The Downside Of Natural Family Planning

Does natural family planning even work?

There’s a joke some of my friends like to tell: “What do you call people who practice Natural Family Planning?” “Parents.”

The joke being that “natural family planning”, the practice of avoiding conception by avoiding intercourse when a woman is fertile, doesn’t work. Proponents say it’s extremely effective when used correctly, but even if that’s the case, it’s a method extremely vulnerable to human error.

Yet it’s a popular one, especially among conservative Christians who oppose the use of most forms of birth control. NFP isn’t just for the God-fearing, though. Plenty of my liberal hippy friends have tried it over the years.

Now, a couple who once wrote a book praising the practice are speaking out against it.

The New York Times ran an interesting profile of this couple over the weekend. A decade ago, Bethany Patchin and Sam Torode were passionate about Christ, family values, and each other. They married young, when Bethany was just 19, and quickly had four children together. They also wrote a book, Open Embrace, condemning most forms of contraception and praising natural family planning.

Now they’re divorced, they both attend liberal churches and embrace contraception use, and they see some major problems with NFP. For one thing, it didn’t work for them. Bethany got pregnant while breastfeeding twice, resulting in kids less than two years apart. Which, as she says, was hard on her and on their relationship.

Worse, even when she wasn’t getting pregnant before she was ready, NFP put unpleasant constraints on their love life. From the NYT piece:

In their 2006 statement on the Web, the couple wrote that natural family planning could harm a marriage, even when it worked.

“Wanting to make love to your spouse often is a good thing, but NFP often lays an unfair burden of guilt on men for feeling this,” the Torodes wrote. And it is “a theological attack on women to always require that abstinence during the time of the wife’s peak sexual desire (ovulation) for the entire duration of her fertile life, except for the handful of times when she conceives.”

If NFP is so problematic and unreliable, why would anyone do it? In particular, why would anyone willing to use other forms of contraception do it?

Basically because all the other options have problems, too. Hormonal birth control in any form can have nasty side effects, including stealing your libido. Condoms and diaphragms are a pain to use on the spot, and also prone to human error. IUDs can cause heavier periods, and have a bad rap from the 70s that makes a lot of women afraid to use them. Most of the women I know who’ve tried NFP have done so in frustration after coping with side effects or problems with other forms of birth control.

A few got pregnant. No one stuck with it long term. As far as I can tell, the IUD is the contraceptive of choice among my lady friends these days, with a roughly even split between those who prefer the copper type and those who use Mirena.

What birth control do you favor? Would you ever try NFP? Have you?

Photo: treyevan

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