We present a point/counterpoint on the question, “Is Natural Family Planning Misogynous?” Marjorie Campbell takes the affirmative while Kate Wicker argues the negative. Please feel free to continue the discussion in the Comments section following the exchange.
Marjorie Campbell: The Misogyny of Natural Family Planning
“Go ask your father,” my mother snapped at me when I was 14 years old, in answer to my tearful question of why she had been so angry that day.
“Your mother is pregnant,” my father whispered, looking ashamed and indicted, his fingers wound tightly together, head hung so low I could see his bald spot.
That pregnancy produced their much beloved baby child, number six, and the parents and son have loved each other deeply and completely. Traces of my mother’s anguish toward that pregnancy remain only in my mind; her anger toward an unwanted pregnancy left lasting marks on my heart.
This, I tell my friends practicing natural family planning, is what “unplanned” pregnancy can look like. Of course, theologically, it shouldn’t. But my mother practiced the rhythm method — an imprecise, often unsuccessful system — trying to grasp some control of her reproductive life. I do not begrudge her wanting some sliver of the bodily autonomy that my father exercised and enjoyed daily; it gave her hope around which she could structure her pursuits. Yet the shaky expectation of avoiding pregnancy set the scene for failure — failure that burdened her as female in a way that my father could never experience.
NFP enthusiasts, proclaiming their “success rate” of controlling the timing of pregnancy, have yet to convince me that NFP is any more a female-friendly validation of maternal fertility than was the rhythm method. To the contrary, it seems a variation of the same set-up that caused my mother an unfounded expectation of control and cursed me with its disappointment.
Assuming any methodized sexual intercourse devised to avoid pregnancy by an otherwise open-to-life-marital-couple can actually “work,” who bears responsibility for the method? I seriously question whether NFP, for many, isn’t a misogynous practice — imposing upon women an undue share of the physical and emotional burden of the theologically questionable quest of planning pregnancy.
First, we must be real. Modern NFP practices demand daily bodily measurements of women, not men. Men are ever-ready: They are the open-24-hours part of the conception equation. Women’s fertility is more complicated, like a nuclear reactor compared to, say, a yo-yo. The NFP “charting” requires the kind of daily diligence of women not even Know-Thyself-Better journaling demands. Varieties include the basal body temperature (BBT) method, cervical mucus method, or the symptothermal method. A computer is required, at least to get detailed instructions and print off the calendar where, you, female, get to log in your bodily readings related to fertility. The husband cannot keep this chart without full cooperation from his wife, since it is the female body temperature and mucus and mood that the NFP practice captures.
Second, consider female fertility.
- A woman most desires sexual intimacy when she is at her most fertile. This is the way our bodies work, plain and simple. We are drawn to the beauty and warmth of our husbands’ bodies and experience a deep emotional connection to the act itself.
- This is also the moment when we are most likely to conceive a child. It’s the moment NFP-practicing women measure and chart and predict as “fertility awareness,” a “maybe-child” zone.
- For NFP-practicing women avoiding pregnancy, it is the moment they must say “no” to both themselves and their spouses. Some women, already committed to grueling schedules of childcare and work and community commitments, must overcome not only the enticements of a spouse whose body and daily routine will not be similarly disturbed by an unplanned pregnancy, but her own deepest desire to unite with her husband.
Third, NFP strives to isolate this moment, put it off bounds for family planning that does not include a child this year, relegating the couple to sofa time watching movies and cuddling. NFP tells us that, as long as you are otherwise open to children, this is just a postponement, not a contraceptive. Yet when the window of fertility passes, the floodgate of sexual unity may, again, be released to this open-24-hours spouse whose own fertility knows no ebb and flow, and may well be augmented with Church-approved use of drugs like Viagra. Only in this way, goes the practice, have you “opened yourself to life.”
I don’t buy it. It sounds like a scheme to impose on women who wish to time pregnancies an almost penal practice of self-measurement, self-control, and self-denial, while requiring, at a minimum, a sort of suffering acquiescence from a spouse whose interest in the chart becomes rather strategic.
