What to do when NFP isn’t good enough?

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with Catholic friends about family planning where they’ve opened up about their own struggles. One friend, who has several kids, said something like, “The method we were taught failed us many times, or perhaps did not work at all. And when we spoke up about this our concern was dismissed” Not too long after that another friend of mine was telling me that after having one of their kids they had to abstain for six months in order to avoid getting pregnant again right away because their cycles were so weird that following the NFP method meant simple don’t have sex. Another friend is deathly afraid to get pregnant because she has a medical condition that has caused multiple miscarriages and will cause more in the future, so the failure rate of NFP really scares her.  These are the stories about NFP that I’ve come to hear on a regular basis now, couples that find themselves in a place where NFP, indefinitely or for a time, simply isn’t good enough.

When the Catholic Church talks about family planning there are three principles that frame the discussion. The first is that parents have the obligation to be responsible, to look after the common good of one’s family. This means that the “physical, economic, psychological and social” circumstances of the family should be taken into consideration when a couple is considering having another child (Humanae Vitae 10). The second is that artificial contraception, that is, “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is absolutely prohibited by the moral law (Humanae Vitae 14). And the third principle is that long periods of abstinence in marriage due to spacing children have the possibility of damaging the vows of faithfulness and fruitfulness in that marriage (Gaudium et Spes 51).

In other words, couples need to be discerning about having children, but they can’t use contraception, and an extended lack of sexual intimacy could harm the marriage. Clearly then, there are very limited options for Catholics here, two options to be exact. The first option is do nothing. To let Divine Providence guide one’s fertility and family size. The second option is NFP. For many couples I imagine that the first option is a privilege they wish they had, that they didn’t have the health issues, psychological conditions, economic problems, etc. that force them to do whatever they can to avoid pregnancy. This leaves us with NFP, but what does a couple do when NFP isn’t good enough?

Like the friends I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve encountered many people over the past few years who have found themselves on the margins of both the Catholic community and the secular world. These folks are apart of a silent minority of “hyperfertile” NFP users. They have tried multiple NFP methods with multiple instructors but ultimately their only recourse to prevent having a dozen kids back to back has been months (or more) of abstinence at a time. Then there are the couples who have serious, life threatening reasons not to get pregnant, and who also have irregular cycles that make NFP difficult and less effective. These couples are on the margins of a secular society that just encourages contraception and sterilization, but they have also found little support from their Church. Their suffering gets dismissed out of hand with statements like “God must have wanted the baby” or “carry your cross” with little empathy or actual support.

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

It’s often said in Catholic circles that fertility isn’t a disease, that “hyperfertility” is just someone’s body acting the way it’s supposed to. However, while this is technically correct, it’s also very dismissive. Due to health issues, family issues, financial issues, and the other consequences of sin, hyperfertility can be a genuine and severe source of suffering. In some cases fertility has all the characteristics of an illness. If a woman truly risks death every time she gets pregnant then at the end of the day her and her husband’s fertility is reasonably treated like a disease.

The Catholic community needs to know that these struggles are legitimate. The Church, from clergy to regular Catholics, needs to offer more support for our brothers and sisters who find themselves carrying this cross. We need to recognize that couples in these situations need actual assistance, not just platitudes. Telling someone to just “carry their cross” without at the same time offering to help them carry that cross is the Catholic version of saying “just suck it up.”

We need to listen to people’s actual stories about the suffering in their life caused by NFP instead of constantly being on the defensive about how great NFP is. We need to offer to make dinner or babysit or simply be a friend for the parents of large families. We need to invest more resources into developing easier and more effective methods of NFP.

I think that Catholics (at least in the circles I run in) have done a good job in the past several years of recognizing the heavy burden and real suffering of infertility. We’ve invested resources into ethical treatments for infertility and we’ve made efforts to empathize and support those in our life who we know suffer from this. My hope is that the suffering that comes from hyperfertility and irregular cycles could likewise be acknowledged and supported.

Bishop Barron recently said, “At the core of Jesus’ program is a willingness to bear other people’s burdens, to help them carry their loads. And this applies to the moral life as well. If we lay the burden of God’s law on people, we must be willing, at the same time, to help them bear it.” There are people freely embracing the full weight of the moral law but are finding little support from their Catholic community, what can we do to help change that?

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.

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15 thoughts on “What to do when NFP isn’t good enough?

  1. I want to say that I hear you, and this is something that needs to be addressed. However, in regard to irregular cycles causing extended periods of abstinence, I say there is an answer to that! Creighton is more effective than the pill for avoiding pregnancy, and you have a built in Simon (Fertility Care Practitioner) helping these couples to carry their crosses. Everyone wants an easy NFP, but unfortunately to get the results that Creighton boast, you need to put in the effort. I am a long time user, and now a Practitioner. There is help!!

