Managing Your Fertility website aims to answer NFP questions

| Bridget Ryder | July 24, 2018 | 0 Comments

Ahead of Natural Family Awareness Week July 22-28 and the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s promulgation of “Humanae Vitae” July 25, The Catholic Spirit asked Bridget Busacker, a health educator and parishioner of St. Mark in St. Paul, about NFP and her website, Managing Your Fertility, which she describes as a “’one-stop shop’ for individuals and couples to learn about the basics of reproductive health and the variety of NFP methods available.”

Q. In “Humanae Vitae,” Blessed Paul VI speaks of responsible parenthood and proper regulation of birth, but he never uses the term natural family planning. Where did this term come from?

Bridget Busacker

Bridget Busacker

A. In 1972 the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development and the Human Life Foundation co-sponsored an international conference for natural family planning (NFP). NFP experts from around the world were in attendance and it was at this conference that the definition was developed to encompass the three commonly used methods: mucus-only, hormonal-only, and sympto-thermal. “Natural family planning methods are means by which a couple uses the daily observations of signs and symptoms of the menstrual cycle to guide the timing of intercourse according to their desire to achieve or avoid pregnancy”.

In 1976 the World Health Organization provided an official definition which defined NFP as “the naturally occurring physiological manifestation of fertile and infertile phases of the menstrual cycle”. It is important to remember that the utilization of NFP is both a pairing of evidence-based science and integration of theology of the body. Faith and science coexist together and NFP is a great example of this when approached with logic and faith. Responsible parenthood requires perception about real limitations as well as a faithful generosity so as to avoid a “contraceptive mentality” (Pope St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae)

Q. Especially given all that it implies in our present culture, is the concept of family planning, even if done naturally, compatible with a Catholic vision of life, marriage, and family?

A. Regulating and carefully discerning one’s fertility is part of a living life to the fullness God intends. How can we be obedient when we aren’t given a choice? To perhaps over-simplify the day-to-day act of “naturally family planning”, a couple exists somewhere between “trying to conceive” (TTC) and “trying to avoid” (TTA). The question then becomes, is it ever right to practice TTA?

No one would claim that with God’s command to give to the poor, he is commanding us to pick up every person on the street and pay for them to stay in a hotel. To act so imprudently would leave us exhausted and penniless. Instead we are to balance out our own needs (and those of our family) with those who have less than us. In the same way, we are to balance out our call to be fruitful and multiply with our needs of mental and physical health. Furthermore, to balance is not the same as to be lukewarm. One is active the other is passive. One is a decision and the other a forfeit. For that matter, one is a verb and the other an adjective!

To love in a balanced way is not to give one penny to everyone on the street or to flip a coin each day to decide whether to practice TTC or TTA. Perhaps someone who believes this forgets that God not only loves us but believes in us, trusts us, respects us. We are co-creators with God, an idea that should excite us immensely, not cause us anxiety and fear. Such responsibility requires discernment, and holy discernment can only happen between two options that have their right and wrong time. Therefore, NFP is not only compatible with but reflective of our Catholic faith.

Q. Even though natural family planning has become very effective, it does not guarantee that a couple will not conceive when they are not expecting to. How can we understand the church’s teachings on the natural regulation of birth in light of the reality that human beings may never be able to completely regulate birth?

A. We are not in control of our fertility and this is a fact that we need to recognize and accept, which is very countercultural in our current social climate. Even with the use of hormonal birth control, it is not a guarantee that pregnancy will not occur. Sterilization is not always a guaranteed method of effectiveness. Abstinence is the only effective method to completely avoid pregnancy and children.

We have to remember that suffering is a necessary part of the human experience and we actually grow through difficulties and uncertainties in our lives through grace and trust in God. It is important to remember that faith and science work together. Although we cannot control our fertility, we have practitioners to help us navigate our reproductive health and we must put our trust in God that He will provide for us and help us in all circumstances in our lives – especially with our fertility.

We rely heavily on hormonal birth control as a society and we are starting to see conversations occurring more frequently as women look for healthier, more natural alternatives to chemical concoctions for their reproductive health and family planning. There is benefit to understanding how the reproductive system works and how hormonal birth control can negatively impact reproductive health. We need to have these tough conversations in order to provide tangible, practical support to individuals and couples who are struggling in discerning parenthood, or are uncertain if their circumstances may be grave enough to have children or not. These are very real questions that couples are struggling with and we have to continue the conversation about NFP after the wedding day.

Q. In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI stated that this teaching would be hard for many not only to live but even to accept and that it could be lived only with the grace of God. Besides promotion of the benefits of natural family planning, what else can be done do to help couples live these teachings?

A. Women entering and experiencing their fertile years are mostly millennials, and one of the most distinguishing elements of an American millennial is that they value integrity and authenticity. These individuals and couples have no interest in practicing something they don’t believe to be effective or well-defended. They also have a deep (sometimes premature and reckless as we see on social media) respect for research. Therefore, an appeal to research and science are effective ways to promote the practice of NFP.

