Did you know there is such a thing as National NFP Awareness Week, recently sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops? Neither did I, until the World Wide Web told me so. Fine, you say; so what could a single, Catholic, 40-something woman have to say about Natural Family Planning? Especially when you could instead be reading the work of a Catholic married woman and mother of nine (now ten!), who wrote a book on the subject?
But, really, is there anything a single, middle-aged, Catholic woman could possibly have to say on the subject of Natural Family Planning? Believe it or not, plenty.
Fertility awareness for the single Catholic woman
Single women do have a need to know about fertility awareness, even if they do not have plans to marry in their foreseeable future. For example, before I started keeping track of such things, there could be a rude shock once a month or so. And once I started keeping track, I also started getting interested in what was going on around mid-cycle. Then there are the medical checkups, at which a standard question is "On what day did you start your last period?" Instead of looking at the nurse blank-faced and stuttering, "Uh, dunno, maybe a couple of weeks ago?" I can pull out my smartphone and say, "There's an app for that."
My interest in NFP is not limited to preparing for a monthly visitor. At Catholic Answers, the apologists get lots of questions about NFP, and the women apologists get to answer the questions about "lady days." (Yes, the guys get all the questions specific to male sexuality.) So I've had to learn more than I may ever need to know personally about NFP.
The buzz about birth control
In the weeks since the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, there has been a surge of discussion about contraception and why women are prescribed drugs commonly used for contraception. One example was a widely circulated BuzzFeed article in which nearly two dozen female employees at BuzzFeed gave their reasons for using birth control. Initially, I chose not to comment on it on my Facebook page, but then two different responses to the article caught my attention for different reasons.
In the first case, I noticed a post in my newsfeed in which someone said, "I want to save this [article] to pass out to the old maids at the nursing home (whose non-kids non-visit them)." The misogyny in the thread spiraled down from there, with one male commenter referring to the women in the BuzzFeed piece as "slags" (presumably a portmanteau created from the words slut and hag).
Because, naturally, the way for good Christians to spread the love of Jesus to women who believe they need contraceptive drugs—or other forms of birth control—for one reason or another is to assume that these women deserve to be scorned in old age as lonely, bitter "slags" who got their just deserts from their life choices. As one of my Facebook friends pointed out, such comments did not account for the fact that not all of the women who shared their reasons for using these drugs said they did so because they wanted to avoid having children altogether. In more than one case, there were legitimate medical reasons for turning to these drugs, such as treating menstrual cramps and adult acne.
Which brings me to the second case. In response to BuzzFeed's post, the website Catholic Sistas decided to ask its contributors to share their reasons "why we don't use birth control." In the original version of the article, which has since been edited to reflect corrections received after publication, the author asserted:
As Catholics, we should know and understand that any form of contraception, even for "medical purposes," between a sexually active couple is never permitted.
At the end of the sentence there was a link to a Catholic Answers' tract on contraception.
My interest was snagged by the reference to Catholic Answers, and I skimmed through the tract that was linked to make certain. As I thought, there was no such statement made that "contraception, even for 'medical purposes'" is "never permitted." On Facebook, I responded:
I don't know where these women got the idea that contraceptive-type drugs used for legitimate medical (i.e., noncontraceptive) purposes cannot be used by a sexually active (married) couple, but it wasn't from Catholic Answers. It was from Catholic Answers that I first learned (and as an apologist myself now have passed on) that the Church does not forbid marital relations between a couple who are using these drugs solely for legitimate, noncontraceptive, therapeutic purposes.
As I said, the post has since been edited. The correction reads:
ETA: We thank each of you for your comments and feedback. This post has been edited to reflect Humanae Vitae's article 15 regarding the use of artificial birth control for medical purposes. We must point out though that while using artificial birth control for true medical concerns (and these are limited in nature) is approved they must never be used with contraception in mind, only to treat the medical need. In the Catholic faith the use of artificial contraception is not allowed to prevent life. We encourage you to research and to read what the Church truly teaches in regard to this matter. This law applies to Catholics and we understand that not everyone who is reading here is Catholic.* We do not wish to force our beliefs on you, however, as a Catholic site who sits fully in line with the magisterium we will always promote the Truth and the ways of the Catholic faith.
Humanae Vitae states: "On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever" (HV 15).
*Nota bene: It is not correct to imply that the moral law in general, or even Humanae Vitae in particular, "applies [only] to Catholics." The moral law applies to every human person, and Humanae Vitae is addressed "to all men of good will." What we can say is that Catholics are more culpable for not following the Church's teaching on this matter than are non-Catholics who do not realize the demands of the moral law.
