Radiant Beams from the Gospel of Life

Chapter Five: Natural Family Planning

We know today that the ovulation event, governed by cyclic hormonal secretion, occurs but once during a cycle. If there are several ovulations, they occur within 24 hours of each other. As Dr. Kyusaku Ogino proved in his writings since 1923, the time of ovulation is usually 16-12 days before the expected menstruation. In the meantime a great deal more has been learned: the temperature shifts upward slightly with ovulation. This shift has become a clear marker to identify the potentially fertile times. Usually from the 4th day after the shift - always from the 5th - until into the next cycle, conception is not possible.

The first exact descriptions about the temperature shift came from Mary Jacoby of the USA in 1876, and from the Dutch gynecologist Theodor Henry van de Velde (1904). The German Catholic priest, Wilhelm Hillebrand, was the first person to use the temperature shift to determine the infertile days of the cycle. He pioneered the most reliable and successful periodical abstinence form of birth control of his time (Doering, 171-172).

The cervical mucus sign, which many women can perceive and monitor quite easily, comes and goes with the ovulation episode. It is another sign to identify fertile and infertile times. It is used by very many couples now, taught especially under the inspiration and guidance of Doctors Evelyn and John Billings. Its use without need of a thermometer is convenient for couples, especially in tropical countries.

The condition of the cervix itself, first taught by Dr. Edward F. Keefe of New York, is still another sign which some learn very well; whether it is high or low in the vagina, whether firm or soft, open or closed. It is popular with flight attendants who deal with time lags, irregular hours, and stress.

Dr. Joseph Roetzer in Austria, and John Kippley together with Dr. Konald Prem in the USA, are among the great pioneers who combined temperature and mucus signs, and currently cervical signs. High reliability is assured with a minimum of abstinence.

Some users are content with one sign, with only occasional confirmational monitoring of additional indications. Others find greater certitude by combining several signs.

When quick digital thermometers came on the market in Japan, up to 65% of women in some areas tried to use the temperature method of NFP with them, according to a study (unpublished) by Dr. Shigeru Murayama. But the thermometers were not sufficiently exact, and back-up teaching was imprecise. Most gave up again.

Inventor Kinji Nishimura noted all this, and began to work on the problem of exact thermometers and precise temperature measurements; then he added a micro-processor and a mini-computer to memorize data and calculate the fertile days of current cycles in the future from data already in the memory. Cycle and temperature data, he insisted, must enter the memory exactly and automatically, lest imprecision and human error distort the calculations. Six years later he emerged with a device he terms L Sophia, small enough to fit into a lady's purse, clever enough to automatically display the fertile days of the cycle on the liquid crystal window. Husband and wife can now watch the signs and decide accordingly. It becomes a kind of family game. At the time of this writing (1996) over 100,000 have bought the device in Japan; newer models are selling even faster, at latest report, 8,000 units per month. The device is soon to make its debut on the world market.

Whether by electronic devices, or by simple observation, reliable NFP is now available for most people in the world who sincerely wish to use it. Difficult cases may need special advice, care, vitamins, diet, more regular life-style, therapy, longer abstinence. Sometimes nursing mothers - if signs remain uncertain and abstinence lasts for week after week - may dialogue with husbands about what is best for the family; that is, whether to continue breast feeding for the advantage of the baby and so to abstain from marital intercourse while the signs of fertility are not always 100% clear; or whether to wean the baby so that the menstrual cycle is restored and the signs of cyclic fertility can be monitored with greater confidence.

At any rate, for every couple in the world, if there are fertile days, there are also infertile days of the cycle. Millions of couples use NFP today. Users of NFP have a minimal divorce rate in dramatic contrast to contraceptors, and abortion is foreign to their way of life. They suffer no damage from Pill ingestion, and have a clear conscience before the Lord. In the long run, a large part of the human race will learn NFP, I believe, and once it has become folklore, it will benefit the race until the end of time.