However, perhaps the only stronger force in a millennial’s life than scientific understanding is cultural experience. It is human nature, in the midst of argument, to appeal to science and objectivism only as long as it supports our perspective. From this angle, it is important that women grow up with an understanding of how their bodies work in order to be equipped to know the questions to ask, the symptoms to look for, and the opportunities to seek treatment as needed.

Starting NFP education early, and in the appropriate scope, is essential for mitigating a painful change of mentality later in life. NFP can be used by single women as an opportunity to chart and discover the nuances of their individual bodies. Contrary to a prominent criticism, early exposure to charting is not advocating for sex before marriage, but rather understanding the physiological symptoms that impact one’s holistic health. This is not only empowering for women to know how their bodies work, it paves the way for a new feminism to emerge, which promotes a holistic and pro-life culture. The integration of NFP into married life needs to be properly explained from the lens of science and theology. After all, NFP is not an “art”, but a scientific methodology created and tested that can be implemented into married life and infused with the teachings of Theology of the Body to promote free, total, faithful, and fruitful love within a married couple.

Q. Using natural family planning involves both joy and suffering—the grace of God working in an imperfect world and within weak human beings. To what extent is the need to regulate birth and the suffering it can entail simply part of living in a fallen, imperfect world?

A. Indeed, living with full expression of fertility is to welcome both joy and pain… but this is precisely the definition of life itself. Everything good, true, and beautiful in this world involves creation and destruction. To build muscle, we must break down the tissues. To practice, we must fail repeatedly. To love intimately, we must reveal ourselves entirely to another. Could you imagine how boring the Olympics would be if it were easy to gain muscle or to practice? How empty would family life be if we only confided our smiles at the dinner table and not our tears?

A life void of pain is not a full life. We live in a world where Comfort is our “golden calf”. We measure the success of our day on how well we satisfied our Comfort. But what if we replaced that with the goal of satisfying the true God? Christ calls each and every one of us to pick up our cross and to follow him… but not so that we might die but that we might live! Much less than a hindrance to the “full lives, full in the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19) God wants for us, pain and suffering is God’s chosen path to a full life, given our fallen state. Our condition of living in a fallen, imperfect world means we must fight against our weak, comfort-seeking flesh for the sufferings that reflect the “divine nature” we are called to participate in! Therefore, although our fallen nature begs us to avoid the unknown and near-promise of pain that child-bearing brings, we must recall in Whose name we have been made, and embrace it, “count[ing] it all joy… when you meet trials” (James 1:2).

We are made for a glory that requires pain. Otherwise why would Christ exhort us to pick up our Cross (Matt 16:24)? Obviously his Passion is not something he regretted. But pain is not the same as harm. Pain is a natural companion to growth. Harm is an inhibitor and even preventor of growth. A father must be careful to allow his son to encounter pain so that the child learns, but avoid harm that causes the child to fear. An athlete must learn pain so that she can perform during a competition, but must avoid harm that will keep her from competing. In the same way, childbearing can in some cases be harmful. Parents in some cases have good, reasonable concern that their life (including mental health, physical health, finances, or spiritual freedom) will be harmed by a pregnancy. Our Lord has “plans to prosper you and not to harm you,” and will never ask more of us than we can give (Jeremiah 29:11). Discerning the difference between potential pain and potential harm is one for prayer and spiritual direction.

Q. Why create an NFP resource website?

A. I created Managing Your Fertility as a “one stop shop” for individuals and couples to learn about the basics of reproductive health and the variety of NFP methods available. I was frustrated by the lack of resources available when I was engaged and struggled to find a single source that allowed me to compare different methods. This process encouraged me to propose an NFP resource website project for the 2016 GIVEN Forum in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Council of Major Superiors and Women Religious (CMSWR). My project was accepted and I have been working with practitioners and doctors for over two years on the content and layout of this website.

Managing Your Fertility is a resource for individuals and couples to review reproductive health science, criticisms and praise of specific methods, and research on the topic at large. It also serves as a review of the NFP methods available supported by the Catholic Church and scientific methodology. As we emerge into the age of “smart health” where new NFP apps and methods go live each week, the transparency of the research that goes into these new resources is critical.

Managing Your Fertility is specifically aimed at promoting FABM methods. NFP is the umbrella term that encompasses the fertility awareness based methods (FABMs), which promote the use of abstinence during the fertile phase of a woman’s cycle. Alternatively, fertility awareness methods (FAMs) promote the use of barrier methods during the fertile phase of a woman’s cycle. The Catholic Church embraces FABMs as the most life-giving form of family planning because it is informed both by decision and self-control and an ongoing openness to life.

Bridget is passionate about women’s health and sex education that promotes the dignity of the human person and integrates a holistic approach to self-knowledge of the body. She has her master’s degree in Health Communication from the University of Minnesota and works as a health educator for the Minnesota Department of Health.

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