Friday 5 August 2011

NFP or Fertility Awareness? Time for a rethink?

I've always been uncomfortable with the "planning" aspect of so-called "Natural Family Planning". It struck me years ago that surely "planning" is the last thing that we as Catholics should be doing with our families -- either God gives us children, or He doesn't.  Planning jars with an attitude of unconditional openness to new life. We shouldn't schedule children in between jobs, or degrees, or at a convenient time. Of course there is the dispensation that NFP can licitly be used to delay the potential conception of a child for "grave reasons", and this is often stated in support of the NFP-as-Catholic-contraception point of view. But surely truly "grave reasons" are rare. I imagine that very few families encounter genuinely "grave" reasons to avoid another pregnancy. I don't reckon that "we can't afford another set of private school fees" (I'm not making that up) or even "we only have one/two/three bedrooms"  counts as a "grave reason". God provides. Often not in the ways that we imagine that we need provision, or in the ways that we would choose, but He provides what we need. Remember the birds of the air and the lilies of the field in Matthew 6.

Much is often made of a couple being "ready" for the responsibility of parenthood. This usually means that they're settled, both gainfully and securely employed, have reasonable financial resources (savings, pensions, etc.) to draw upon, have access to a strong support network of paid (nannies, cleaners) or unpaid (grandparents, neighbours) help. How unrealistic is that?  There's also the unarticulated sense that "ready" for parenthood means that you've had some "me time" (or "us time" for a couple) before complicating life with the pesky and messy reality of children. A sense that once you get your ducks lined up -- home, finances, support, have had all the "me time/ us time" needed -- then, and only then, will a couple be "ready" to have children.

I have news for anyone who believes this. Nobody is ever entirely ready to have children. Nobody. The "right time" to have a baby is the day your baby arrives, and you need to embrace it and accept that your life has changed forever: unimaginably, wonderfully.  Don't even get me started on the "having a baby needn't change your life" brigade. There's something seriously wrong if having a baby doesn't change your life. It's one of the few things that you'll ever do that is, literally, life changing. Embrace it. Move on. Thank God for the great gift that each new life is. But whatever happens, don't wait for the "right time" -- it will never arrive. The same goes for subsequent children. You'll never be ready, trust me, but you'll love them when they arrive and, with God's help, will cope with whatever comes your way.

So if the "right" time to have your baby is when your baby arrives, what's all the guff about being "ready"? Why the pressure to wait? I once  took the headmaster of a Catholic primary school to task about this at a meeting, asking how the advice he'd just given (to parents, as part of a demonstration of what the school was planning to teach in a sex-education course)  which was that it was important NOT to have a baby before having stable employment, savings, and preferably having bought a house (!)  could be squared with Catholic teaching. He backtracked and said that, in fact, he and his wife hadn't done any of this -- they married at university, lived on a shoestring with young children, and so forth -- but that he felt that it was the school's role to teach children about responsible parenting. Ahem.

My discomfort with the "planning" aspect of NFP was amplified several years ago when I met a young married Catholic couple on a pilgrimage. They had recently had their first child, and were interested in learning about NFP, largely because they had been told that they ought to. They had been directed to the local branch of the Family Planning Association who apparently had somebody who could teach them about NFP. The wife confided that she felt profoundly uncomfortable going into a building belonging to an organisation that provided abortion referrals, emergency "contraception", and so forth, but hadn't been able to find anywhere else nearby. As it turned out, the venue was too off putting, and they only ever went once. I don't know if they ever managed to find another NFP instructor.

So let's get to the nitty gritty. What is "NFP" about? Is it an acceptable form of "pro-life" contraception, or is it not?  On its own, NFP is essentially a tool box of knowledge -- in and of itself it is morally neutral: it is how we choose to use this knowledge that makes it licit or illicit. I think the truth is that it is often implicitly "marketed" as "Catholic contraception", perhaps as an attempt to appeal to couples currently using artificial means of contraception in the hope that they'll change to a morally "better" method. I think that this conversion from artificial contraception to NFP-used-as-contraception it is often seen as the "least bad" scenario, the most "realistic" if you will. This is simply wrong.  The notion of "planning" denotes the same sort of "control" that artificial contraception promotes. Not ready for a baby:? Don't worry about it, just avoid your danger days and -- hey -- no pesky infants to worry about.

It may be semantics, but what we say often guides our actions and our thoughts. Even if we teach "Natural Family Planning" in the best conscience, the fact that we're calling it "family planning" makes it (to my mind at least) unsound from a Catholic perspective. We're on a slippery slope to thinking that we can control the show, or, if not control it, then at least stack the odds against having a baby / another baby. This is utterly at odds with being open to the gift of new life.

There are benefits to understanding the fertility that God has blessed us with, but that's why I prefer the term "fertility awareness" to NFP which has a ring of contraception-by-stealth about it. "Fertility awareness" is a more accurate and more acceptable label: one that is open to life. By calling the various observational practises under the NFP umbrella "fertility awareness" we're simply stating the fact that we're aware of our fertility, not that we're trying to control, sideline, or otherwise distort the natural order. We're not  using the contraceptive mentality of "control" and "planning". There are very good licit reasons for a woman to be aware of her fertility signs - increasing the chances of conception, being aware of changes that flag occult medical problems at an early stage (e.g. ovarian cancer, cysts, fibroids:  all things with very subtle symptoms that are better treated sooner rather than later); being aware of and therefore better able to manage the menopause, and so forth.. Being aware of her fertility signs also means that a woman can be aware of a return to fertility after a baby, or have a better understanding about why she and her husband are not conceiving (the length of various parts of the cycle can indicate particular problems; for example, a short luteal phase, which would make it difficult or impossible for a fertilised egg to implant, usually indicates subnormal levels of progesterone). Understanding these little things mean that couples can self-help, or at least understand the sort of help they need to seek.

Thinking about it from this perspective, should "fertility awareness" be a female only domain? That's the next instalment. Watch this space.

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