other forms of contraception, where for example, a woman can take the decision to block conception without involving or informing her husband, NFP is completely built on the relationship between the couple. “It gives you a lot of understanding, a lot of communication. It brings you closer,” says Patricia.
Religion is important for the couple and they are happy to live according to the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood. “We are not using any barrier method and I’m open [to what God wants]. I feel in control and that it is our decision, because I’ll always let James know if I’m fertile or not. In any case he knows my cycle at this stage,” according to Patricia.
She also likes NFP because it is natural and cheap. “You’re not buying any products so financially it’s an advantage.”
But for Patricia by far the greatest advantage to NFP is the respect it gives you for your spouse. “It is hard to explain it until you live it. You’re a husband and wife and you are always there for each other, but there are certain times, say if you were avoiding a pregnancy, where you would have to make that decision, ‘will we or will we not?’ and that gives you a high respect for each other in close intimate ways.”
“It makes you be faithful to your wife and your wife be faithful to you,” says James, for the simple reason that you both have the same goal: to conceive or not to conceive. “It makes you more respectful towards other women too,” he adds.
Using NFP, the couple have had two pregnancies so far. Unfortunately the first ended in miscarriage after 11 weeks, but nine months later their little boy, now aged four, was born. Both pregnancies were planned.
They are now using NFP to try to achieve pregnancy using Restorative Reproductive Medicine (Neo).
Tara Segrave is a fertility practitioner with the Neofertility Clinic in Sandyford, Dublin. She explains that Neo technology uses NFP charting and bio markers to see if a woman’s body is working correctly. “You can see simply from her charts whether or not she is showing bio markers for low progesterone or a poor quality ovulation or whether her hormones are clearly showing problems.” Then a ‘properly timed’ blood test is taken to check everything. “The principles of Neo-technology are to try and find out what is not working properly and fix it. It is awfully simplistic but it works,” she says.
Tara has been a fertility practitioner since 2000 and in her own words, has “lost count” of the number of babies born to previously infertile couples. One couple had been trying to conceive for 17 years when they came to see her. “One day, I’d had a tough day and I opened my door and there she was, standing holding her little baby in her arms, and she said ‘thank you’ and I just burst into tears.”
Tara says that Natural Family Planning is a “growing movement” especially among younger people. “They are unhappy about polluting their bodies with chemicals.” She believes that it doesn’t make sense to this uber-fit, healthy generation of women who eat organic, think green, minimise their alcohol intake and try not to smoke to take chemical contraceptives.
While Tara has many clients who are trying to conceive, she also has many who want to use NFP to avoid pregnancy. This applies in particular to breast-feeding mothers. Quite a number have already tried artificial contraception before they approach the natural route. “They say ‘every single thing I’ve tried has made me feel awful’.” People who have used barriers complain about the mess and the reduction in spontaneity, she says, and women using chemical methods – like the pill – complain of hormonal upsets: dysfunctional bleeding, headaches, really bad premenstrual syndrome, spotty skin, weight gain and bloating. “It goes on and on and on.”
Perhaps the most ironic side-effect of a lot of chemical contraceptives, she says, is loss of libido “which just seems to defeat the purpose”. By contrast, when using NFP, James says candidly, the sensual side of their relationship is “more euphoric”. Lovemaking “is not a one-sided pleasure”, he says, but all about thinking of the other person.
When theologian Fr Vincent Twomey SVD spoke up recently on the radio about Humanae Vitae – Pope Paul VI’s letter on the responsible regulation of birth – and NFP several scornful texts from listeners were read out claiming that such views belonged to a different era. “That is because people are thinking of their granny’s ‘rhythm method’” Tata believes. But, modern NFP is nothing remotely like that. “Properly taught methods are 99% effective, right up there with the [artificial] contraceptives,” she says. But she stresses it has to be properly taught. “You can’t ‘wing it’ from a book or a web page.” And NFP also requires self-control – which may not be popular.
Tara says, “what we encourage couples to do is to look at other non-genital forms of expressing their affection for each other. To focus on all the things that brought them together in the first place and generally speaking most couples respond quite well to that and they find that they are spending time on fun activities resolving arguments creatively and instilling a bit of patience into their lives.”
