Thursday, May 2, 2013

Why I Don't Like Modern NFP Advertising

I recently read the book Natural Family Planning: Trojan Horse in the Catholic Bedroom? and it truly resonated with me.  This book clearly stated so much of what I have come to believe about NFP. And, yes, I believe everyone who supports and promotes NFP as the cure all for everything that ails the Catholic marriage should read this book.  (Yes, it has been pointed out that there are theological flaws in the above book. I don't disagree. I simply believe it presents a different side of things than is often discussed or even acknowledged in NFP circles. I hope that makes sense. No, never take all your information from a single source. Always do further research and reading and questioning because when you stop doing that, you stop growing in your own faith and life.)

Yet another magazine arrived on our doorstep this week proclaiming the wonders of NFP.  And I found myself being led to read a few more blog post proclaiming the NFP is wonderful, amazing, awesome and I found myself once again wanting to scream.  Alan and I recently attended a talk on NaPro technology and I heard the NaPro practitioners once again spouting off the party lines of all the wonderful things NFP will add to your marriage and I was annoyed.  Yes, I've spouted those same lines before but now, after 13 years of fielding phone calls from couples in the trenches, I no longer agree with the way we've been taught to promote Natural Family Planning.

First of all, let me state that I do believe that if at any time a couple feels they have a need to space the births of their children, the only licit way to do so is with NFP.  No, I do not believe it is ever ok for a couple to rely on artificial birth control or sterilization to space their children.  To do so is a sin plain and simple and I will not change my stance on this ever.  The teachings of the Catholic Church do not change on this one and neither do my beliefs.  I don't even believe that every couple should be required to take an NFP class as part of their marriage preparation. To do so assumes that every couple will have a reason to use NFP in their marriage. Such an assumption truly shows a lack of understanding about what the Church teaches regarding the use of NFP and child spacing. No couple is ever required to use NFP. They are just required to never use artificial birth control. There is a difference.

However, I do find many issues with the package we are selling newly married couples.  We are encouraged to say that NFP provides insurance against divorce.  That 2% of couples using NFP get divorced compared with 50% of the folks who do not. I've seen the basic studies such numbers are based on and to call them flawed and biased would be the nicest thing possible to say.  First you start with a small sample of folks who have chosen to use NFP for religious reasons.  Folks who are likely to have said to be religiously committed to things such as lifelong marriage as well. Then you take an even smaller sample of these folks and track them for a short amount of time.  Surprise, surprise. You find a small sample of folks deeply committed to marriage as a forever institution are still married a few years later.  Marriage insurance my arse.  If I may use a popular phrase from my old logic class  correlation does not imply causation.

Another common thing told about NFP is that it leads couple to greater communication because "if you can talk about this, you can talk about anything." May I admit that I have even gone so far as to tell Alan to please stop saying that because in most couples I have spoken to, there is not much real communication going on about the ins and outs of NFP anyway.  The conversations instead revolve around "what does the chart look like" and "when are we going to be out of phase 2" and typically only one person in the couple is responsible for all the work involved.  Let's be honest, NFP involves a woman's body.  She must make all the observations and interpretations.  If you use a sympto-thermal method, it is often encouraged to have the husband write down all the temperatures every day but in our experience, even that step rarely happens. At one point in our marriage when we felt we needed to space our kids, Alan was leaving for work around 5:30 every morning. I promise you that if he woke me up at that point so I could take my temperature so he could write it down, there would have been trouble.  Big trouble.  After 13 years of using and teaching NFP, Alan will still often look at a chart and interpret it completely wrong.  I've learned this is rather common amoung guys so I'm thinking in most cases that the it leads to greater communication thing is completely false in most couples as well.

I've often heard that a man who chooses to use NFP is sexy. May I laugh? You want your wife to see you as sexy then change a diaper, mop the floor, wash the dishes, make dinner, and put the kids to bed.  That is sexy. That is giving. That says you care about more than sex.  A man who uses NFP is an adult who places his wife's health above society's beliefs that sex should be always available.  A real mature man realizes that encouraging or asking his wife to pump artificial hormones into her body puts her at risk.  There is a reason the World Health Organization calls artificial birth control a class one carcinogen.  And sterilization leads to many long term health risks as well. Tubal ligation syndrom is a very real thing.  A real man would take a bullet for his wife so a real man would also not ask her to do something so dangerous with her health.  Just saying.

This is a rambling post that likely makes little sense at times.  Bottom line is I believe we are selling a lie.  We need to be realistic and honest with people.  We need to say that yes, it will be hard at times to go against everything you have been taught for years. Everything society tells you about sex. Yes, abstaining when necessary might be a challenge.  But it's not impossible.  I won't insult you by saying it's always an easy choice and others have it harder.  But I will say I understand that at times it will be a challenge.  It will be hard to stand against doctors who have been trained to say that NFP is a farce and doesn't work. It will be hard to stand against your family when they lecture you about your choices. When they show a lack of respect for you and your spouse and try to undermine your commitment as a couple and tell you how irresponsible your choices and beliefs are.

