by Theresa Notare
January 4, 1992
"Ignorance is bliss." How often do we use this seemingly innocuous statement to imply "what I don't know, can't hurt me?" But ignorance can hurt us, especially when we allow it to invade the most profound areas of our lives.
Nowhere is this more apparent perhaps than in regard to the "issue" of birth control. Many people we are told, see birth control as a necessity, and dismiss the Church's teachings as irrelevant or even "ignorant." The Nov./Dec. 1991 issue of Family Planning Perspectives summarized data from the National Center for Health Statistics which gave credence to this notion. The analysis looked at contraceptive use in the U.S. and its relation to religious affiliation. The analysis indicated that the differences in contraceptive practices between Catholics and Protestants in have narrowed significantly over the past two decades and that today only about 4% of Catholics use some form of natural family planning (NFP). Some would say that this statistic reveals that most Catholics reject the Church's teaching. But the fact is that most Catholics don't reject the Church's teaching. Rather, most Catholics lack understanding of and appreciation for the wisdom of the Church's teachings. They also lack knowledge about the modern methods of NFP.
Many Catholics have not stayed current with the Church's teachings on human sexuality, marriage and family life. Some persist in the belief that the Church wants its members to have unlimited numbers of children. This misunderstanding persists despite the fact that Pope John Paul II devotes much of his energy encouraging people not to have unlimited numbers of children, but to appreciate the sacredness of human sexuality and the family.
The Church's vision of sexuality is scripturally based, sacramental, morally honest, and spiritually rich. We believe that when a husband and wife express their love through sexual intercourse, a "gift of self" occurs. Expressed by this gift of self is the "original unity" which God wills for men and women in marriage. This original unity is sacramental. God is made vitally present to the world in this vowed love.
Most people, including Catholics, do not know that NFP is the umbrella term for the natural, modern, and scientific methods of family planning. These include the sympto-thermal method (STM), ovulation method (OM), and the basal body temperature (BBT). Each method is scientifically based and makes use of the observable signs of a women's cycle of fertility. These natural methods can be used at any time during the reproductive life of a woman because they do not depend on regular menstrual cycles. Through the modern NFP methods a woman can observe her fertile mucus sign, or chart the rise and fall of her basal body temperature which coincides with hormonal changes. In some methods of STM, cervical changes are also monitored, as well as secondary signs of fertility. All of this information is available to those who wish to learn.
Most people think of "rhythm" when they hear the term NFP. "Rhythm," however refers to a calendar method of determining fertility, a method seldom used in the United States today, and not used by practioners of NFP. To use the word "rhythm" when speaking of NFP at this point in time is scientifically inaccurate. In its day, rhythm yielded poor effectiveness rates. Today, there is a wealth of effectiveness studies on NFP which is strong. For example, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services both confirm a method effectiveness rate of 97-98%, and estimated user effectiveness at 85-95%. To be sure, in order for couples to achieve the 97-98% effectiveness rate they must: be taught by certified NFP instructors; be motivated to use the method; and be clear about their family planning intention.*
The aggressive advertizing used by the contraceptive industry has contributed to the ignorance among the general population with regard to NFP. This industry has made its presence felt in medical schools, sexual health education programs, and family planning clinics. Fertility control has become a multimillion dollar enterprise. On the other hand, NFP researchers and educators suffer from a serious lack of funding and can't compete with the high tech selling techniques of the contraceptive industry. In addition, so many Americans seek "quick fix" solutions ready to trust something packaged in a box and wrapped in latex rather then their own minds and bodies.
A true appreciation of our vision of human sexuality helps to reveal the delicate intricacies of our human nature as men and women. NFP couples are often quick to speak of their surprise and awe in experiencing the gifts which have flowed into their marriage because they try to live the challenge of the Church's teachings. They find themselves not burdened, but free to love each other mightily and generously. Ignorance is not bliss. Bliss is wisdom and insight that comes from sacrifice, love and fidelity.
*References for the effectiveness studies quoted are: Natural Family Planning. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Public Health Service, Health Services Administration, Bureau of Community Health Services. DHEW Publication Vo. (HSA) 79-5621. GPO: 1979 0-295-880; and The World Health Organization. Results of a study on NFP effectiveness in India, Ireland, New Zealand, Philippines, and El Salvador, 1980.