Why is NFP not the same as Contraception

Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be used to achieve pregnancy as well as to postpone pregnancy. But this answer will confine itself to the pregnancy-avoiding aspect of NFP. NFP works. It is as effective, if not more so, than all forms of artificial contraception except sterilisation. The table below shows how the Billings Ovulation Method (one of the most popular forms of NFP - which should not be confused with the Rhythm Method) favourably compares to the 'method effectiveness' of other forms of family planning.

Billings Method (NFP)

The Pill (contraceptive)

Mini Pill (contraceptive)

IUD (contraceptive)

Rhythm Method (old method of NFP)

99%

99%

96%

94% " 99%

53% " 86%

[Billings, E., The Billings Method, 1993, p. 78; De Stoop, 2000, Contraception -The Hidden Truth, p. 39]

NFP can be immoral, if the couple practising it are doing so for selfish motives. But contraception (pill, condoms, IUD's, sterilisation etc) is still morally worse because the natural channels of fertility are being deliberately and directly frustrated with contraception. NFP simply avoids any act at all if the couple is using it to postpone pregnancy. The abstinence that NFP requires is not intrinsically evil (HV 14). Contraception is a sin against nature; NFP is not. Contraception is intrinsically immoral. NFP is not. So, unselfish use of NFP is in accordance with the Moral Law of God.

BUT WHAT CONSTITUTES 'UNSELFISH' USE OF NFP?

Unselfish use would be when the following factors are taken into account:

Both spouses have serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy, such as serious health problems, serious economic difficulties, or pressing needs of the other children in the family. Gaudium et Spes (n. 50) of Vatican II says spouses should consider their own welfare and that of their children born, and those that the future may bring; spouses must reckon also with prevailing material and spiritual conditions, their state in life, and the interests of their family group, of temporal society and of the Church herself (Drummey, Catholicism and Ethics)

BOTH METHODS AIM TO PREVENT PREGNANCY

True, both NFP and contraception aim to prevent pregnancy, but morally they are not the same. Contraception involves taking direct and deliberate steps before, during, or after marital intercourse to avoid pregnancy by frustrating the natural channels of fertility. NFP involves no marital act at all. So, contraception means doing something that is immoral, whilst NFP means doing nothing at all. There's a big difference, morally speaking, between acting against something and abstaining from it. (Drummey)

HOW CAN NFP (SUCH AS THE BILLINGS METHOD) BE OPEN TO LIFE IF IT HAS AN ALMOST 100% SUCCESS RATE IN AVOIDING PREGNANCY?

The Church teaches that each and every marriage act must at least remain ordained to the transmission of life (Humanae Vitae, n. 11). But, 'remaining ordained' to life simply means that nothing is being done to thwart or frustrate the natural channels of fertility. The abstinence of an NFP couple wishing to avoid a pregnancy does not, at any time, maim sperm (as does a condom), or inhibit ovulation, or cause chemical abortions (as does the oral contraceptive pill), or have a direct link to increased risk of cancer (as in the case of sterilisation). Being ordered towards the procreation of life does not mean that every marital act of spouses must produce a child; it simply means that nothing should be done that deliberately closes the act to the possibility of life, as remote as it is with properly used NFP. NFP couples are respecting God's physical laws and are not tampering with them. NFP is God's gift to families, a gift that helps establish Godly order in marriages, families and society. NFP is free, moral and has no harmful side-effects; contraception is neither free, moral nor harmless physically or spiritually. (Abundant Life, March 2000)

NFP HAS THE SAME ANTI-LIFE MENTALITY AS CONTRACEPTION.

A couple who for serious reasons seeks to practise responsible parenthood (ie by abstaining from marital relations during fertile periods and using infertile periods only for the marital act) can do so without harbouring a hostile attitude towards human life. They are not attacking life at its very beginning through chemical or mechanical means, but are instead allowing every marital act to remain ordered to new life without any manipulation or alteration (Pope JP II, see Drummey). God has designed women who are within their child-bearing years, to not always be fertile. In fact, most of the time, they're infertile. NFP couples are able to determine when intercourse will not result in pregnancy. If they have a just and serious reason for avoiding pregnancy they would not be doing anything wrong if they had sex during infertile times. Why? Because pregnancy did not result from them acting in such a way as to render their intercourse infertile. On the contrary, God chose not to bring a new life into the world as evidenced by the way He designed the wife's body. The fact that pregnancy doesn't result from these acts of intercourse is God's doing, and not that of NFP couples. (West, Good News About Sex And Marriage)

IN BOTH NFP AND CONTRACEPTION, THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE ACT ARE THE SAME, SO THEY ARE EQUALLY MORAL OR IMMORAL.

This argument ignores the fact that there is more to morality than the consequences of an act. The act itself, and the couple's intention, must also be moral.

Firstly, consequences are only one kind of circumstance; they are not the sum total of the act's morality. In contraception, the couple chooses to perform the marital act but to destroy its procreativity. Abstinence is not an act at all. The NFP couple simply choose not to perform an act they are not required to perform. The contraceptive couple is anti-procreative; the abstaining NFP couple is non-procreative. (A Carroll, Seton Home)

Secondly, the intention is also different. Contraception implies a will to prevent the beginning of new life. That is the whole goal of the contraceptive act. The NFP couple, when they do perform the marital act, has the intention of leaving the act open to all the giving of love and all the giving of life which the mystery of married sex bestows upon it. They respect life and are open to it. The NFP couple is valuing life. The marital act doesn't produce conception; it simply makes it possible. The NFP couple's marital acts can still be called procreative acts even if the chances of pregnancy are minimal because they have done nothing to make them anti-procreative. The contraceptive couple is deliberately doing whatever they can to make conception impossible whenever they choose to perform the marital act. Hence, NFP and contraception are not morally equal.

WHAT OF COUPLES WHO CAN'T CONCEIVE SUCH AS THE ELDERLY?

Infertile couples, couples who for morally just medical reasons have been rendered incapable of conceiving children, and those people who are past the child-bearing years are not intending to be closed to the possibility of life. Their marital acts are therefore moral because they are being love-giving and as life-giving as they can be. (CCC 2370)

[Billings Ovulation Method 08 9 444 4861; Sympto-thermal 08 9 223 1396; Napro-technology 08 9 388 1334.]



* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.