Isn’t this lopsided, accept-your-design-by-nature, sorry-about-that-my-dear message of NFP veiled misogyny?
I do not doubt — as I have been told — that there are men so intertwined with the workings of their wives’ bodies that they hold the thermometer themselves and help chart results, anxious to pop the popcorn for tonight’s movie fill-in. But what about the rest of us? Most women have husbands who, consciously or not, urge a desire forward into the hormonally warmed, wanting heart of their wife — or begrudgingly cooperate with their wives’ “kooky” NFP practice.
As Simcha Fisher urged in her column, “For goodness sake, let’s talk about NFP.” I agree. NFP needs to go the same way as the rhythm method — which did not “work” and was, more importantly, female unfriendly. In its place, perhaps we all need to suck it up and admit what the theology asks of us: Have sex whenever you both want to… and expect a baby every time. Otherwise, don’t copulate. That’s a fair burden on both spouses.
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Kate Wicker: The Freedom of Natural Family Planning
My head is about to hit the pillow when the baby beside me stirs. I rest my hand on her rising belly, hoping she’ll drift back to sleep. No such luck. Soon her gentle stirring turns into full-blown crying.
I take my newborn into my arms and I gently shush her cries. She falls limp against me, and I kiss the top of her tiny head. I’m in awe of this tiny treasure. As I hold her close, I’m reminded of how blessed I am to have my third healthy child. But I feel something else, too. Beneath my sepia-toned feelings of bliss, there is fear.
I am afraid.
I’m afraid of waking up tomorrow drunk with exhaustion from meeting the needs of my infant, yet being ill-prepared to meet the needs of my older children. I’m afraid I’m not cut out for the sublime vocation of motherhood. I’m afraid of how many years of fertility I have ahead of me. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten how to chart for NFP (it’s been more than four years now). I’m afraid I’m just one big mess who’s going to have one big, messy family.
It is in these midnight maternal meanderings — when my mind wanders from the overwhelming love I have for my children to the choking fear that I’m bound to screw a whole bunch of them up — that I sometimes kick myself for ever having read (and re-read) paragraphs 2360 to 2379 of the Catechism.
After all, I know full well there’s a magic pill out there that promises to take all my fears away. And there are a slew of other contraceptives that pledge to give me “protection.” But protection from what? From the blessing of a baby? From the man I love? From God?
The fact is, despite my very human fears, I have bought into NFP, not only because the theology behind it makes sense but because I see NFP as a liberator of women, not a form of bondage.
NFP unlocks the mystery of female fertility. I can argue from a purely secular standpoint that practicing NFP empowers women. In fact, the green movement has led many women to seek out natural birth control for non-religious reasons, rather than pump their bodies with artificial hormones.
Personally,I remember shifting uncomfortably in my seat during a mother-daughter evening at my grade school where I was given a quick course on the woman’s “amazing” menstrual cycle. After the presentation, the organizers actually served a cake that looked like the female reproductive system. Red-faced, I gulped down some berry ovaries (eeewwww) and tried not to think about this side of my femininity. Even after I was married, I understood very little about my fertility. It wasn’t until I started practicing NFP that I began to understand my body and value the privilege of being female. With NFP, women are not saddled with the unfair burden of charting their fertility; they’re blessed with a newfound respect for their bodies.
NFP is not the rhythm method. NFP is a method based on science, not some vague calendar. You’re not at the whim of irregular cycles. That’s why NFP is such a gift: If you have a “just reason” for postponing pregnancy — and a mother’s emotional well-being is arguably a just reason — you can choose to abstain. Yet even when you do, you’re still cooperating with the way God made you as male and female.
Lest you think I’m die-hard providentialist, I believe faithful families come in all sizes. You don’t have to have a crowd of kids to be obedient to the Church’s teachings. However, when you practice NFP, there’s a greater likelihood you’ll see a surprise baby as a blessing, not an “oops.”