Non-contraceptive use for the Pill for the married Catholic woman
This is only a partial correction, though. Left unaddressed is the question of whether a married woman with a legitimate medical need for the drug(s) commonly prescribed for contraceptive purposes may engage in conjugal relations with her husband. In my experience, this is a point on which many orthodox Catholics are confused. Here is one answer I have given on the subject during my time as a staff apologist for Catholic Answers:
The Church does not require that a married woman who takes medication for a legitimate medical purpose that has the unintended side effects of temporary sterilization and/or possible pregnancy loss must abstain from marital relations while using that medication.
If a person has proportionately grave reason to take a medication for a legitimate medical purpose, then unintended side effects of that medication fall under the principle of double effect. The purpose of taking the medication is to treat a legitimate malady; there is no purpose to cause temporary sterilization or to abort a child. Under such conditions, the temporary sterilization and the possibility—not the certainty—of a pregnancy loss (not an abortion, which implies a deliberate act against the child) are accepted but not willed.
Because marital relations are of such high importance to the health of a marriage, the Church is extremely careful in this age of the breakdown of marriage to avoid placing unnecessary burdens upon the married couple [see this document as one example of the Church's light touch in the pastoral care of married couples]. Those Catholics giving counsel in this area need to be especially careful not to bind consciences more strictly than does the Church, and to substantiate assertions from the Church's documents when they must say that abstinence from marital relations is "required."
This answer did not go unchallenged. It was originally posted in EWTN's Apologetics Q&A forum. In an all-too-common attempt by readers to instigate a fight between experts, someone asked the Pro-Life Q&A forum's moderator, Judie Brown of the American Life League, to comment. Judie Brown disagreed, which is her prerogative, and I responded:
It is the responsibility of the person stating that the Church does "require" a particular course of action to be the one to substantiate that positive assertion from the documents of the Church.
In other words, anyone who wants to bind a married couple's conscience in this matter should be asked to provide substantiation that such a binding of conscience is required by the magisterium of the Church in authoritative Church documents.
Making necessary distinctions
I have often thought that much of the confusion over the noncontraceptive uses of the Pill arises from a misuse of terms. Those using the Pill for noncontraceptive reasons will say that they need to use "birth control" for cramps or adult acne or for some other therapeutic reason. But, if they do not intend to prevent pregnancy, then what they mean is that they take a drug commonly prescribed for contraceptive purposes to treat a legitimate medical problem.
This is not a small distinction. It lies at the root of the political firefight over whether or not insurance coverage for these drugs can be legitimate health care or is instead, always and everywhere, a "lifestyle choice" that should be paid for by the individual. If the drugs treat legitimate medical problems, then the Church does not object to their use (even if there are alternative treatments that could be pursued and may work better). Only when these drugs are used as a means to achieve the end of preventing pregnancy does the Church throw a penalty flag.
What about NFP?
Circling back to our beginning, what then could we take away from educational initiatives such as National NFP Awareness Week? I certainly hope it won't be that there is no such thing as Natural Family Planning (as has been claimed). After all, why should anyone promote awareness of something that doesn't exist? I also hope that it won't be that NFP is a religious bugaboo or that Catholics should be commanded to pray about their marital relations before they are allowed to get married.
Rather, what I hope we might take away from NFP educational programming is that NFP is, if anything, a form of physical discipline. Not discipline in the sense of punishment but in the sense of self-mastery. Those who use it, whether they be Catholic, Protestant, non-Christian, or non-theist—and whether they be married or single—can learn a great deal about reproductive biology and how to become responsible wielders of the superpower of fertility. (Yes, that is an allusion to Spider-Man there.) For theists, such knowledge can increase our awareness that we are "intricately wrought" (Psalm 139:15). For atheists, perhaps such knowledge can raise awareness that we need not "fool Mother Nature" to achieve a legitimate measure of control over human reproduction.
Our words would not be an adequate expression of the thought and solicitude of the Church, mother and teacher of all peoples, if, after having recalled men to the observance and respect of the divine law regarding matrimony, they did not also support mankind in the honest regulation of birth amid the difficult conditions which today afflict families and peoples. The Church, in fact, cannot act differently toward men than did the Redeemer (HV 19).
Note: A version of this essay originally appeared on the blog, Peace, Joy, Pancakes (7/23/14). It is republished here with permission.