Friday, October 31, 2014

The problem with The NFP industry

Here is a clever little promotional video about Natural Family Planning, produced by these people here.

It is supposed to illustrate the advantages of NFP. It is also, unintentionally, illustrates the problems, not so much with the technique, but with how it is generally presented.

Now I think it would be great if couples using condoms and the Pill, and the other hideous methods of contraception, were to switch to NFP. Fish would appreciate not being saturated with estrogen. I incline towards the view that condoms deform the act of sex and that the standard Pill can cause abortions, as well as cancer; NFP has moral and prudential benefits all round. However, NFP has and will continue to have little take-up outside the Church because contraception is not, mostly, about cosy little planning meetings between a couple, it is about facilitating promiscuity, and even within marriage the notion of self-restraint is regarded as intolerable. The reality is that this video is only going to make headway with Catholics.

That puts its values-free presentation in a very different light. The cartoon couple in the video are afflicted what St John Paul II called a 'fear of children': they clearly regard pregnancy as tantamount to a venereal disease. Yes, there is a fleeting reference to how you might also use NFP to maximise the chances of pregnancy, but that clearly isn't the main issue. The argument in favour of NFP is that it is preferable to other forms of birth control. It is one among others, and it is better in certain ways.

The video concedes that NFP requires some self-control, and goes on to say that this can strengthen the marriage. It is interesting to see a moral or spiritual argument popping up, right at the end. But this raises the question of whether the couple are using NFP in a morally upright way, and there is nothing in the video to suggest that morality comes into the question at all.

Supposing the couple had agreed never to have children in advance of getting married, and had chosen NFP as a means to that. Their marriage would be invalid and their use of NFP would be sinful. Would this strengthen their marriage? No more than the solidarity they might gain by planning bank robberies together. That might seem an unlikely scenario. The more general issue, however, of which this is an extreme case, is a rejection of the 'openness to life' which is fundamental to the vocation of marriage. By presenting the couple's fear of children as perfectly normal, and presenting NFP as a good way of acting on that fear, the video reinforces the fear and the cultural expectations underpinning it.

So what is wrong here? First, a conception of marriage which neglects openness to life is a false conception, and leads right into same-sex marriage and all the other issues we've had to deal with in recent years. This video, far from opposing that conception, implicitly reinforces it.

Secondly, a married relationship in which openness to life is lacking, is a problematic relationship, at odds with its own nature: that is, with Natural Law. This video, far from trying to help people out of that, reinforces them in it.

NFP is a useful device for delaying or avoiding pregnancy when there is some reason to do that. I don't want to insist on something immediately life-threatening as a reason, I don't want to insist everyone has ten children, I just want to point out that the vocation of marriage includes procreation: yes, openness to life is necessary, within marriage, even for those who are, or think they, infertile. If you are against procreation, marriage is not for you. If you have a hang-up about procreation, Catholics who think and write about these issues ought to be addressing that, not nodding sagely and talking constantly about how to avoid pregnancy. Values-free NFP undermines the proper understanding of marriage and it reinforces the cultural pressure to have few if any children.

Would someone just like to say, for a change, that a large family is a blessing? Perhaps we'll have to leave it to the Psalmist (Ps 126):

Behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
Blessed is the man that hath filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate.

Ecce hereditas Domini filii mercis fructus ventris. 
Sicut sagittae in manu potentis ita filii iuventutis.
Beatus vir qui implevit faretram suam ex ipsis; non confundentur cum loquentur inimicis in porta

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  1. Yes, NFP with a contraceptive mentality is clearly a grave problem; many Catholics who are genuinely trying to be faithful to the Church's teaching have been sold error here. I include myself in that number, historically, and it is a source of great regret now.

  2. Yes, there are problems when natural family planning is presented solely as a solution to the hard case or as preferable to contraception (which it is). The vocation to marriage is a vocation to holiness. That is where this has to start.

  3. I certainly agree with your assessment that " a conception of marriage which neglects openness to life is a false conception". If NFP is used with a contraceptive mentality then it can be just as sinful as artificial contraception, and as you say, the intention to avoid procreation in marriage is grounds for invalidity.

    However, I do not agree with your contention: "NFP has and will continue to have little take-up outside the Church." In terms of growth in take-up, the contrary is true. Increasing numbers of evangelicals, muslims and tree-huggers are discovering the value of natural fertility awareness. The NHS is now devoting increasing resources to train instructors in NFP methods and one of the fastest growth areas in use of NFP is Kazakhstan. Kazakh health workers will be addressing a major conference on Natural Fertility in Milan next year to talk about why it is taking off so well among muslims.

    The irony is that before long it will be harder to promote NFP to Catholics than the rest of the population, because the vast majority of clergy of a certain age rejected Humanae Vitae and caved in to the worldly consensus of the 1960's sexual revolution. They and their dissenting cohorts in the Catholic media have spewed so much propaganda at the faithful that the general view in the pew is still very negative towards NFP. In contrast the thirst for "authenticity" and "natural sustainable" solutions for everything in the secular world is creating a surprising open-mindedness to NFP.

    Yes, it can be used with the wrong intentions, but in my experience, those who use NFP on average still have larger families and are more open to life than those who contracept. That may in part be explained by the fact that divorce rates amongst NFP users, both inside the Church and outside, are only 0.2% compared to the 50% national average.

    1. I defer to your knowledge on take-up. As far as the West goes, it is still pretty miniscule, though, is it not? Given that practically every sexually active woman of childbearing age is using some form of contraception.

      I would perhaps modify my generalisation to say: you need some special reason to adopt NFP. So yes, Muslims, Evangelicals, tree-huggers. And, I have heard, Chinese people subject to the One Child Policy.