NFP prevents a woman from feeling used. Contraception is supposed to sexually emancipate women. But what it does — quite stealthily — is objectify them. I’m not suggesting contracepting couples consciously realize this; I doubt most loving husbands have the intention of making their wives feel used, but it’s easier to use someone when the procreative aspect of sex is ignored. When you embrace NFP, sex can’t always be on demand, and husbands have to respect their wives and what makes them female. Likewise, NFP affords men the opportunity to actively share in the responsibility of thinking about fertility and babies.
NFP elevates sex to something more than self-seeking pleasure.We’re part of a culture that believes the primary purpose of sex is pleasure. Sure, babies are nice once the time is right, but until then let’s slip between the sheets and not “worry” about making a baby.
Just consider the following statements:
“I want to have sex with you.”
“I want to make a baby with you.”
Which one implies more commitment and total and complete love and giving?
The Church insists the procreative aspect of sex must not be separated from the unitive aspect. Why? Because in doing so, we’re saying sex is just about what makes us feel good. When you take life out of the equation, you’re shoving God out of the bedroom. But what’s wrong with that? many Catholics argue. Well, if God is love, and we shut Him out when it comes to our fertility and our intimacy with our spouse, then we’re not loving fully. Love is faithful, total, free, and life-giving.
Some NFP proponents use an analogy comparing NFP to dieting. We eat not only for pleasure but also to fuel our bodies. Most would agree we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be gluttons, devouring anything and everything we like. NFP is like being on a sensible diet. We still get to eat some of the things we enjoy, but we don’t show up at a free-for-all buffet whenever we want. NFP helps people to control their appetites and put other people first, and great holiness can be found in saying no when your flesh is saying yes.
NFP promotes chastity even outside the realm of marriage. There’s a problem with arguing that NFP isn’t fair to women since they are forced to abstain when they’re most fertile and biologically inclined to want to be intimate. Does this mean premarital sex is appropriate? Young men are biologically charged to have sex in their teens. Is it unfair to ask them to respect women and to control their sexual impulses? If two people are in the heat of passion but not married, should we expect them to turn off their bodies for the sake of chastity? Lust can’t wait to get, but love can wait to give. Lust is about getting some, but not giving all. NFP helps us grow in love, not lust.
NFP is a lot of things. It can be frustrating, beautiful, difficult, romantic — all depending on where you are in your life — whether you’re holding a baby in your arms, holding onto the dream of making another baby, or perhaps holding your spouse at arm’s length while you pray about the “just reasons” for doing just that. But misogynistic? Never. There is no room for hate when spouses exist for the other to become a gift.
So, despite my fears, I will keep at it. Besides, I’m discovering all those theoretical babies incite far more fear than the ones who find their way into my arms.
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I love Kate Wicker’s take on natural family planning, and the doors of knowledge, intimacy, and divine unity that this Church-sanctioned practice of timing pregnancy has opened for her. I love that she and her husband call a surprise pregnancy “a baby,” not an “oops”!
But ideal as she finds the practice, is her take common? How many couples have found the grace of unity through this laborious, detailed, documented effort to time children?
As a woman, I think it’s great that NFP teaches women about our bodies — giving us information that goes beyond timing babies to understanding migraines and acne outbreaks and longings for chocolate.
But guys — be they husbands, priests, or bishops — have always seemed to me stunningly disinterested in NFP, in the mucus, body temperature, and moods undergirding full female fertility. When I once asked a priest if he would sermonize on NFP, he turned bright red, stifled a gag, and said, “Oh no. We aren’t interested in that kind of detail.”
