By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
The same week a student group came under fire for distributing condoms on the Saint Paul University (SPU) campus, a pro-life group hosted a panel touting the benefits of natural family planning (NFP), revealing the contrasts between artificial and natural means of preventing pregnancy.
SPU ordered the student group to stop its practice of leaving a bowl of condoms for free use, prompting a student to write an open letter, backed by 100 others that has been picked up by the news media. “I was shocked that it's 2012 and we're still having this conversation of science versus ideology," said Zach Zimmel, the author of an open letter to the university administration, according to the CBC.
But University of Ottawa assistant professor of family medicine Dr. Rene Leiva, who practices NaProTechnology, a form of fertility care that maximizes gynecological health, would beg to differ that a Catholic approach to family planning lacks a scientific basis.
But he realizes there are many misconceptions about NFP. At the Mar. 13 panel discussion, hosted by SPU’s Students for Life, Leiva said even a Catholic doctor who taught contraception when he was in medical school dubbed methods in line with Catholic teaching “Vatican roulette.”
Leiva traced the origins of the birth control pill to the eugenics movement spearheaded by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. He noted that in many cases the pill does not prevent ovulation, and studies have shown that in countries saturated with birth control use, the abortion rate also increases.
The family doctor’s position is bolstered by a recent report that shows in New York City, which offers easily accessible contraception, 41 per cent of pregnancies end in abortion; while the rate among African-American women in that city is 60 per cent.
NFP allows couples to achieve pregnancy, avoid pregnancy all the while maximizing a woman’s health, Leiva said. Its success depends on accurate observation of a woman’s menstrual cycle, whether through changes in vaginal mucus, bodily temperature or urine tests for hormonal changes or a combination of techniques. Leiva said that when people follow the method perfectly, NFP is 97 per cent effective, the same rate of effectiveness touted by perfect users of birth control pills.
Fr. Terrence Donahue outlined the theological reasons why condoms and artificial contraception of any kind are contrary to God’s plan. Citing passages from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, he said spoke about the total gift of self in marriage that includes the gift of one’s fertility.
But the priest blasted the common stereotype that Catholic teaching demands people “have to have as many children as possible.”
“That’s a heresy, condemned by the Church,” he said. “It’s called natalism.”
“We are called to be responsible parents,” he said, saying that parents must discern together whether to have more children or not to have more children for a prudent and serious reason.”
The Church’s teachings allow parents to make recourse to the infertile times in a woman’s cycle, he said.
Using a condom or artificial contraception such as the pill, contradicts the language of the body. “We are saying one thing with our body and another with the contraceptive instrument,” he said. “I am totally yours except for my fertility.”
Fertility Care Practitioner Linda Smith, who counsels couples in NFP using the Creighton method, said her method teaches women to chart their cycles, to begin to understand when they ovulate. But the charting can uncover hidden problems that can be corrected, she said, noting that many couples come to her for help in treating infertility or successive miscarriages.
He spoke of the relationship between Eros---the love of attraction and desire---that can “degrade into lust” if it is not tempered by agape or selfless love.
Smith contrasted the attitudes behind the use of the Pill, verses NFP. The Pill treats fertility as a disease; NFP treats fertility as a sign of health. The Pill suppresses fertility; NFP supports and enhances it. The Pill, often prescribed to women who have irregular periods or painful menstruation or excess bleeding, masks underlying issues; NFP treats the underlying issues. The Pill can allow underlying issues to fester; NFP is safe and enhances overall health.
He spoke of the relationship between Eros---the love of attraction and desire---and agape or selfless love. Eros can “degrade into lust” if it is not tempered by agape, Donahue said.
Leiva pointed out the increased risk of blood clots, breast cancer, cervical cancer, cardiovascular disease, involved in the Pill. Though there is evidence Pill use lowers some forms of cancer, these forms are rarer than breast and cervical cancer, he said.
Smith explained that couples seeking help in NaProTechnology from Dr. Leiva would come to her first to learn to chart the woman’s cycle so the doctor can identify what underlying problems may need to be treated.
Smith said she got involved with the Creighton method in 2005 after years of suffering from gynecological problems, including painful periods that left her unable to function many days of the month or experiencing unusual bleeding in her 20s.
Doctors wanted to put her on the pill, but she feared doing so would not address the cause of her problems. So she went to the Marguerite Bourgeoys Family Centre in Toronto and discovered a number of underlying issues that have since been corrected.
Leiva said studies show that the average couple engages in about 5.5 sexual acts per month, while the NFP couple trying to avoid a pregnancy will engage in 5.1, though he said that number could rise as couples get better at predicting infertile periods.
Some couples have difficulties with abstinence and the decreased spontaneity of NFP, Leiva said. There is also a problem with unbalanced sexual rhythms that increase a woman’s desire for sex at the times she is ovulating. “If they do not want to get pregnant, they will have to wait,” he said.
NFP offers no protection against sexually transmitted disease; it can be difficult to learn, requiring three to six cycles of charting; and it requires periods of continence or abstinence. But the benefit is that the building of continence is a virtue, he said and NFP “keeps a cycle of honeymoon and courtship into the relationship.”
Donahue pointed out that NFP has been successfully taught among illiterate women by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity and other organizations in the developing world that have used agricultural symbols to help women identify changes in their menstrual cycles.
NFP emphasizes an integrated approach to sexuality that is not strictly genital-focused, said Smiths. “As human beings we are bigger than our genitals.”
There are many ways to show affection and build on connection through spiritual, psychological and physical means that do not stimulate genital arousal, she said.
Though the word about NFP is not getting out, Smith said she is encountering a lot of excitement about the program among young couples, even non-Catholics, who are “interested in health and do not want to put anything artificial into their body.”
“When someone gives false information about NFP that’s an injustice to women,” said Donahue. “It’s almost sad when that takes place.”
Catholic teaching assumes a person desires to be a follower of Christ, he said, noting that those who have a contraceptive mentality are not going to use the more difficult method of NFP instead of the Pill or another artificial means. “Couples that really want to walk the talk are going to use NFP,” he said.