My most recent RCIA class was on the subject of marriage. When we got to the bit about the Church’s teachings banning contraception, there were questions. One woman in particular asked, “Isn’t using Natural Family Planning to avoid a pregnancy the same as using birth control to avoid a pregnancy? Isn’t it just another birth control?” I so badly wanted to answer her, especially because I could see that she was where I was three years ago, but my raised hand was lost in a sea of hands and too little time. I went to find her after the class, but she had left in the middle. What I would have said to her, I can write here for everyone who asks google the difference between postponing births by birth control and postponing by Natural Family Planning.
Proponents of NFP say the ends don’t justify the means, such that postponing births or spacing children doesn’t justify birth control. They usually don’t say exactly why the birth control means is bad except to say that it isn’t open to life. But if you’re trying not to have kids with NFP, you’re not very open to life either, except to the miraculous 0.1% life that may still be conceived. So why is birth control bad? Some say if you use birth control, you’re withholding your fertility from your spouse. But… aren’t you withholding your fertility from your spouse if you don’t have sex with them when you’re fertile?
The difference between NFP and birth control is that with birth control you have sex, but change the act itself such that you deny the natural consequences of sex. When my husband presented this argument to me, telling me that contraception destroyed the natural order of the sex act, I didn’t see what was wrong with changing the natural order of things. After all, we change the natural course of diseases with medicine as best we can, and that is good. Why can’t we achieve the good of postponing births when needed through the same means? There is that difference between pregnancy and disease though. Pregnancy is a good thing for which we were designed. Disease is a malfunction, our bodies falling short of how they are supposed to work. Regardless, I saw pregnancy as sometimes undesirable, and didn’t see why we can’t interfere during that undesirable time the same as when we interfere with our undesirable medical problems.
The “natural order” of sex refers to the natural observation that sex is both unitive and procreative. It brings a man and woman together physically, spiritually, and emotionally. It also is for the creation of new life. This is what the Church teaches, and this is the natural order that they preserve with their teachings. We should not interfere with the natural consequences of sex, whether it be during a fertile or infertile time. Neither should we change and distort the sex act itself to be merely for pleasure, objectifying our partner.
Contraception changes the natural order of the sex act, and its primary goal is to eliminate the consequence of children. If we can change the nature of the act itself to avoid children, then why can we not also change the act itself for other reasons? With contraception it’s easy enough to have sex whenever you want, with your spouse, for pleasure alone. Why not have sex however you want for pleasure? With this goal in mind, there’s no reason to believe things like masturbation and pornography are wrong. When it’s used for pleasure alone, why not have sex with whoever we want, premaritally even, since it becomes merely a recreational activity with no other consequences, procreative or unitive. When we define sex by what we want it to be, not by what it is naturally, there is no objective way to determine where to draw the line. Moreover, all of these steps are extensions of the same line of thought. They all separate sex from its consequences and change the God-given order. They are all attempts for us to define what sex is instead of accepting what God has ordained.
Arguments would not have changed my mind. What has changed my mind is my experiences showing me that changing the natural order of sex leads to evil. I’ve seen the mindset that people fall into when they think it’s their right to distort sex. I’ve seen the extent people will go to in order to avoid the consequences of sex. Because of this, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of the Catholic Church’s teaching.
A breakthrough in my understanding the value of NFP came when I was battling the recently proposed pro-abortion Freedom of Choice Act. In researching things, I read up on Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood. Although much of Margaret Sanger’s work was done at a time when there was poor health care and women often died from childbirth, her work was done in the name of sexual freedom. She believed women were suppressed by men through child-bearing and that only through controlling their reproductivity absolutely could women be free and in turn lower the population and better society. In particular, she believed society would be bettered by lowering the poor and non-Caucasian population. In this, she believed that women should have “no gods and no masters” and be “the absolute mistress of her own body”. Although she thought sexuality was a weakness, she wanted to control the “negative side effects” and worked hard for sex without consequences.
Sanger believed that her most sacred goals of sex without consequences and total individual autonomy would bring happiness to us all. This is the “contraceptive mindset” and it’s alive and well in varying degrees throughout the world. You can see it in the ordinary couple who uses birth control to postpone births, because they want sex without the consequence of children. You can see it at strip clubs when men go objectify women, separating sexuality even from a partner, because they want sex without unity. You can see it in abortion clinics when pregnant and single women go to eliminate the natural consequence of sex, because they want sex without children. You can even see this attempt to change the natural order and have things the way we want it when couples use in vitro fertilization to have children. Many end up with multiples and sadly they are three times more likely to divorce. Our attempts to be our own master, have things the way we want it, and pick and choose what consequences we accept inevitably end in pain because we are trying to have our own will instead of God’s will. Only God’s perfect will entirely contains His own perfect goodness and can bring us whole happiness.
So the Catholic Church has drawn a line. Do not separate the sex act from its natural and good God-given consequences. During infertile times, there is usually no natural consequence of having a child. During fertile times, if you are unable to handle the natural consequence of a child, don’t have sex. They haven’t created these rules to make things hard on people or make them feel guilty. They haven’t created these rules to overrun the Earth with an enormous population of cradle Catholics. They have guided Catholics in these matters because there is a right and wrong way to handle our sexuality, like every other created thing. There is no Catholic corporate conspiracy motivating their stubbornness regarding contraception. It is only that they stubbornly lead Christians in God’s truth. It is a Christian ideal to surrender your self to God’s will, not to grasp at being your own master. It is Christian to accept the good consequences that God has ordained for our actions, not to try to take what we want and leave what we don’t, inevitably perverting His goodness. I’m able to accept these teachings now because I’ve seen that contraception grasps autonomy and leads down a road of avoiding consequences. I’ve seen that the contraceptive attitude is anti-Christian in nature, because the Christian attitude submits our own desires and will to God’s perfect will.
This post doesn’t address other factors that come into play with NFP, it was really only written to answer the question, “What is the difference between NFP and birth control?” The answer is that NFP does not change the nature of the sex act itself. You abstain from sex instead of separating sex from its consequences. It is the sex act itself that left intact when postponing children with NFP. That is better and more holy than dissecting sex, taking what you want, and leaving everything, including your soul, in pieces.
Now I feel I understand the reasons for using NFP, but it doesn’t always make it easier to follow through on it. Not that it’s difficult or ineffective. By actually doing it, the concerns I had about that beforehand are laughable now. I know a time will come when after we’ve had our five or six children on the menu, we’ll be “done”. We won’t want to have any more. Considering the fact that Chris and I began our marriage eight months pregnant, I know that I will not be open to life indefinitely. I know that there will come a time when I want just me and him, and that will probably be before I go through menopause. After years of practice, continuing to use NFP will not be difficult, but I know my attitude will not be right. I know that I will be using NFP with a contraceptive mentality, wanting to take control of my life and have sex without children. My intent will be selfish although the method will still be good. I pray God will give me the grace to be ready for this challenge by the time it comes, and I will do my best to accept His will in all things and to trust Him.