The Natural Family Planning Method has its advantages and disadvantages. It has been strongly correlated with successful planning and prevention of pregnancy as well as healthy relationships. In this interview, Dr Anna Maria Vella addresses difficult situations like having a partner work abroad, shift work, breastfeeding, or an uncommitted Catholic partner. She also addresses contraception issues for people who wish to live the Catholic faith.
1. How effective is the Natural Family Planning method?
“The Natural Family Planning (NFP) method, when followed properly, has a very high success rate in preventing or planning a pregnancy. Another advantage is that it can also have a lot of positive impact on the relationship of the couple as they enter in a mutual understanding of respecting one’s body. However, we must acknowledge that a young married couple’s needs are very diverse from a couple who have children already and yet diverse again from a couple in their forties. Therefore the principle of graduality has to be applied when following Natural Family Planning method, meaning that a couple grows gradually into the concept of Natural Family Planning method and matures slowly into the mentality. All decisions in this regard, have to be taken for the moment and not for life. What is a good decision and morally correct for today may not continue to apply for tomorrow.
Many women who want to follow the Catholic Church’s teaching feel great frustration and grief when for many reasons they cannot follow the ‘rules’ to the letter. Unfortunately the teachings are often handed down in a very rigid and unpractical way. Men are often scared away by such rigidity and at times feel unsafe to follow such methods. The Natural Family Planning method is not a one size fits all method.”
2. What the difference between a contraceptive mentality and responsible parenthood ?
“Responsible parenthood takes care of one’s health and the health of the off-spring. It is not “having two is enough, having one is too little. It depends on what the couple is going through. We might feel that at the moment it’s not a good time to have a child but times and seasons change. Is it responsible to become pregnant when the mother has severe depression and the family is in financial difficulty? It is not. Yet, if a child is conceived, responsibility means that the child is still given a chance at life.
A contraceptive mentality is when you want to have sex but do not want to have a baby at all costs. This is why Pope John Paul 2nd had said that contraceptives can lead the way to abortion. A contraceptive mentality seeks abortive pills and procedures when contraception does not work. A contraceptive mentality can also hurt because it induces one to want the other unconditionally and expects him/her to always be available rather than respect his/her body. This is different than using contraception because you feel that your life’s circumstances are too difficult at the moment, yet, if a baby is still conceived, you are still open to welcome him/her. This is avoiding a pregnancy.
We are encouraged to leave open the possibility for opportunities of loving a new human being. Better decisions are taken by the couple about their sexual relationship when they are taken in God’s presence. But if the guidelines of the Church are not felt as life-giving but are felt as constraining, then such decisions are difficult to take.”
3. The Church teaches that contraceptives are “intrinsically evil” but lately Pope Francis said “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.” What do you think of this?
“There were cases when the Church okayed contraceptives to nuns as a defence against rape. We cannot say that in these circumstances it is ok and in other difficult situations it isn’t. If it is intrinsically wrong, it is always wrong. But it isn’t the case because here the Church said “ok .
I do not believe that all contraceptives are always wrong to use. There are circumstances, even in marriage, where for the health of the couple, it would be better to use contraceptives. When I say contraception, I am not talking about the morning after pill. The morning after pill can be abortifacient in the first days of the embryo’s life. I am referring to regular oral contraception and condoms.
An example of this is when the mother goes through a Caesarean section. It is very unsafe to have a child in the first months after birth due to a possible rupture of the uterus which could result in a fatality. In such a case it would be better for the couple to use a contraceptive than to abstain for many months, especially if times are stressful and being close can help the couple to feel more supported. Use of contraception is for a short period of time until the menstrual cycle is back to normal and the mother is not breastfeeding any more.”
4. Would you recommend Natural Family Planning method?
“I am all out for Natural Family Planning method and I highly recommend it. When used well, it is highly effective both to prevent and to plan a pregnancy. One has to be committed and chart body temperatures daily. Some couples prefer it if the man takes note of the temperature of the woman so she doesn’t have to explain if she is fertile or not. I have seen lots of couples who use this method who feel good about it and have used it for years. Sometimes the woman feels more respected by her partner/husband, in the sense that he can understand more why she is not available every day. Another advantage is that there are no side-effects.
The Natural Family Planning method is not the calendar method. That doesn’t work! In Natural Family Planning method, one has to take the body temperature daily and chart it. One also may chart one’s mucus and the position of the uterus. There are courses available about how to use this method well.
However, this method does not and cannot apply all the time to everybody. Let me give some examples:
- Those couples where you have one partner is a committed Catholic and the other is not or his/her faith is not so important for him/her.
- People on shift work.
- When the couple is experiencing financial tension, eg work in a precarious environment.
- The woman is forty year olds but still highly fertile and afraid to get pregnant because of having a disabled child. Their body will soon start to change and as a doctor I cannot rely on the Natural Family Planning method. I have to take care of the mother’s health and the health of the child and the couple’s wellbeing.
- When one’s partner works abroad.
- During breastfeeding it is also very hard. I have to say that there are couples who manage to use Natural Family Planning method when they are breastfeeding, God bless them! But it is very hard.
A recent example I had was of a couple who had a baby who died a few days after birth. This happened twice. They were told by the doctors that both babies did not produce a particular enzyme and that the chances were high that this could happen again in other babies they would have. The mourning was very hard on the mother. She could not bear any longer to bury her own children and spent five years in depression. I suggested contraception; of course we are talking here about methods which are reversible not eg: closing the tubes. If she were to marry again in the future she could have normal children. Natural Family Planning method was too complex in this situation. There are circumstances in life when a couple needs to feel closer often. That is why I felt that the contraceptive pill was a good decision.”
5. How should engaged couples formation be addressed today?
The marriage preparation courses (in Malta known as the Cana course) should be updated in a way to acknowledge that most couples today are already living together before marriage. It doesn’t mean that we accept this situation as if morally right. But teachings and courses have to be presented in a new way. We cannot ignore this fact as if it does not exist. Couples should be challenged and exposed to see the fuller vision of the sexual experience.
Published: June 2017
Updated: April 2018
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