Last month, The New York Times published a story about two young Protestants who wrote a well-known book and article about natural family planning (NFP). According to the Times, Bethany Patchin was drawn to NFP as a form of rebellion: “My parents weren’t anti-birth-control; they were pretty middle-ground evangelicals. So I kind of rebelled by being more conservative. That was my identity.”
In 2000, she met Sam Torode and married him. In 2002, the Torodes wrote Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception. Their book emphasized that NFP helps stabilize a marriage, because it is likely to produce kids. “(H)aving children (or adopting them) brings husbands and wives closer together and expands the community of love,” they wrote.
By 2006, the Torodes had produced four children. They also stopped using NFP. In a statement on the web, they argued that contrary to their earlier argument, NFP was a technique of suppression. “Wanting to make love to your spouse often is a good thing, but NFP often lays an unfair burden of guilt on men for feeling this,” they wrote. And it is “a theological attack on women to always require that abstinence during the time of the wife’s peak sexual desire (ovulation) for the entire duration of her fertile life, except for the handful of times when she conceives.”
In 2009, the Torodes split up. Their divorce made for good copy, and many orthodox and conservative Christians responded to the Times’ story. Why did two young (evangelical) leaders of the anti-contraception movement jump ship?
In Christianity Today, blogger Ellen Painter Dollar argued that NFP isn’t right for every married couple. As an example, she cited herself and her husband, who consider it too risky and demanding. A child could “seriously compromise” her health and derail her budding career. And, she noted, “NFP requires women, who do the bulk of domestic and childrearing work in many marriages (including mine), to shoulder yet another task in service to their family — monitoring their fertility.”
NFP is many things to many people. For conservatives, it represents a form of rebellion in an oversexed culture and produces children who stabilize a marriage. For liberals, it oppresses women and suppresses human desire.
While these arguments may be popular, they are misleading. Contrary to liberals and conservatives, natural family planning is not a cultural or political technique. It is a marital technique (admittedly at times a demanding one that may also require serious prayer). It should be thought of as similar to and just as important as careful dieting or budgeting — an instrument of prudence.
Seen in this light, using NFP is no more a tool of rebellion or oppression than is losing your gut or saving for retirement. To use a tool prudentially, it is important to know the ends to which it should apply. Eating nourishes the body and allows us to savor food. Working allows us to support our family and enjoy the fruit of our labor. Making love allows us to produce children and romance our spouses. In each case, the instrument serves both a functional and pleasurable purpose.
What happens when a tool must serve three ends simultaneously? If the tool is used prudentially, one end must be sacrificed at times in service to the other two ends. The concept is better known as deferring gratification. Consider a couple that wants to save money. By using a budget, the pair will likely need to forgo a weekly night out at a restaurant, but will support their family and possess more money for the future.
Using NFP is really no different than budgeting. A couple wants to delay or postpone having a child. By using NFP, the pair will need to forgo making love when the woman is fertile, but will achieve other goals related to parenthood. In the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI describes those goals this way: “With regard to physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”
Viewed this way, the Torodes main argument against NFP is misguided. They wrote that NFP is a “theological attack on women” because it compels them to abstain from sex at the peak of arousal. That’s like saying that dieting is inhumane because it compels men and women to skip a meal when they are most hungry.
If NFP is a prudential tool, why isn’t artificial birth control? The short answer is that it operates by an artificial law: The belief that we can get something for nothing. A couple can enjoy the unitive aspect of marital sex while excluding the procreative aspect and not needing to defer gratification.
Seen in this light, Painter Dollars’ argument that NFP is just another lifestyle choice is misguided too. NFP is not on the same moral plane as artificial contraception. Used properly, it adheres to the natural moral law that we are not God and cannot get something for nothing. In the words of Humanae Vitae, a person who uses NFP “acknowledge(s) that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.”
Like those words, this moment in American history should hearten rather than discourage users of NFP. The federal government is finally attempting to pay its bills. Americans consume less and save more. It’s the era of no free lunch and natural limits. Now young religious couples should do what the Torodes did not: Argue that our sexual ethics should follow the same natural law as our budgets.