It was this “guy response” to NFP that motivated my reflections in the first place. Consider H. W. Crocker III’s take on NFP from the 2005 crisis Magazine article, “Making Babies: A Very Different Look at Natural Family Planning”:
Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, the charts can be thrown away (what’s so “natural” about them?). And to hell with improving “communication” as a dogmatic defense of NFP. For men, the whole point of marriage is to avoid communicating; all that dating conversation stuff can finally be foregone. Married communication, as successful husbands know, is best limited to grunts and hand signals — one upraised finger meaning, “I need a beer”; two upraised fingers meaning, “You need to change the brat’s diapers”; three upraised fingers meaning, “Honey, why don’t you mow the lawn while I watch football?,” and so on. No words are more doom-laden than a wife’s sitting down and saying, “Let’s talk.”
Of course, Mr. Crocker’s article was satirical, but with every good satire, we glimpse something quite true, something dangerous to ignore.
Four of my own five children came the NFP way — that is, totally unexpectedly — and that’s a good thing, because without them bouncing in as surprises, excuses to delay (the sort of excuses one might hear from a recruit in parachute training) might have gone on for a very long time. As it is, in a mere matter of ten years, my wife and I assembled a complete basketball team. And if menopause doesn’t strike my wife soon, who knows what sort of team we might assemble.
Perhaps we should listen to the guys — and to the babies — and ditch the effort to time what God bestows as a gift to fertile couples. Then, husband and wife must approach every sexual romp in the sack as a loving unity that may conceive a child. Otherwise, don’t go there. Mr. Crocker, I’m sure, could bear that much “communication.”
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Kate Wicker: Free Love
Based on Marjorie’s acquiescence that NFP probably isn’t misogynistic in itself, we’re now left with the hapless husband who, if he and his spouse are not practicing the scientific symptothermal or Marquette family planning methods, is at the whim of irregular cycles — or even textbook 28-day cycles. Poor fellow’s also at the mercy of nursing babies, co-sleeping toddlers, and even older children’s nocturnal visits.
So exactly when does the husband get to have sex? Some of the most virtuous boys already had to wait a long, long time to unlock that chastity belt of their dearly beloved. Why should they have to strap it back on again when there’s an easier way?
Because he can,and because he loves his wife.
Let’s start with the “because he can” part. We’re talking about our husbands here, not some Neanderthal brutes pulled straight out of a Farrelly Brothers movie. Let’s give men, or at least our own husbands, a little more credit. Sure, it’s tough to abstain — remember, when a couple prayerfully decides to postpone or avoid pregnancy, it’s the woman who has to put on the brakes when her body is the most revved up — and we should never mock our husbands or undermine their struggles. In fact, we should thank them for recognizing sex as more than hedonism. We should also realize that NFP gives our spouses — especially men, whose desire is more invariable — a tremendous opportunity to grow in what could be considered an epic virtue.
The good news doesn’t stop at earning halos. Men, you won’t have to be mind readers anymore! Your wife (and her spiffy charts) will tell you, “Not tonight, honey,” and you won’t ever have to wonder if that headache is real or just a flimsy excuse.
Even better: When sex isn’t on-demand, it has the tendency to become more exciting. NFPers approaching the “green light” stage enjoy the anticipation that some couples seem to lose as soon as “I do” leaves their lips. Sexual tension is lousy, but releasing it can be a lot of fun.
Husbands may be surprised to discover that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. Women appreciate their spouse’s chivalry, his self-donation, and sacrifice on the part of their marriage, so when they can be “on,” they’re really on. What NFP couples may lack in quantity (although polls indicate NFP couples actually have more sex on average than contracepting couples), they make up for in quality.
Now for the “because he loves his wife” part of the story. It may not be common, but how else do you find “the grace of unity” other than through laborious efforts? Embracing the Church’s teachings is countercultural, takes work, and requires what sometimes seems like more than a fair share of selfless love from both the man and woman.
If there’s one thing you and your spouse can always agree on, it’s that NFP sometimes really, really stinks. But, in time and with God’s graces, you’ll hopefully agree on something else as well: Being open to God’s plan for marriage is the best kind of “free love” out there. It’s a love that gives freely, no matter the cost.