Unfortunately, the Pill and other profit-making methods have temporarily put a crimp into statistics of users of NFP in the USA and elsewhere. John F. Kippley, President of Couple to Couple League, using government survey data, indicates that in 1965, among Catholics who used family planning, 31.9 percent used natural methods at that time; that percentage dropped to only 8.9 NFP users it in 1976; then to 6 percent in 1983; and to a surprising low of 3 percent in l988 (see Kippley 1991 (2), p. 12). In 1982, before the percentage fell from 6 percent to 3 percent, their actual number would have been about 546,000 couples (see Kambic and McHugh, 249). This is still a considerable presence - an average of 26 couples in each of the 19,723 parishes. In Japan about 5.0% - about 890,000 couples - now use pure NFP (data extrapolated from Mainichi Newspapers Survey, 1990).

In contrast, over 13 million women in the USA are currently using the Pill. By now Pill related income has become a substantial, even a major part, of the gross annual income for Pill prescribing doctors; to not prescribe the Pill would presumably occasion a formidable financial crisis for them. Similarly, USA pharmacists realize a gross annual income from Pill sales totaling, by one calculation, 3.3 billion USA dollars; divided among 160,000 pharmacists, the gross income for Pill sales for individual pharmacists in the USA is about $22,500 annually (Glanville, M.D., 3-6). Medical journals are, in general, so completely dependent upon income from advertising by major pharmaceutical companies, that if they were to publish articles which spell out the enormous harm which Pills do to women and marriages, they would be committing economic suicide.

Contraception, Sterilization, Abortion

Global estimates (1988) indicate that among the 850-880 million married couples in the reproductive ages, close to 40 percent use some form of artificial contraception, or are surgically sterilized:

155,000,000 couples surgically sterilized
80,000,000 IUD
55,000,000 Pill
38,000,000 condom
6,000,000 injectable
334,000,000 (38% of 880 million couples)

There are also about 40-60 million legal and illegal induced abortions per year. (Statistics from Studies in Family Planning, Nov/Dec 1988, p. 341 ff.). The May/June 1992 issue of the same journal reports that currently almost half of the couples in the developing world use contraception, and one half of these contraceptors are sterilized. Their projections envision that 269,000,000 couples, that is 29% of all couples in the child bearing ages, are to be sterilized by the year 2000 (p. 187). This is an immense tragedy for womanhood and the human race.

Sterilizations are not spread evenly through the age brackets, but tend to increase sharply as the woman reaches her mid-thirties. The sterilized percentage of this population may then become very high. A study in Quebec, for example, indicates that 61% of couples were sterilized when the woman was age 35-44; and 75.8% when three or more children were already born (SERENA Canada Newsletter, March-April 1983). I have heard estimates of 50%, 60%, even 80% of Catholic couples in the older age groups sterilized in one or the other diocese in the USA: In the general population of the USA, among women age 35-44, 58% were surgically sterilized, of which 46.3% were contraceptive, and 12.0 were non-contraceptive sterilizations (figures for 1988, U.S. Department of health and Human Services, Advance Data, Dec. 4, 1990). In addition, male sterilizations, about 450,000 per year (figures of Association for voluntary Sterilization) increase the percentage of surgically sterilized couples considerably. A majority of couples in the USA in the upper ages of the child-bearing years are therefore surgically sterilized for contraceptive purposes. It is not a healthy and vigorous moral situation. We suffocate morally. When the NFP coordinator goes around to canvass students, only a trickle comes forward; the rest "don't need it."

We admit before God, heads hung in shame, that perhaps more than half of the human race of our generation now uses, or is going to use, methods of birth control which offend Him deeply; methods which also generate enormous health problems; revolting practices which deform public morals and paralyze religious fervor in the Church. The serenity of youth is disturbed by untimely sexual activity; callous doctors rip unborn children out of the wombs of glassy eyed girls, many of whom are damaged physically, a large number of whom will also have to live with Post Abortion Syndrome for the rest of their lives. Contraception is love turned inside out, which sensitive partners cannot help to perceive; family life becomes hell, children cry, couples are torn asunder; sterilization makes a mockery of a former true love no longer functioning now; people lose joy in life, lose faith in God; some feel uneasy at Sunday Mass and stop coming; others stop coming because they no longer feel it is worth while. All this is not inevitable, need not, must not be. The Pope now rallies the entire world, in the encyclical The Gospel of Life, to take a fresh look at what is really worth our while in life, and to pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps.