One woman said to her recently: “And how is it after a bottle of wine?”
“I said: ‘my job is to teach you whether you are fertile today or not. What you do with that information is entirely up to you!” Tara say.
She has used NFP all her married life with three planned pregnancies and is convinced it is possible to live according to Humanae Vitae, even today. “Mother Teresa taught NFP to people in the slums…it is not complicated. You don’t need technological gadgets.”
She believes it is vital to understand that fertility is not a disease. “It is a healthy, functioning body process and we should be working with our bodies and not trying to damage them.”
James and Patricia also support and value the teaching of Humanae Vitae. But, James believes it is often misrepresented. “I don’t think a lot of people have read it [the document]. I’m not talking about theologians but people in general.” He has. “I remember when I read it thinking it was straightforward. It was viewed as stopping people having sex, but it wasn’t doing that,” he recalls.
Both James and Patricia believe it is important to be open to life and to be generous. “Life is very beautiful – I know the moment our son was born was a sacred moment. It is very important to be open to life and create life.”
People often associate NFP with larger families, though famously Pope Francis, who recommends it, said that to be good Catholics, people didn’t have to ‘breed like rabbits’. Surprising journalists during his press conference on the plane back from the Philippines in January 2015, he recommended three children per family as “the key number for sustaining the population”.
“The key word here is ‘responsible parenthood’” the Pope said – referencing a woman he met several months previously who was pregnant with her eighth child after going through seven Caesarean sections. “That is an irresponsibility. She might argue that she should trust in God,” he said. “But God gives you methods to be responsible.”
According to Tara, couples using NFP do tend to be more open to life and have bigger families. “If you are having a month-on-month conversation of ‘are we open to having another baby?’ or ‘is this the right time?’ – a lot of people will go ‘you know, yes, why not, we don’t have a serious reason not to conceive.’ So under those circumstances you do find families who have been generous and have loads of children. But equally you are going to find lots of NFP-users who have two or three children.”
St John Paul II insisted that responsible parenthood wasn’t about “unlimited procreation or lack of awareness of what is involved in rearing children” but rather about empowering couples to use their freedom wisely and responsibly, “taking into account social and demographic realities, as well as their own situation and legitimate desires”
Some Natural Family Planning Models
Billings Method (certified by Naomi): Using the observation of changes in mucus and charting this through a woman’s cycle and then applying certain rules depending on whether a couple wish to avoid or attain pregnancy. See www.naomi.ie.
Creighton Model fertility Care: A standardised version of observing a woman’s biomarkers, in particular mucus, using sensation, observation and finger test method and then charting this. See www.neofertility.ie.
Marquette Model (using ClearBlue Easy Fertility Monitor): This small hand-held device provides information to a woman based on a urine sample which analyses levels of oestrogen and the hormone that triggers ovulation, luteinising hormone (LH). The monitor tells a woman if it is a peak- or low-fertility day. Marquette has developed algorithms as to when fertility begins (for avoiding pregnancy). The monitor costs around €230 and test sticks are a further €50. Teaching of the method is done on line. See: www.marquettefertilityed.com
Name: Humanae Vitae – Of Human Life.
Issued: July 25, 1968 by Pope Paul VI.
Main points: The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. Increased global population, the new understanding of the role of women and the value of conjugal love in marriage have raised “new questions” which require the Church to reflect on its moral teaching on marriage.
Married love is total. Spouses give themselves to each other unconditionally. It is faithful, exclusive and fertile love. Responsible parenthood can welcome more children or hold off “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts” recognising their duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.
There is an inseparable connection between union and procreation. “An act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life…contradicts the will of the Author of life.”
Natural Family Planning is morally good as it works with “the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system” rather than frustrating them. Marital intercourse during infertile periods remains open to God’s design. NFP promotes self-discipline and chastity.
Artificial contraception “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”
“Like Christ, the Church is destined to be a sign of contradiction.” Even if this teaching is controversial the Church has duty to proclaim “humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.”