I got an email from a friend a few weeks ago. She had some questions about Natural Family Planning (NFP.) She was asking me to clarify some things that she was hearing from another Catholic. My friend told me the other woman said something to the effect of:
Once the egg is released (ovulation) it can live for 10 days… Sperm can survive within her for 5-7 days… so that’s about 15 days gone… minus her actual “period”. I doubt they’ll have “relations” during those 5-7 days. SO there you have it…. not so many DAYS to actually have sex, IF you plan on using NFP.
Further, the woman claims that this information came straight from an NFP instructor. All I can say is ummm, NO.
First, the ovum does not live more than 24 hours. Some recent research suggests that ovum life is even shorter than that. For NFP purposes, a 48 hour window is allowed for egg life in case there is a second ovulation up to 24 hours after the first. Within about 24 hours, the corpus luteum secretes enough progesterone to suppress another ovulation, so multiple ovulation will normally occur within 24 hours of the first. (yes, there are extremely rare situations where this is not the case, but I’m going to deal with “average” or “normal” here… I figure if you are going to ovulate twice in a cycle a week or two apart, you have to really consider that a very clear act of God!)
Sperm life is varied, of course, but 7 days is definitely pushing it. It happens, but it is not the most common. I think 3 – 5 days is more like it. As far as using the days of menstruation goes, that is a personal preference for a couple. Unless the woman has a very early ovulation typically (and a couple is avoiding pregnancy), menstruation time does not have to be a time of abstinence.
While there are variations among couples due to differences in cycles, it is much more typical to have about 10 days of abstinence than it is to have 20 as the woman suggests. I think if we’re quite honest, we would admit that many husbands who have been married over, say, 2 or 3 years and have a couple of kids, would be plenty happy to hear they can have sex 18 days out of a cycle…heck, they’d be happy with 13! (okay, okay, women, too.)
It is poor reasoning for a Catholic to make the claim that NFP “doesn’t work” because they do not want to have to abstain. Many Catholics will reject NFP outright because of the thought of abstinence. They want sex and they want it now… or whenever. But the truth is, they are ALWAYS free to choose to renew their marriage covenant. They are always free to be open to being blessed by God with the gift of a child. NFP does work, and it works quite effectively, but it does require abstaining from sex from time to time. That’s the bottom line. Is it hard sometimes? You bet it is.
Even when it is hard, it can be done. It is not impossible. I am at a loss to understand why it is considered “impossible” to abstain for 10 days. I really am. My husband is overseas. He has been since the end of May. We have abstained for months! How is it that we, and so many others like us, can manage to abstain for months while others claim that 10 days is just too hard and the Church is wrong to place that upon us? No one has told me or my husband that abstaining for so long is too hard and that we should not expect ourselves or each other to remain faithful. Not one person has suggested such a thing. Nor should they! It is not impossible. It is difficult at times, but not impossible. The difficulty does not excuse us from our obligation to be true, faithful and to forsake all others. Difficulty does not excuse anyone from following God’s command on this. Sometimes being a disciple of Christ is demanding and difficult, but we must embrace that difficulty if we belong to Him.
This is not a nice little teaching of the Church that is held out for the super-holy (if it were, I would not be bound by it!) This is God’s truth, based on the Natural Law. The Catechism could not be any clearer when it says,
“[E]very action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” (CCC 2370). “Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means . . . for example, direct sterilization or contraception” (CCC 2399).
Let’s break that down… no matter what you do, if you interfere with sex as God designed, before, during or after and attempt to make procreation impossible, you are wrong. It is intrinsically evil… that means in and of itself. No condition can make it not evil. Culpability may be limited in some circumstances if a couple genuinely does not know their obligation, but it remains an evil just the same. Further, it says that no matter how good a couple’s intentions are (considering the well-being of the mother or the family they already have) that they may not avoid pregnancy by resorting to morally unacceptable means, for example direct sterilization (vasectomy or tubal ligation) or contraception (anything from condoms, to pills, patches, shots, iud’s and so on.)
It is important to note that the Church does not teach that it is evil to avoid pregnancy for good reasons. Rather, the Church recognizes that sometimes there are grave and serious reasons to avoid a pregnancy, either for a time or indefinitely and it is morally permissible to resort to a woman’s natural rhythms of fertility and infertility in those circumstances..
Catch that? Even NFP should only be used for the most serious of reasons! NFP is NOT Catholic birth control. The Lord and the Church want us to renew our marriage covenant. They want us to enjoy the gift of sexuality. And God sometimes, perhaps often, wants to bless us with life that He creates with us.
God had a real purpose in mind when he created sex. It is not a human invention. Sex is meant for “babies and bonding.” These are the two essential aspects of human sexuality: the unitive and the procreative. To be unitive means that it binds the spouses together (this is a “metaphysical” reality, it actually happens, folks.) It is the means of renewing the covenant of marriage. It is how we continually give ourselves, completely and in the most intimate way, to our spouse.
