Catholic women and contraception: Why don’t Catholics use Natural Family Planning?

Associated Press The Catholic Church, McGuire argues, should use this moment to more clearly explain its teaching on contraception and … Continued

Associated Press

The Catholic Church, McGuire argues, should use this moment to more clearly explain its teaching on contraception and human sexuality.

The national debate about the constitutionality of the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) mandate requiring Catholic and other objecting religious institutions to pay for contraception, sterilization procedures, and abortifacient drugs is unlikely to go away anytime soon. On Friday, the Catholic bishops rejected the administration’s compromise for its phony “accommodation” of religious liberty. And over the weekend, more than 100 leaders, scholars, and journalists representing a multitude of faiths joined forces to label Obama’s measly olive branch as “unacceptable.”

This debate is ultimately about religious freedom and remains so.

But the debate is also having the interesting side effect of throwing a perhaps unwanted limelight on the reality that the Catholic laity is, in fact, deeply divided on a tangential issue: the morality of contraception.

At first, the media was spinning the story as a live-or-die fight for women’s most basic health care needs. Now that enough people have pointed out that, a) it’s not exactly clear the pill and abortifacient drugs are particularly good for a woman’s body given their link to certain cancers, and b) that no one is talking about taking away anyone’s access to anything, the narrative has begun shifting to, ‘well most Catholic women use contraception anyway!’

Thankfully, we do not have a legal system based on the popular opinion of the day. Nonetheless, it is in fact true that the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception is not one that all, or even a majority, of self-described Catholics embrace.

Many are now citing the Guttmacher Institute study that found that 98 percent of Catholic women “have used contraception.” The White House even listed this statistic on its own blog in in its defense of the mandate.

We’ve also heard from young Catholic women who proudly defy their church’s most basic teachings on sexuality, and listened to sob stories of those who voluntarily enrolled in Catholic colleges only to suffer when the college would not provide them with something the college teaches is gravely immoral.

Others point to the latest polls, which show more than half of Catholic women support the mandate.

All of this begs a rather interesting question: Why is it that so many Catholic women reject the church’s teaching on contraception? Why is it that only so few Catholic women (no more than perhaps four percent by some estimates) practice natural family planning (NFP), the church’s only approved method of birth control?

My husband and I learned NFP in the same way that many Catholic couples do: in a pre-wedding preparation course. Even as a user and an advocate of the church’s family planning method, my experience was similar to that of most other Catholic women I know in that we found the the methodologies overly complicated, the classroom setting awkward, and the marketing corny and outdated.

The teaching itself is not outdated. As many Catholic writers have noted, this is not your grandmother’s “rhythm method.” The approach is based in modern scientific knowledge about a woman’s cycle. It requires observations of a woman’s fertile signs, and requires abstinence during the most fertile periods.

But the method of delivery and communication of the teaching is outdated. Many Catholic women who do practice NFP find themselves overwhelmed selecting from a slew of different methodologies, most of which come with confusing charts that look like they belong on a trading room floor, codes and symbols better suited to Cold War spy novels, and rules and warnings that would make anyone’s head spin.

And it is a tragedy, because those of us who are able to master NFP are amazed to discover how empowering it is to know every little turn of our body’s fertility, how liberating it is to have a full sexual life without ingesting a daily dose of artificial hormones, how useful it is when trying to get pregnant in the midst of a national fertility crisis, and how emotionally gratifying it is when the man in our lives respects our body and the fertility that forms an integral part of who we are.

It is in fact a great equalizer, because with NFP, the man can retain his fertility without making the woman shut hers off.

In short, the Catholic Church desperately needs to modernize its approach to teaching NFP, communicating its importance, and marketing the lifestyle benefits it brings to an audience of pantsuit-wearing, modern women deeply inculcated in a theology of the body where artificially suppressing fertility reigns supreme.

But for the first time in more than fifty years, the American public is arguing about contraception, something culturally we have taken for granted for decades. The moment is ripe for the church to renew and refresh its teaching on contraception. It is a season such as this when the church can open a window and let in a little fresh air, giving new life to an age-old teaching.

So while the HHS mandate continues to prove a grave threat against the religious freedom of American Catholics and all who object to providing the services it requires of employers, this is an extraordinary opportunity for the Catholic Church to re-catechize its own followers as well as the American public about a teaching of profound doctrinal importance.

It is a chance for the church to win women back to its teachings about human sexuality, which are designed to uplift and dignify women in a hyper-sexualized culture such as ours.

But then again, it would be a little awkward for the church to modernize its teaching if it is footing the bill for the very thing it is teaching against. What people don’t seem to understand is that the HHS mandate is a bill the church simply will not foot.

