Catholics and Family Planning

19 Aug 1989 | BIOETHICS

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference is grateful to the Catholic Enquiry Centre (Australia) for permission to adapt and reprint its original publication.


What Does the Church Teach about Family Planning and Contraception?
The Church's teaching about marriage, sexuality and family planning can be found in the Documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Pope Paul VI's letter "On Human Life" (1968) and Pope John Paul II's letter on "The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World" (1981)

The Popes have often spoken about many aspects of these teachings on various occasions. The Church does not oppose family planning as such. In fact, official Church documents often talk about the importance of responsible parenthood.

But sometimes the reasons for family planning can be wrong. The reasons can be selfish, or come from an anti-life or anti-person mentality.

The Church certainly doesn't teach that couples should have as many children as physically possible. It doesn't even suggest that.

But openness to children is fundamental to an understanding of marriage and family, since the Church sees marriage as an invitation from God to share in the miracle of creation. Parents are most privileged co-operators with God.

Why Does the Church Forbid Artificial Contraception?
The Church has a great respect for human life, and for every human person. It has strong beliefs about the fundamental meaning of human sexuality and love within marriage. The Church's teaching about these is not based on laws it has made itself. Its teaching is based on demands that are built into human nature and human dignity. There are two points above all to remember about sex: Sex is necessarily connected with reproduction. The two must go together.

Many people try to make sex into something which it is not - something it can't be. Some people look on sex merely as a thrill, as a pleasure. But we must remember the two things said above about sex. To exclude or destroy either of them would deprive the sexual act of its full meaning. A couple might use sex to conceive children without it being a sincere act of love. That approach is against human dignity. Or a couple might make love while positively preventing the possibility of conception.

That approach is also against human dignity and against the meaning of true love.

What is Natural Family Planning?
NFP is a method of planning the conception of a child according to an awareness of the couple's fertility. It is a natural way of recognising fertility by observing and interpreting a number of signs which modern science confirms as indicating fertility. This information may be used either to achieve or avoid conception.

It can be clearly learnt and easily applied and does not depend on regular menstrual cycles, as did the older rhythm method.


What does the Church say about Methods of Family Planning?
It says: "Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life".

Hence the Church cannot accept any form of artificial contraception. It excludes "every action which either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences proposes, whether as an end or a means, to render procreation impossible". (Humanae Vitae, nl4)

Therefore, it also says permanent sterilisation is immoral. But the Church does encourage the promotion and use of natural methods of family planning, and urges scientists to do more research in this field.

What is the difference between Natural Family Planning and Artificial Contraception?
God made sex. It is one of God's most beautiful gifts.

When a couple decides to use sex to express their love they must respect that God-given process from beginning to end.

A couple might make love at a time when they are not fertile - in other words, at a time when conception will not occur.

That is accepting God's Plan. It does fit in with the process of nature. But a couple might use artificial contraception to prevent an act from being fertile. That destroys the natural process. There are also many human values which support the Church's stand. Natural Family Planning is a co-operative method. It promotes shared responsibility. Artificial contraception generally becomes the responsibility of one person. NFP does not interfere with a woman's body or its natural functions. Most artificial methods do. NFP can promote a deeper understanding of intimacy and love. Practising abstinence can help couples to explore other aspects of love and intimacy. Artificial contraception tends to focus on love just as a sexual activity.


Does the Teaching Always Apply or are there Exceptions?
We have already said that this teaching is not based on Church-made laws. It is based on God-given laws and on the nature of human sexuality and on the human person. So yes - this teaching does always apply.

But the New Zealand Bishops, like those of many other countries, do recognise that individuals can find this teaching difficult. A person may accept the teaching authority of the Pope, and be aware of the Church's teaching. And that person, after honest study and prayer, may reach a decision which is at variance with the Church's teaching.

Obviously, this is not a matter simply of pleasing one's self. Certainly we are all bound to follow our own consciences. But we are also bound to enlighten or form our consciences.

This we do by study, by prayer, and by discussion with, and counselling from, a person who is able to explain the Church's position.

Priests are called upon to exercise discernment, prudence and compassion in guiding people in these matters.

But no priest can give an exemption or permission to act against the Church's teaching, because it is not an arbitrary ruling of the Church. It is based on God-given laws. No couple can deviate from the Church's teaching without serious thought and prayer, and not before examining conscientiously the latest findings and methods of Natural Family Planning.

Is NFP Realistic? Is it Reliable?
Basically, NFP involves two things - understanding and planning. It involves a couple coming to understand their own fertility. And it involves a couple planning their sexual activities in the light of that knowledge and awareness. It needs more than just a knowledge of biology. It is deeply a way of living, a special co-op eration in loving. It does involve restraint and abstinence from sexual intercourse at certain times. But this need not threaten love. If it flows from a shared conviction and faith in God, it can indeed strengthen a couple's love. NFP is a special kind of loving, of caring, of sharing. If a couple is fully informed on the details of NFP, and if they work together, it can be as effective as other methods of family planning.

What are its Advantages
For most people, natural family planning methods are easy to use, and reliable. They're free from disadvantages like possible physical and emotional side-effects that can go with other methods. They can be used to achieve a pregnancy as well as avoid one. But the biggest advantage is that they invite co-operation and communication between husband and wife - and that's a marvellous thing for any marriage.

How Does Natural Family Planning Work?
Women are infertile for most of the time during the reproductive phase of their lives. In fact, there are only a few days in each menstrual cycle in which a woman can conceive. A woman using natural family planning can detect which days she is fertile and which days she is infertile. So if a couple wish to avoid a pregnancy, they know which days to avoid intercourse.