Difference of Mentality Between NFP and Contraception

The Pope points out that "the negative value inherent in the `contraceptive mentality'...is very different from responsible parenthood lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act" (#13). Nevertheless, is there a danger that users of NFP may also become selfish by seeking to avoid children when confining intercourse to the infertile times only?

An Catholic gynecologist told me some years ago about his experiences which take this question out of the realm of theoretical theology into grass roots realities. He said that he had guided many couples who came to him, after they had four, five or six children, and practically all of them succeeded in avoiding pregnancies thereafter. But not forever. After several years, there were "failures," that is, unexpected pregnancies. This happened time and again, he said. He began to see it as a pattern, and to expect such parents to return to him pregnant after they had practiced NFP successfully for a span of years. He then drew a conclusion: "NFP couples have lots of love. These parents didn't really become pregnant by accident. They were so in love with each other, and with children, that they exposed themselves willingly."

The Pope's repeated advice to parents that they "be generous" in bearing children, "generously open to new lives" (#97) is likely received with more warmth and agreement by NFP users than by those who contracept. I personally know experts in the use of NFP, who can teach others to use it without fail, who nevertheless themselves have 4,6,8,10 children. We must remember that NFP, used properly, is really open to life, is loving, is self-sacrificing. Parents who willingly abstain during the fertile days of the cycle month after month, out of love for each other and for the family, and in obedience to God, need strong motivation to be faithful. Their great love is their motivation.

To practice periodic abstinence out of selfish reasons is quite foreign to the general life-style and orientation of a married couple who are well adjusted toward each other. We do not say that sins are never committed, for who is there among us who does not fall into sin? If they occasionally use condoms or withdrawal, or similar, they sin, of course. But if they never use contraception, then the very discipline of using NFP is self-regulating to a great extent: they will have more babies if they do not have sufficiently noble motives to sustain their practice of NFP. Of course, every good thing can be abused by humans, but I believe that use of NFP for selfish motives over a long period of time would be something rather exceptional.

NFP: The Indicated Therapy For Families Today

Sister Helen Paul observed that the 4,000-5,000 Philippine families, whom she and her co-workers were able to educate in the art of natural family planning during eight years, exhibited an entirely new hold on life when they adopted NFP. "The couples succeeded in controlling their fertility and much more, as the report of the employer indicated: population growth diminished, and a remarkable improvement in the law-and-order situation in the camps of the laborers was noticeable.

The thing that impressed me most, and keeps me interested in the program today, is the fact that it's a beautiful opportunity to observe persons grow. A change seems to occur in an individual's self-image, the way a man sees himself as a man. He becomes a person aware of his dignity, a person worthy of respect; a person who can expect respect from his peers, from his wife, and his children. His personal discovery of self-control in his sexual life opens up to him the opportunity for change in other areas: gambling, smoking, alcohol. It is interesting that a change in an individual's self-image opens to him a possibility for change in many areas of life.

The children used to comment about the change in mom and dad. No more fighting at home, they say. And when this happens within a home, the children apply it in their own relationships. We see this change in behavior of children because of the change in the parents...

I believe that couples need to be challenged to try NFP. Marriages today are in dire need of assistance. One of the strongest ways to assist marriage is for the Church, doctors and others to offer couples the practice of NFP.

I believe that if couples are encouraged to try - encouraged by their clergymen and their doctors - then NFP is for all couples, regardless of their standing in society. I believe that not to challenge them is to underestimate their potential, that God-given potential which lies within each person." (A Philippine Experience, in Natural Family Planning, pp. 10-11).