    • Unfortunately, that has not been my experience nor the experience of the friends who had to abstain for six months postpartum, we were both using Creighton with (at least in our case) a wonderful instructor. We now use Marquette which has worked much better for us, and other friends of ours who have used Creighton for several years are also switching to Marquette because they are tired of the “abstinence method” they find themselves in using Creighton postpartum.

    • There should be a rule against people barging into other people’s suffering yelling “CREIGHTON!” Sometimes it’s not the method that’s the problem … it’s that the body is not sending clear signs and sometimes taking a very long time to ovulate at all.

      Anyway even LEARNING Creighton means three full cycles of abstinence, so I fail to see how it’s the answer to long abstinence.

      • The standard learning program requires only one month or one cycle of no genital contact, not sure where from you have the info of this needing three cycles. FCP writing here.

        • The standard program may not apply to people who may already struggling with other methods because their bodies aren’t providing easily discernible signals. This entire post is about NFP outliers, not the routine standard generally effective use of NFP. When I began learning Creighton, postpartum, my instructor required that we abstain for two full months/cycles (I returned to fertility in the month we began, so it was more like 70 consecutive days), until she was confident that I was confident in my observations. We then had a grand total of one available day in the next 30-something day cycle. We were eventually put on yellow stamps, that didn’t help all that much, and had a pregnancy evaluation confirmed method related (method failure) pregnancy at 9 months postpartum.

  2. I find the article flags some real challenges about NFP. However, the truth is that NFP is not meant to work as a contraceptive and if the expectation is it should, then there’s a lot of frustration. I’ve found using NFP also hard but only in times when my cycles (and my life!) was per se not easy i.e. Post partum; in these times the challenge of one specific methods flaws adds on one personal life’s circumstances, and it can just be too much to handle. Agree totally there needs to be more honesty when talking / praising NFP; my mantra is: it’s something you do out of conviction and not because it’s easier.

  3. Discouraged by the comments here… All examples of the problem the author writes about.

    I think most of us wish for a more effective method of avoiding children that was consistent with our faith. I wish there was a bigger push in the Church to research and find this. Creighton is stuck in the past and won’t adapt to the needs of the modern age. If contraception is so evil, we need a push for online resources, easy access to NFP teachers, app integration. I have been part of groups who have reached out to Creighton, offering to do these things for them. And they decline.

    NFP is a broken system and no one will admit it so it doesn’t get fixed.

    • Creighton, in fact, has an app in the final stages of testing. It is due to be released in the near future. It will be a web based app that will be sharable with your spouse, doctor, and practitioner. There are many people devoting their lives to seeing NFP coming into the modern age (I am one of those people).

    • nfp is broken! I m proof with #7 on the way die heart big families are great Not responsible , not easy , to much just to keep being fruitful . So I’m getting a v sec in 7 weeks and wife wasn’t fully happy about it but now excepts . I’m not having more .. I’ll let Christ judge me . Quite honestly I wonder when I look around why doesn’t everyone have 5 6 kids each does that mean I’m not going to hell! Honestly I really feel at peace about and I know We have done our part for the future of this world 🌍 . I’m not far from done raising these children. I believe in your own heart Christ will allow u to feel and know when it’s enough .. pray for me and my family!

  4. We pursued NFP after our marriage prep. Been married 6+ years. Three kids and one more coming. Creighton for two kids and Marquette for two. Every Catholic NFP family with 3+ children I know has admitted to at least one or more surprises with NFP. The benefits were supposed to be more effective pregnancy spacing and more conjugal unions over the long run compared to chemical contraception. All lies. It has weakened my faith. And I have little hope of things changing until ‘the change’. Less faith and less hope had been my experience with NFP. Thank you to the author for writing about this. For the practioners start telling the truth about what some people may experience. There are lies, damn lies, and (NFP) statistics.

    • Thanks for sharing that. My wife and in our case had three NFP fails in a row with all of them being miscarriages. The third one was proven to be caused by a virus in her body that makes a future pregnancy ill advised according to the doctor. If I get a married sponsee this year for RCIA who wants to know how reliable NFP is, I won’t have a good testimony for him. Three lost babies in 15 months with the third one being 18 weeks. Could a device associated with birth control be reinterpreted to be a device for miscarriage control?

  5. Pingback: NFP, Suffering, and Asceticism | The Porch
  6. Pingback: Humanae Vitae: truth, accompaniment, and culpability – Where Peter Is

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