The Catholic Church will continue to fight for its basic First Amendment rights. But will it also take advantage of a rare opportunity to remind Catholics, and the world, just what its teachings on human sexuality are all about?

Ashley McGuire is editor of

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  • amelia45

    Religious freedom is also the right to live without being forced to abide by a faith one does NOT choose.

    The only way religious freedom can exist is if that freedom resides with the individual. In a society in which many religions are recognized, society must start with a willingness to respect the right of each individual to live according to his or her personal conscience. First and foremost each person must be protected from having a religious belief imposed.

    And that is what is being asked erroneously named “religious freedom” of the Catholic bishops. The right to require that the tens of thousands they employ in hospitals and universities be required to live by Catholic teachings, regardless of their own beliefs. They want the legal right, the power of government, to allow their faith teachings to be imposed on others.

  • usapdx

    In the first place most USA citizen RCs DO NOT fully ( 100% ) agree with the RCC teaching on birth control. The freedom of religion comes from only the people,not by religions by way of our supreme law, the Constitution. No religion can take a right away from any American what so ever. All religions should stop speaking on political issues if they claim tax exempt account of the TAX EXEMPT LAW’s rules limits their freedom of speech. Better yet, congress should repel the TAX EXEMPT law and let them have full freedom of speech and pay their taxes that the country needs where as some religions do not need this free ride with their assets and large income. What power does a human have to make a rule that if violated is SIN?

  • usapdx

    Those that speak against birth control, what will they say when earth can not feed all the humans?

  • usapdx

    Those that speak against birth control, what will they say when earth can not feed all the humans?

  • usapdx

    Most USA citizen RCs do not fully agree with the RCC man made teaching on birth control which purpose is control and fill the pews. Those that speak against birth control, what will they say when earth cannot feed all the humans?

  • ccnl1

    1. !!! WARNING!!! WARNING!!!

    To all overse-xed h-o-mo-sapiens:

    : The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute.

    Added information before making WARNING your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    “Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.”

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    “Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-
    Here’s a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active “post-teeners”: Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.
    “Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “They view it as a way to have intimacy without having ‘s-ex.'” (It should be called the Bill Clinton Syndrome !!)

    Obviously, Planned Parenthood, parents and educational system have failed miserably on many fronts.

    note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter.

  • Secular1

    This is absolute non-sense, RCC is full of windbags, who are eager to swallow the utter ignorant and bigote hogwash written up by ignorant ancients some 3000+ years. To say on one hand that every intercourse should be open for pregnancy, yet at the same time saying that NFP is OK. Distinguishing that from pill or condom as means of birth control is a difference without distinction. Its like saying because I do not take any analgesics for my occasional headache is a morally superior choice than taing asprin.

    To claim that their stupid filthy tomes somehow proscribes one and prescribes the other one is totally made up and taken out of the south end of a north bound mule. But what can you expect from these idiots.

    I wonder how many of them would hsten to bet that their sky daddy would not have stricken the Judah’s second son had just waited for the non-fertile time of Tamar to bed her than practicing Coitus-interruptus. Actually how many of you RCs or others would see no problem with a brother bedding his late brother’s wife. If you approve that would you also approve a women bearing a child for her late sister, with her widower.

    In short all this nonsense that there is any morality in those must tomes is luaghable at the minutest query and introspection.

  • Darthskull

    The difference is that sex with NFP is open to natural pregnancies, where as contraceptive use is actively moving against them.

  • ccnl1

    I agree that there is not much difference between artificial and natural family/protection planning/methods but currently the artificial methods are not being used properly and that has and continues to result in the abortion and STD epidemics.

    To wit:


    • 64% of reproductive-age women who practice con-traception use reversible methods, such as oral con-traceptives or condoms. The remaining women rely on female or male sterilization.[2]


    Percentage of women experiencing an unintended pregnancy (a few examples)


    Pill (combined)……… 8.7 (one million unplanned pregnancies)
    Tubal sterilization ……0.7
    Male condom ……….17.4 (one million unplanned pregnancies)
    Vasectomy…………… 0.2

    Periodic abstinence.. 25.3 (RCC approved)
    Calendar 9.0 (RCC approved)
    Ovulation Method 3.0 (RCC approved)
    Sympto-thermal 2.0 (RCC approved)
    Post-ovulation 1.0 (RCC approved)

    No method 85.0″ (RCC approved and important to women and men wanting to get pregnant)

    (Abstinence) 0 (RCC approved)

    (Masturbation) 0

    And from the CDC-2006:

    “Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain STDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of STDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs associated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.”

  • concernedforAmerica

    I think the reality is that the government wants you to think this is about contraception because most women take birth control. Let’s not forget this is also about abortion and to be clear free abortions. This article makes it seem it is a birth control issue. The reality is it the issue and the article should be about; Does the government have the right to tell you as an American what your religious beliefs are?