I have yet to meet an experienced teacher of NFP who does not agree with what Sr. Helen Paul said, provided the local clergy, doctors, and community all support each other in the venture. NFP works when the community agrees that it should work (cf. Humanae Vitae #28). The experience of shared goodness in the community then fortifies and amplifies successful use of NFP:

This discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort, yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favours attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents develop a capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae #21; Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio #33).

So does Mother Teresa, who provides that at least one of the sisters in each of her convents be trained for teaching NFP. Mother Teresa told 20,000,000 people viewing her on television in Japan:

We are teaching the young people natural family planning, so that the future will become simple for them; and the poor people told me that from the time we are practicing this way of life our family has remained united, our family is healthy, and we can have a baby whenever we like. And this has brought so much peace and unity in the life of our poor people (Tokyo, NHK-TV, May 24, 1981).

Sterilization vs NFP

Sterilization is an offense against God which, by its finality of permanent contraception, is a rebellion which endures, which is branded into biological scars that usually exclude repair. It is analogous to the finalized rebellion of the adult Israelites in the desert as related in the Bible. These rebels drank in eagerly the accounts told by the spies, who exaggerated the difficulties of going north into the land God which had promised to them, and to conquer its inhabitants. The spies tickled their itching ears with fabulous tales about enemies blocking their path who were stronger than themselves, about people of giant size there, besides whom they appeared no larger than grasshoppers; of fortified cities whose walls reached to the skies. The crowd milled about all night in an orgy of complaining and mutiny; by morning they had brewed a full scale rebellion against God. They were in a state of insurrection, preferring a return to Egypt over a scheduled march into the Promised Land:

Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why does the Lord bring us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt? (Nu 14:2-3).

What follows is one of the most remarkable manifestations of the anger of God recorded in the entire Bible. The glory of the Lord appeared, and He took complete charge; then He fulminated to Moses and Aaron as follows:

How long shall this wicked congregation murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel which they murmur against me. Say to them, "As I live, says the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness; and of all your number, numbered from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell... Your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness... You shall know my displeasure. I, the Lord, have spoken" (Nu 14:26 ff.).

And so it happened. The Israelites marked time during forty years in the desert until the last of the rebels who had been twenty years old at the time of the sin died. The Bible doesn't tell us much about what they did while waiting for death; for the Bible, they had lost importance. God now seemed so alienated from them that they neglected circumcision which would have marked them as God's chosen people; that was now meaningless. They also stopped celebrating the Passover, because they had basically opted against God's plan marked by the Passover. It was only after their generation had died out that the younger generation took up these things again to celebrate their election as God's new people, no longer rejected by Him (see Jos 5).

In a sense, couples who have sterilized themselves for permanent contraception, are frozen in a similar state of concretized rebellion. Many sterilized couples stop coming to Church, stop meaningful prayer, lose interest in life and love, become unfaithful, divorce, mark time in a dull wait for the end. Sterilization of the body has sterilized out of their lives any joy in God and in each other.

But it needs not be so. Christ died for them too, as He died for Peter who had denied Him; as He died for Magdalene the sinner; and for the good thief who hung on the cross besides Him. What sterilized couples must do is repent meaningfully and sincerely.

An experienced psychiatrist has told me that marriages of sterilized couples healed quickly under her guidance, even within a year, when they made a change of heart; when they proved this change of heart by going to confession and doing penance. The penance she recommends is that they abstain from intercourse periodically, during what might have been the fertile days of the cycle. Thus they prove to themselves that they are determined to keep God's law even when this is hard. And they demonstrate that, with God's help, they can overcome the pull of the flesh. Within a year, she declares, marriages can become alive again.

The good news is that God forgives when we repent; that the people who worked in His vineyard during the evening hour only received the same wage as those who had worked from morning on; that God rejoices over one sinner who repents, more than over the nine-nine just people who need no repentance; that Christ came to call the sick, not those who say they are well. And if Christ be on our side, who can be against us? The good news is that sterilized couples need not die in the desert alienated from God.

Next Page: Chapter 6: When Does God Create a Person?
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