I guess I'm wishing the NFP powers that be would be a bit more realistic and honest with folks.  And I apologize to anyone I helped sell that lie to in the past.  NFP is a gift and a blessing and the only legitimate way of spacing your children. But it is also a challenge and at times a cross to bear.  I won't lie to you and say it's easy and a cure for all that ails the modern marriage. But I will say that I will be here to answer the phone the next time you call with a question or complaint or just need someone to remind you that it is the right choice to make.


waywardson said...

I would be careful about Dr. Jay Boyd's work. She seems to have a view of the marital embrace that is not consistent with Catholic teaching and has been specifically rejected by the Church as heretical.

That being said, I do agree there is a problem with NFP promotion. The science is being mixed with the theology to the detriment of both.

Cheryl said...

I don't think she has gotten everything right. But I do think we need to be careful in pushing the idea that every single couple is required to use NFP and if they aren't, that they are doing something wrong. Yes, many folks will have a need for it either for a short time or for a longer period during their marriage. But on the same end, many folks will never have a need to rely on NFP and should not be made to feel badly for opting not to use it ever. I guess I have just a few too many NFP promoters saying that if your children are spaced any less than their ideal number of years apart then you must be doing something wrong and if you have more than what they view as an acceptable number of children than clearly you have failed to use NFP responsibly. Both attitudes are pretty rude, wrong, and simply should not be supported because God calls each individual family to a unique situation.

Kevin Tierney said...

As the writer of the article wayward links, yah, this kind of discussion should occur without references to Dr. Boyd's work. :)

I guess here's the question, from someone who has just had to undergo a lot of these classes/teaching and posing to you (Cheryl) who has taught this stuff:

How do we sell a more realistic view of NFP, that takes in the needs of perfectly orthodox couples who may or may not need to employ NFP, and couples who the option is either NFP or contraception (something the Church has always told confessors to offer to whenever they confessed the sin of onanism), especially when most NFP/marriage classes will have both in them? I ask that because I really don't know if such can be done except on the individual level.

Cheryl said...

I think, Kevin, that is a very hard to answer question. I honestly tend to approach the discussion differently with each audience. In marriage prep classes, you do sometimes run into those who are blessed to already know the religious teachings and already accept them. They are becoming more and more common. There is no need to attempt to sell NFP to this group of folks. Those are the folks you just want to give a flyer to or a little information so that when they are ready to learn NFP, they can get in touch with you for resources.

Most of the folks in the marriage prep classes have unfortunately never had anyone take the time to teach them what they should have learned with regards to contraception. If they've heard anything, it's been jokes and mocking and such things. These people need to be approached where they are in life right now. With charity and understanding. And mostly I've found they are best served when you leave the religious reasons for NFP at the door. Don't approach it with that angle at all. Sure, give them a brief overview. But you want to suck them in and get them interested in what you have to say. You can't sell NFP as a wonderful marriage building thing to them because no one getting married ever truly believes at that instant that they will need marriage building. I mean, they are getting married because their relationship is awesome as it is and they just are so perfect for each other and in love and ga-ga for each other. Mostly. Personally, I choose to approach these people from a health stand point. In general folks now seem to be more open to learning about ways to live a more healthy natural minded lifestyle. So I prefer to focus on the health risks associated with contraception and the benefits that can come from NFP usage. We talk about the ability to achieve a pregnancy if you are struggling with infertility using the information NFP provides. I emphasize that NFP does not harm the environment or alter your body in anyway. This at least opens the discussion on a level more people are comfortable with.

We are also very open about saying that God does not call every couple to raise a large family. That we are raising a large family because we feel called to do so. That many people will instead be called to raising a smaller family and that decision can only be made by the couple. I think that is a big thing folks who are not comfortable with NFP need to hear. That no one expects them to have a large family just out of hand.

In marriage classes I honestly just try to focus on giving people information and praying that when they are ready to use the information, they now know where to go. But we often only are given less than 30 minutes to talk to the classes so you have to choose your words carefully. If we had more time or ideally, had the opportunity to talk to folks on more than one occasion, I would do things differently. And in our classes we do discuss things from many different view points. In a marriage prep class, however, my goal is now just to open up minds and hearts in the hope that the couple will then be more inclined to do a bit more research themselves and seek us out when they are ready to begin exploring NFP in their own lives. Being pushy and assuming that everyone should simply accept something just because never works. So I just hope to meet people where they are and in the end let them know that we are praying for their upcoming marriage and that they are welcome to contact us when they want more information.

I feel like I'm not really answering the question though. Bottom line is just that it is hard to get these questions right I guess.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. The hard sell about NFP completely drives me crazy. We've never used it to avoid conception since we've had fertility struggles but have used the same methods to try to achieve pregnancy (one birth) and I can't imagine why anyone would think that it is "sexy" or helps a marriage. I think it took a couple of years for our marriage to be healed from all of the charting, etc. There's something about the process that is so unnatural (even though, of course, it is natural).

When I started trying to learn the methods to help us get pregnant, I felt like I'd finally figured it out. That *it* (conception) was something that could be figured out and controlled through this "natural" means. It turned out it wasn't so simple for us. Based on our experience, I'm sure there are fertile couples for whom it doesn't work so well either. I know this sounds like a cliche but the human body is more complicated than neat little charts.