    2. It is still pretty miniscule at the moment - probably around 4 to 5% - but its the rate of growth which is occurring among young married couples which will see things change dramatically in the next 20 years. If you have a smart phone look for apps related to fertility charting - this thing is going "high-tech gadget world" at the moment. I don't use facebook but I'm told by those who do that there are huge networks of NFP users on there. Women are becoming increasingly conscious that stuffing your body full of anabolic steroids over the long term is not good for you. Along with the general rise in distrust of those in authority, the medical profession and "big pharma" are losing the confidence of the educated classes.

      The other thing which is driving it at public policy level is Mammon. 40% of couples in the UK now have primary or secondary infertility, or sub-fertility problems. This is becoming a huge cost for the NHS and we have known since the 1980's that one of the major contributors to this epidemic is the use of hormonal contraceptives. (Until recently, infertility in Ireland, where there were no hormonal contraceptives, only affected 2% of couples.) They are also contra-indicated in breast cancer and possibly prostate cancer (the oestradiols which women on the pill excrete into the water supply correlate with prostate cancer incidence, but nobody has been able to prove direct causation yet.)

      So there are lots of factors which militate towards change in the future, but you are right that is is starting from a low base.

  4. A large family is a blessing?

    All the faithful Catholic Philosophers whose webblogs I follow (including yours Dr Shaw) seem to show an excellent conscientiousness in regard :) I only wish that I had been Blessed with more brothers and sisters.

  5. It's very hard to practice fertility awareness methods (FAM/NFP) without: 1. An awareness of fertility, 2. A better marriage, 3. An appreciation for human life, 4. An openess to having more children.

    If NFP/FAM can be promoted this way, the values will come-

  6. I don't wish to challenge your basic argument here, but offer another angle on NFP that I didn't see reflected here.

    Something wonderful happens with NFP that isn't necessarily presented as a feature (although I often mention it, it was mentioned in the NFP sessions I attended): NFP helps the couple "tune into" what their own sexuality, and what it says about who God created them to be. Where contraception simply drowns out, or turns "down" what the couple's own nature are communicating, NFP makes you confront it: we are designed as lifegivers; and this life-giving vocation is all intertwined with love and desire and intimacy and all the rest.

    If you talk to couples who practice NFP, you will find many of them became more open to having children precisely as they practice NFP; and I think this is why.

    So, while I would never counsel anyone to embrace NFP for bad reasons, nor deny that this can happen, I think it may be like someone who tries to pray "out of spite"--they are on holy ground nonetheless, and they may find themselves changing, despite themselves.

  7. With all due respect, Fr. Martin, I just want to point out that a contraceptive mentality can be a long-term problem for some couples who practice NFP. This is not to say that there aren't couples for whom spiritual intimacy, unity of mind, and openness to life result from the practice. I have heard plenty of testimonies on that. But sometimes I would like people to understand there are others for whom that never happens, and NFP becomes a source of conflict and pain. Too many articles have been written that deny a contraceptive mentality, or even the selfish use of NFP, is even possible. This is terribly misleading, in my view. I believed the hype myself for many years, and have come to see that there is another side to it which it seems no one ever talks about, so great is the wagon - circling on this issue. Couples like this need help and guidance desperately, but so far I have not found it anywhere.

    1. NFP/NFA is simply a tool and like any other tool it can be used for good or evil purposes. God knows every last intention in our hearts and ultimately it is only His judgment which will count.

      But if people start by doing the right thing for wrong reasons, isn't it more likely, that by the help of God's grace, they will grow to do the right thing for the right reasons, than if they have committed themselves to doing the wrong thing at the outset?

  8. NFP is gradualism at its most authentic?

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  10. Good points! I could write a book about this topic! Oh wait....I DID write a book about it: "Natural Family Planning: Trojan Horse in the Catholic Bedroom?" It's available on Amazon, along with another book, "Concerning Catholic Contraception", by Michael Malone.

    1. Humanae Vitae clearly speaks of fertility awareness methods as being just when there are serious reasons to avoid pregnancy.

    2. Is your book totally against using Natural Methods to prevent conception even when there is a serious reason?

    3. Just looked up your book on Amazon Jay and I see you think that Natural Fertility Awareness is uncatholic. So presumably you could not even use this awareness to have children! I think this is very short sighted. Since I got married at 38 this awareness helped me to have three children in the little time that I had left. How you can say that is wrong I can't understand!

    4. Bravo, Julia! That is fantastic.

  11. I think I disagree completely. In a technologically advanced and prosperous era the only sustainable number of children - on average - is two. The only morally acceptable way of achieving this is applying NFP in a manner which I reckon most of the previous posters would declare "closed to life".

    In earlier times, infant mortality was so high and the world population was still so low that birth rates of 8 or so were sustainable, but this is different today. Imagine, if you will, that Pope John Paul's II initiative to reevangelize Europe were to come to a miraculous and total fruition - Would it then be God's will that the continent's population would quadruple every generation? Where would that lead us?

    No, NFP, even practiced rigidly, is perfectly moral, as long as a couple is not aiming for no children at all.

    One might argue that God foresaw modern man embracing the culture of death and therefore wants his faithful to compensate for the failure of our society to procreate - but I like to believe that God doesn't plan for worldwide apostasy - and that a pious world would be possible, sustainable and desireable.

    As society evolves, things that might have been immoral in earlier times can become virtuous: For example, in the stone age, fasting would have been considered reckless and evil. No: Eat as much as you can, thank God if you grow fat, because the next famine will be just around the corner. In a more advanced society, where food is suddenly available in abundance, the act of fasting can turn into a source of sanctification - and also sustain health.

    It is the same with sex: In times where every second child died at birth and diseases ravaged those that survived, NFP would have been perverse. Nowadays, it can be a way to achieve holiness and a sustainable family.