Natural Family Planning fosters authentic love, health, empowerment, and discipleship

North Texas Catholic
(Jul 26, 2021) Feature

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After her first pregnancy, St. Matthew parishioner Brenda Reyes de Lara’s body felt disoriented. “I had no idea what was going on, and my hormones were all over the place,” she said.

In the process of seeking a marriage validation, she and her husband took a class on the Billings Ovulation Method, a method of Natural Family Planning (NFP) that uses cervical fluid to determine a woman’s fertility status. Seeing the hormone patterns on the chart helped her to understand the postpartum changes of her body. “It was truthfully an answer to our prayers to learn NFP,” she added.

Reyes de Lara and her husband have now been teaching the Billings Ovulation Method for four years. As the Natural Family Planning coordinator for the diocese, Reyes de Lara encourages everyone to learn NFP — engaged and married couples, single women, even teenagers. “A lot of couples think [NFP] is just for married couples or because they’re wanting to have kids,” she said. “But it’s… to learn your health and know your body.”

“Even in our secular world… I’ve noticed people going away from birth control not for religious but for health reasons,” added Chris Vaughan, Director of Marriage and Family Life. “For us, we do it because of Jesus Christ. On the cross, He shows us what true love is.”

Informed by solid research and inspired by Christ’s bold selfless love, instructors and experts say that Natural Family Planning empowers women (and men) to care for their bodies in sickness and in health, and to love selflessly like Christ on the cross.

The Science

NFP, or as it is referred to in secular circles, Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs), interprets signs and symptoms of hormonal changes in a woman’s body to determine the fertile and infertile phases of her monthly cycle. NFP helps couples determine the best opportunities for conception. To avoid pregnancy, a couple can abstain from sexual activity during the woman’s fertile days. 

The Diocese of Fort Worth offers instruction in four methods of NFP, all based on rigorous research: Billings Ovulation Method and Creighton Model FertilityCare System use a woman’s cervical fluid to determine fertility. The Sympto-Thermal Method taught by the Couple to Couple League relies on cervical fluid, basal body temperature, and cervical position. The Marquette Model uses a combination of cervical fluid, temperature, and chemical urine analysis.

Vaughan explained why the Church teaches women to work with their bodies’ fertility, rather than eliminating it via chemical contraceptives or surgery. “To maim the human body — and usually the female body — it’s not healthy.” 

“Having periods is not a disease,” wrote Clara Moskowitz and Jen Schwartz in Scientific American’s spotlight on women’s reproductive health in May 2019. In the same issue, Maya Dusenbery wrote: “A couple can only fertilize an egg up to about five days before and two days after ovulation because of the combined viability of sperm and egg in the female body. So the goal of fertility awareness-based methods, or FABMs, is to predict — and then confirm — when ovulation occurs.” 

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Toni Weschler wrote in Taking Charge of Your Fertility: “Fertility Awareness is […] based on the observation and charting of scientifically proven fertility signs that determine whether or not a woman is fertile on any given day.” Weschler contrasts FABM with “…the obsolete rhythm method,” which is “nothing more than a flawed statistical prediction.”

According to a 2013 scientific literature review by Michael Manhart, Ph.D and colleagues, users of well researched fertility awareness methods “have unintended pregnancy rates comparable to those of many other methods” of family planning. Dusenbery wrote, “When done right, some [fertility awareness based methods] are 95 to 99 percent effective.” 

In addition to being a violation of Church teachings, using barrier methods is risky, St. Patrick parishioner Nicole Havrilla cautioned. Using them during the fertile window may result in unintended pregnancy; at that point the couple is relying on the effectiveness of the barrier method rather than on the effectiveness of NFP. “The condom failed you; NFP didn’t fail you,” she said. For optimal accuracy, users of NFP should abstain from sexual intercourse during the woman’s fertile window.