Do Irregular Cycles Prevent the use of Natural Methods?
No, natural family planning relies on the ability of a woman to be aware of signs of fertility regardless of the length or regularity of the cycle. For this reason, it can be used during breast-feeding or pre-menopause.

What is Ovulation?
Ovulation means the release of an egg from the ovary. It happens on one day only in each cycle. The life span of this egg is not more than 24 hours. Conception takes place when the male sperm unites with the female egg. (It must be remembered however, that sperm can live for several days just prior to ovulation.) If conception does not occur, the next period or menstrual bleed follows about 2 weeks after ovulation.

How is Fertility Recognised?
A man is presumed to be fertile all the time.

For woman the most useful indicators are cervical mucus, basal temperatures and cervix changes. Many woman also notice abdominal pain, blood-spotting and mood changes.
Cervical mucus:

Most fertile women will be familiar with the cervical mucus symptom. It's a normal physiological event. Many don't realise the significance of the changes in the mucus until it's explained to them. Mucus, which is secreted from the cervix, changes in appearance and texture at different times during the cycle.

These changes vary from woman to woman. Each woman can be taught to recognise her particular change to a more 'fertile-type' mucus before ovulation. Mucus assists the sperm to travel and also influences their life span. Sperm survival is very dependent on the cervical mucus which is known to increase their life to up to 5 days. After ovulation has occurred, a definite change from this 'fertile-type' mucus can be observed. This means that if you want to avoid pregnancy you must avoid all genital contact during the days of the pre-ovulatory mucus until the fourth day after the last day of fertile - type mucus.

There's a simple way of recognising these mucus changes and recording them by using a chart and coloured stamps.
Basal temperature :

Your basal body temperature is the temperature of your body before you get out of bed in the morning and begin to move around.

A woman's basal body temperature varies during the cycle. Special charts make the temperature pattern easy to record.

From menstruation until ovulation a woman's temperature is at a lower level.
Changes in the cervix:

Cervical changes can be recognised around the fertile time of the cycle. The cervix is higher, softer and open around the time of ovulation, whereas at infertile times it is lower, firmer and closed.

Who Can Use Natural Family Planning?
Most highly-motivated couples can use natural methods. Apart from women with regular cycles, it is also suitable for:

- Breastfeeding mothers

- Pre-menopausal women

- Women with irregular cycles

- Subfertile couples wishing to conceive

- Couples changing from any contraceptive.


Is It Hard to Use?
No, although when first explained it may sound complicated. With experience and support while learning, it becomes easier.

Why Does Natural Family Planning Appeal to Many Couples?
It is 'natural' in that no drugs, foreign bodies or chemicals are used. Some couples have objections to other methods on religious or moral grounds. Family planning becomes the responsibility of the couple rather than of an individual.

Natural family planning methods can help to develop other aspects of the marriage relationship. The practice of abstinence enables many couples to develop a broader understanding of intimacy and expression of love. An awareness of fertility through Natural Family Planning methods may help couples who have difficulty in conceiving a child.

Are Natural Methods Reliable?
From a scientific point of view natural methods have a reliability comparable to other methods of family planning.

In practice however, reliability is very dependent on

* high motivation

* proper instruction

* adequate supervision in the initial stages

* husband-wife co-operation.

The trained instructors who teach the natural methods talk about the "fertility of the couple", not just the woman. They see natural family planning as a way a husband and wife can face a family planning decision together. They recommend that both the husband and wife attend the instruction and any follow-up consultations.

With the creation of man and woman in his own image and likeness God crowns and brings to perfection the work of his hands: he calls them to a special sharing in his love and in his power as Creator and Father through their free and responsible cooperation in transmitting the gift of human life . . . Thus the fundamental task of the family is to serve life to actualize in history the original blessing of the Creator - that of transmitting by procreation the divine image from person to person.

John Paul II.: "The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World." n28

Where Can Information on NFP Be Found?
Before a couple use NFP it is important to speak personally to a trained NFP teacher. In fact, to be sure that all factors in the method are properly understood, it is strongly recommended that this be done. Books on it are useful, but often need to be clarified by personal instruction.

Where Can Natural Family Planning Methods be Learnt?
The best way to learn about natural family planning is from a trained teacher. The New Zealand Association of Natural Family Planning has clinics throughout New Zealand. Addresses are available in your telephone book under "N ... for Natural". Teaching through NFP's Correspondence Service can be arranged by contacting:

SOUTH ISLAND:
NFP Correspondence
P O Box 29-048
CHRISTCHURCH

National Secretary
PO Box 38-406
Howick
AUCKLAND

NORTH ISLAND:
NFP Correspondence
P O Box 13-077
Hillcrest
HAMILTON

National Co-ordinator
Mercy Hospital
Private Bag
AUCKLAND

Qualified educators are available to speak to organisations on different aspects of Natural Family Planning.

What are the “Methods” Based on this Information?
Determining the fertile and infertile times of a woman's reproductive life using the mucus indicator alone is commonly known as the Ovulation or Billings Method. Combining the mucus observations with temperature and other signs is commonly called
the Sympto-thermal method 1.

1 -- After ovulation the temperature rises and remains at a high level until the following menstruation.

This rising temperature confirms that ovulation has occurred. This knowledge enables a couple to determine the infertile days following ovulation.

What is the Difference Between the Old Rhythm Method and These More Recent Methods?
The rhythm method attempts to predict the time of ovulation and the length of the whole cycle based on a woman's past menstrual history.

The modern methods allow a woman by daily observation to determine more accurately in each cycle the days on which she is fertile or infertile. The rhythm method works only for women with regular cycles. But very few women have regular cycles.