The procreation aspect is pretty obvious and straightforward. God loves life! Each and every act of intercourse is to be open to life. That is not to say that we should have the direct and deliberate intent to conceive every time we are intimate with our spouse or that we should only have sex when there is a real possibility of conception. It means that we must be open to the possibility, in so far as it is, well, possible. Sometimes it is not possible because of circumstances we don’t control. When that is the case, sex in marriage is still legitimate. I have a friend who found herself in early menopause because of the chemotherapy that she underwent for her leukemia. Even though she was no longer fertile, sexual acts in her marriage were still legitimate and good. She did not will to lose her fertility and she did not deliberately do anything to affect her fertility. The loss of her fertility was a side effect of treating her cancer. Likewise, sex does not become illegitimate after natural menopause or in the presence of some type of infertility nor is it illegitimate during the infertile times in a woman’s cycle. It becomes illegitimate when a couple intentionally removes the possibility of procreation by using contraceptives or by undergoing sterilization.
Both the unitive and procreative aspects must be present to make sex legitimate. Quite simply, openness the procreation and education of children and the renewal the marriage covenant are essential for making sex legitimate. This is why the Church condemns things like homosexual sex (it is not a renewal of a marriage covenant, as marriage is between a man and a woman, and by its nature it can never produce offspring) bestiality (no babies, no bonding) sex before or outside of marriage (no covenant to renew) and contraceptive sex (the possibility of conception is being thwarted ~ or at least that is the intention, goal, will) masturbation (it is a selfish act that neither renews the marriage covenant nor can it be fruitful.) Sex, by God’s design, is reserved as an act of love and renewal between married couples. And God, as the author of Life, creator of all, has the right to determine what makes sex legitimate. What we “want” or what we “think” is not the standard we measure with.
In the conversation that my friend shared, she mentioned to me the woman who was trying to justify using contraceptives, went right for the “hard cases.” She demanded that it is impossible to use NFP under the assumption that pregnancy would be a life or death situation for the wife. While that can happen, it’s pretty rare. There are difficulties for many, but with good prenatal care and the amazing specialists who are out there, the life-or-death scenarios just don’t happen that often.
So, what’s a couple to do if they have a legitimate reason to avoid pregnancy or if they believe that pregnancy would have life or death consequences for the wife? They can use NFP. They must remain open to life by not deliberately altering their fertility, but they can make use of the infertile periods of a woman’s cycle. You see, with NFP, a couple doesn’t alter anything… God himself made us alternately infertile and fertile within our cycles. Even in the most serious of situations, practicing chaste NFP and using the most cautious rules/interpretations is the only moral option. Difficulty does not excuse us from the truth. The truth is for me, for you, for everyone and it is for all time and in all circumstances.
Not long ago, I had the sad experience of seeing a couple cave under the pressure and difficulty of abstinence. They are a young Catholic couple, still newlyweds really, and they have 2 children only a year or so apart. This young woman was so full of zeal for the truth (all of it!) at one point in her life, but then the difficulty arose. The truth is that they have a real reason to avoid pregnancy for a time. They have financial and emotional reasons to delay the next pregnancy. But they found that abstinence was difficult. The saddest part for me was to hear her announce and justify her decision publicly. She showed no regret or remorse and chided those who might challenge her decision. She proclaimed herself to still be a Catholic in good standing ~ even though she absolutely knows the truth! (of this I am certain as we had several conversations in the past) She and her husband decided for themselves, even though they already knew the truth, that they would not abstain because it is hard and that they would avoid pregnancy by illicit means.
She told those of us that would desire to call them back to the truth that we had no “right to judge” them (we don’t judge them… we judge their actions, which she chose to make public) and that we couldn’t possibly understand how difficult things are for them. Really? Does she believe that? Does she really believe that she and her husband are the only ones who struggle with abstinence? My guess is that they have had sex a couple of times since May! Does she really believe that she and her husband are the only couple to find themselves with “Irish Twins”? Sadly, in addition to their personal culpability, by making it public she added scandal to the mix by going out of her way to announce this. In addition, I believe she shared that they chose hormonal contraceptives which carry the added evil of being abortifacient. Very sad. I pray for her and her husband.
Practicing chaste NFP can be a challenge ~ of that there is no doubt. The requirements for abstinence can be hard to live out sometimes. Even still, we are required to do the hard right and avoid the easy wrong. That is the price of discipleship. We are not our own, we were bought for a very high price… the most precious blood of Jesus Christ. We are called walk with him. We are called to conform our lives, our marriages and our sexuality to His purpose, plans and designs. We are called to daily pick up our cross and carry it. No worries, though. There is grace sufficient to succeed and there are great blessings along the way.