I think there's also kind of a 'blame the victim' mentality in the orthodox Catholic world about NFP failures. It's almost like no one wants to admit the problems with it because that lends credence to the other side. So if it didn't work for you, it's because you didn't do it right. Or you weren't educated, or whatever.

Like I wrote above, we have secondary infertility. Infertility comes up for discussion sometimes in the Catholic blogosphere and invariably someone will start writing about how great NaPro Technology is and how its success rates as the same as IVF. It's almost as if people can't acknowledge that the licit form of fertility treatments might not work as well as the illicit forms, i.e. God hates IVF so surely His approved form will work just as well. (and of course if it doesn't it's probably your fault because you did it wrong - see the same circular thing here?) The hard fact is that despite the cheerleader rhetoric, NaPro Technology does not work as well as IVF for certain kinds of infertility.

I think the same mentality is at work for NFP used to avoid pregnancy. I see the claims often about it working just as well as artificial birth control. I think that's extremely misleading.

It's almost like the belief is that if people (really women here) really understood it, they would make the wrong choice so we have to cover up the truth.

Now I have a little bone to pick here. It's not quite completely accurate to say that the WHO says artificial birth control is a "class 1 carcinogen." I think this kind of rhetoric is consistent with the hard sell that I object to. In fact, it's only the combined pills (estrogen and progestogen) that are believed to be carcinogenic. And there are plenty of other things on the same list that we are exposed to daily.

Cheryl said...

How about we can agree that the magical birth control pills and other assorted hormones are simply not as safe as we have been led to believe for so many years? They do come with real risks which are more often than not glossed over by the very doctors prescribing them and then frequently discounted when a patient comes back to complain about side effects. Honestly, if someone truly insists on using ABC of some sort, I truly hope they would all stick with barrier methods just to avoid the assorted heath risks. Yes, they come with a higher user failure rate but much fewer health risks. My heart breaks when I hear of the women who have been harmed through the use of artificial birth control when such things could have easily been prevented.

Ashley M. said...

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And Amen.

Anonymous said...

I agree that hormonal birth control has significant risks but it's misleading to discuss only the risks associated with using hormonal birth control without mentioning the risks associated with what it is intended to prevent (namely pregnancy and childbirth).

Zenobia said...

Love the honesty.

I'm in my 40s now and have lived around orthodox Catholics all my life. The vast majority of the marriages I know of survive despite NFP, not because of it.

That's just the plain truth of my experience.

In the interest of full disclosure: we worked very hard at NFP for over a decade---tried several different methods, worked closely with NFP/Napro instructors, etc, and still failed miserably at it. My body simply is not easy to read--very confusing signs, even to the most experienced NFP instructors. It made me feel like some sort of freak of nature.

10 pregnancies in a decade wrecked my health to the point of diagnosis with a very serious disease which resulted in my being so sick I literally wanted to die.

My husband decided on a vasectomy. I never would have asked him to do such a thing--NEVER. But he decided to take a risk to his health rather than watch mine continue to decline. I considered it a huge sacrifice he made ofr me at the time (a decade ago now) and still do.

The other lie being told is that if you resort to something like this (and let me be clear--I do believe sterilization is objectively wrong; we are just not saints and hope and pray that God will be merciful that we were not able to live up to the ideal), your marriage will be destroyed and you will simply view each other as sex objects.

That is nonsense, and the NFP promoters do the NFP movement injustice when they say such things. Do I think contraception makes it easier for people who already have a tendency to use each other to do so even more? Yes, I do. But let's be clear: contracepting is not some sort of guarantee you will turn into sex perverts just getting off on each other.

We are best friends, lovers, and parents of a large family just trying to survive and do the best we can for our family, just like most of the rest of humanity. We are sinners and fall short of the ideal, just like the rest of humanity. Our marriage was strong before NFP (we used nothing at all in the way of birth control when we first married), during NFP, and after NFP/sterilization.

When the NFP promoters predict misery and a lifetime of sexual perversion for those who just can't take the burden of NFP in their lives any longer, they do a real disservice to the NFP movement.

I really love the idea of NFP, still, even after all we went through. It's certainly far superior to filling your body with hormones (something I really can't imagine doing, to be honest) or using barrier methods (what a hassle that must be). But the reality of it for us was that it did not serve to bring us closer, communicate better (we already communicated extremely well--he's my best friend, after all--prior to NFP and still do after NFP), or respect each other more (we already had a massive amount of respect for each other and that continues to grow with each passing year).

The marriages of those we know who practice NFP are not marriages we envy. But then again, there are very few marriages we see that we would want for ourselves--and maybe that is the bigger truth: most people just don't do marriage that well, NFP or not.

Please keep being honest. In our early years of marriage, I was dishonest about NFP because I wanted to believe the hype about it so badly. At this point in mylife, I feel the only hope for more widespread acceptance of NFP as a viable lifestyle for some people is to be totally honest about what it can really mean for at least some of the couples who use it.

I've come to realize this truth: you can't do an end-run around Mother Nature without paying a price for it, one way or another. Every form of contraception has a potential price, but so does NFP.