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Catholic Natural Family Planning Perspectives
a Catholic Mom Column by Sara Fox Peterson

Archived Catholic Natural Family Planning Columns from Sara Fox Peterson:

Too Much Affection?
Surprises Happen
Husbands and Daughters
The Pill: Questions and Answers
Heroic Virtue
Not on the Same Page (Part II)
Not on the Same Page (Part I)
The People Who Actually Do This
Sweetness and Light
Freeing Our Consciences
What if It's Too Late?
What's the Difference
Medical Exceptions
Fear Not - Five Resolutions for a New Year
An Open Question
Catholic Contraception?
Contraception, Lies and the Truth
Natural Family Planning - Why Not?

Sara can be contacted by email at [email protected] - please indicate "NFP" in the subject line of your email.

What is NFP?

Every fertile woman experiences recurring signs of her fertility. Natural Family Planning (NFP) teaches a woman to recognize and record these signs so that spouses can identify the days in each cycle when conception can occur and plan the timing of their marital relations according to their desire either to avoid or achieve pregnancy.

Looking for more information on Natural Family Planning?  Visit our Natural Family Planning Resource Center.

Natural Family Planning Method Comparison - a comprehensive comparison of natural family planning methods 

For additional "cyber-support" you are also most welcome to join in the discussions in the Catholic Mom Community's NFP Forum

The Pill as Panacea

Any woman who goes to her doctor with a complaint about her menstrual cycles is likely to walk out with a prescription for the birth control pill. The pill has become the mainstay of reproductive medicine and is prescribed for everything from acne to infertility as well as being commonly used to manage the symptoms of more serious conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). 

And it is not hard to find a Catholics (including priests and apologists) who maintain that taking the birth control pill to treat a medical condition is morally acceptable even for a married woman because the intention in doing so is not to contracept, but to alleviate the symptoms from which the woman is suffering. And this is true up to a point.  As explained by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, a contraceptive effect (an "impediment to procreation") is usually morally permissible as a side effect of treating a medical condition:

“On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (15) 

Unfortunately in the case of the birth control pill (as well as other hormonal contraceptives including the patch, implants, IUD and so on) we have to consider the fact that the pill works both as a contraceptive and an abortifacient. If the pill only acted to prevent conception, then it would be morally permissible even for a married, sexually active woman to take it to treat a medical condition, but because the pill also acts to kill babies conceived when the contraceptive action fails it cannot morally be used this way. 

The abortifacient effect of the pill is not an “impediment to procreation” because procreation has already occurred and a new, unique, unrepeatable human life has already been created when the pill’s abortifacient action operates to end that life. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church is absolutely clear both that human life begins at conception and that we may only place an innocent person's life in jeopardy in the gravest of situations: 

“The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger . . . Unintentional killing is not morally imputable. But one is not exonerated from grave offense if, without proportionate reasons, he has acted in a way that brings about someone's death, even without the intention to do so.  

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. . . . Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:  

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.  

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.“ (2269-2271) 

There are situations in which a pregnant woman develops a life-threatening condition for which the only effective treatment may potentially harm or even kill her baby and in such situations the treatment may be morally justified despite its risks for the child provided that the death of the child is not directly intended and every precaution is taken to minimize the risk for the child.  But in the case of the birth control pill the risk of a chemical abortion can be avoided through abstinence (either total abstinence or the very, very careful use of a mucus-only method of NFP) and because it is possible to avoid the risk, there is a moral obligation to do so. 

The argument has also been put forth that because so many newly conceived babies die in the first few weeks of life anyway, the fact that the pill sometimes acts to kill a few week embryo is not morally significant. But the natural death of an unborn baby (a miscarriage) is never the moral equivalent of the chemically induced death of a baby of the same age. Even on purely semantic grounds the difference between miscarriage and chemical abortion is clear. The technical term for a miscarriage is a "spontaneous abortion" and if the death of the baby (abortion) was caused by a drug intentionally ingested by the mother it was definitely not spontaneous. Furthermore the argument that we do not need to be concerned about causing the death of a very young unborn baby because he or she may not live very long regardless of what we do is really no different that justifying manslaughter by saying that perhaps the victim would have died naturally later the same day. 

In short, human life, even brand new human life, is too precious to risk except when doing so is an unavoidable part of attempting to save another’s life. Possibly the best illustration of this principle I have heard was from a pro-life Protestant family physician who said that he does not prescribe the birth control pill because he does not require absolute certainty that a child is standing behind a door to know that he must not fire a gun through that door; the merest possibility that a child might be there is moral obligation enough. 

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out that this entire column is really a moot point. There is never a situation in which the birth control pill is the only available medical treatment and in the overwhelming majority of cases the pill isn’t even the best treatment because it addresses only the symptoms and never the underlying problem. For more on this please see this discussion with Dr. Mary Martin, a pro-life, pro-NFP OB/Gyn. Women with gynecological problems always have options other than the pill and because of the problems discussed above married women ought to avoid its use even as a medical treatment.

For additional "cyber-support" you are also most welcome to join in the discussions in the Catholic Mom Community's NFP Forum

Looking for more information on Natural Family Planning?  Visit our Natural Family Planning Resource Center.


Sara Fox Peterson is a full time momma, a sometimes writer and a certified teacher of the Billings Ovulation Method of Natural Family Planning. She holds a BS in biology and an MS in human physiology, both from Georgetown University, and lives in Maryland with her husband and children.

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