“God gave us outward signs of our fertility,” said Havrilla. By charting a few signs and symptoms each day, women can learn their fertility patterns and be more proactive in their healthcare and their reproductive habits. With well over a decade of NFP experience, Havrilla is the founder and president of WholeLife Authentic Care clinic in Fort Worth, whose doctors and practitioners use the Creighton FertilityCare model to help women track their ovulation — whether they are trying to achieve pregnancy, avoid pregnancy, or improve their health.

Empowering Women

Women who practice NFP daily chart their health. According to Stephanie Gavin, a certified FertilityCare practitioner who attends Holy Family and St. Andrew, a woman’s charts “identify red flags that may need a physician’s attention,” she said. Gavin and fellow practitioners at WholeLife Authentic Care use their patients’ Creighton charts to develop personalized treatment plans.

Due to misunderstanding of the normal variance of a woman’s cycles, Weschler lamented that many couples “are led to believe they are infertile when they actually may not be.” Many women undergo expensive, invasive — and unnecessary — diagnostic and treatment plans when a fertility chart would have provided sufficient information. 

For women whose charts indicate a need for medical intervention, actively charting can help prevent serious health complications, infertility, and even some miscarriages. “Charting your cycle is able to put you into the best frame of mind and the best information possible,” said Havrilla. Even when a woman is not able to achieve her fertility goals, she added, charting can give women and couples “a sense of peace — we did everything we could and… we’re called to be something else.” She added that practicing NFP and seeking personalized medical care based on her charts can help a woman “move on the continuum of better health.”

For Joselyn Ramey, who attends Our Mother of Mercy, charting “helped me to better understand the different phases of my cycle. That knowledge gave me confidence to ask questions at my yearly physical. It also gave me a visual — this is how I’m feeling during this time; this is how I’m feeling during another time. So I could see where I needed to make adjustments like sleeping, eating, so I could feel better.” 

Loving like Christ

Saint Pope John Paul II’s sermons on the Theology of the Body warn men (and women) not to “reduce all the riches of her femininity to a single value — sex. […] Lust obscures the significance of the body and the worth of the person.” 

“Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae tells us love is free, full, faithful, and fruitful,” said Vaughan. “It’s a free gift, like Jesus’ love is free.” According to Vaughan, using NFP unconditionally accepts all aspects of their partner’s body, including fertility. Vaughan referenced a quote from the wedding night of Tobias and Sarah in the Book of Tobit: “I now am taking this kinswoman of mine, not because of lust, but with sincerity.” That’s the kind of love that NFP aspires to.

Abstaining during the woman’s fertile window to avoid pregnancy is a mutual act of self-sacrifice. “It’s certainly good… but there are times you don’t love it,” said Vaughan.

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For some couples, the fertile window is brief. For others, times of abstinence can be much longer. “This practice helps couples when they must go through more extended periods of abstinence due to chronic health problems or if at some point they experience a form of cycle irregularity, dysfunction, or sexual pain,” said St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioner Amy Rustand. Rustand and her husband have been teaching the Sympto-Thermal Method for 15 years. “NFP normalizes abstinence, removes the stigma of the idea, and helps couples recognize the graces they can receive when giving up a good like sexual intimacy and reproduction together.” 

“When you say your vows, you are accepting them in health and [when they’re] unhealthy,” said Reyes de Lara. “Sometimes it can be hard, but it’s just like putting it together with His suffering on the cross.” 

“Marriage should not be reduced to the conjugal act,” Vaughan said. “We have to foster ways to give to each other. That’s what NFP is all about.”

Havrilla, who has experienced many extended periods of abstinence for medical reasons, encourages couples to “go back to the dating days.” When a couple practices NFP, “there’s a level of empathy that enters the discussion,” Havrilla said.

Learning NFP also fosters radical self-love and appreciation of the way God created woman. NFP taught Havrilla to “appreciate what my body does.”

After learning NFP, Reyes de Lara felt “mesmerized by the gift of being a woman.”

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