    Let us for a second put aside are religious, philosophical, and political view. Does anyone believe it is the right of the Government to tell us what are individual beliefs are. Is it the right of the Government to tell religious organizations that free contraception, and abortions trumps religious freedom. Let’s stay on topic here, this is about the Government taking our constitutional rights away.

    So, you might not like any church or religion in general. How do you like your Freedom? You might all be on the other side of the issue today because the issue of birth control suits you. That is why the government pick such a divisive issue. However, I assure you if you make this about birth control you are surrendering your right to freedom. Should the government require that car insurance cover oil changes? Should the government require dental insurance to cover toothpaste purchases? Should the government tell insurance companies to provide free birth control? The answer is NO.

    You can get birth control for free today, walk in to any planned parenthood and you can get it. Where are 98% of Americans getting Birth control today? The Church is not stopping anyone from taking birth control. But paying it violates their conscience! This not a women’s right issue because women take birth control.

    I know Americans are smarter than the government thinks we are, we need to unite and not allow the government to violate our constitutional rights.

    If the Government really cared about women, why not provide free cancer drugs for women with breast cancer. T

  • amelia45

    98% of women in this country use birth control at some time during their reproductive years. That includes somewhere between 70% and 98% of Catholic women. Birth control is used by families to plan how many children they will have and when they will have them. It is seem by the health care professional organizations as a primary tool for managing and maintaining women’ health.

    26-28 states now require that insurance sold in their states must include contraceptives. The legislators in these states responded to the overwhelming support for contraceptives that was voiced by the voters of their states and the advice of medical panels that told them they should include it.

    No one is forced to take a contraceptive pill. No one is forced to prescribe a contraceptive pill. No one is forced to fill a contraceptive prescriptive. Everyone is free to act as their individual conscience requires and allows. What everyone has is a choice.

    What Obama did in the regulations was assure that women would have access to contraceptives. That the 90%-98% of women in this country who use contraceptives would have them available. What he did was assure that the tens of thousands of people in non-ministerial jobs, who may or may not be Catholic, would have a choice.

    What Obama did was choose individual religious freedom, the right of the individual to make health care decision based on his or her own conscience, rather than to have those people denied the opportunity to make a choice. He denied the Catholic Church the ability to impose a tenet of Catholic faith on anyone.

  • amelia45

    Birth control is only evil if it is used to avoid pregnancy. It is the intention that creates the evil. Natural family planning that is used to avoid pregnancy is as evil as the Pill or a condom.

  • persiflage

    ‘This debate is ultimately about religious freedom and remains so.’

    In a real sense, this statement allegedly defining the contraception issue from the ‘official’ Catholic standpoint is a profound oxymoron. How can you be free and in control of your own reproductive choices, and still follow the dictates of a group of celibate men (US Bishops) that take their orders from another celibate man (the Pope) that lives in a foreign country, and serves as the ultimate, solitary authority for a complicated set of religious doctrines and beliefs that go back 2000 years.

    While this is certainly a way to complicate one’s life out of all proportion, it has little to do with real freedom. It’s all about rules and regulations.

    One is perfectly free to elect the confines and bounds of religion, of course.
    In my view, that is also the perfect abdication of real personal freedom, a much different proposition altogether.

  • mxv2101

    Amelia, you are flat out WRONG. Please do not pretend to be giving the Catholic viewpoint when you are not.

    I am a Catholic and I am preparing for marriage. As part of my marriage prep, my fiancee and I decided to take an NFP class so that we could practice it in our marriage.

    At the core of Cathiolic life (and NFP) is that we are called to express love (whether married or not) in the way that Christ exhibited love in his pasion. There are five specific ways that we can see Jesus’ love in his passion: it was his choice, it was based on knowledge, it was a self-gift, it was life-giving, and it was permanent. When it comes to sex, if we’re missing any of those parts it isn’t true love. Thus if contraception is involved, it isn’t a full self-gift from one spouse to another and it’s not life giving (or open to being life giving).

    Now, the Catholic Church doesn’t believe that couples should pop out babies all the time. In fact, irresponsibly having (too many) children when parents are definitely unprepared can be considered a sin. Parents should prayerfully discern whether they are in a position to responsibly have a child or not and base their NFP practices according. NFP, when used correctly, is 99.6% effective.

    The ACT of delaying pregnancy using NFP may be the same as using contraception, but it is very different in terms of intention. With NFP, the couple is thinking about whether they are ready to have a child or not, but keeping themselves open to the possibility that the sex that they have could result in children. Though they may be having sex during infertile periods, that doesn’t ALWAYS preclude the possibility of a child.

    Overall, couples that practice NFP are generally free from the fear of getting pregnant that afflicts so many people nowadays. Pregnancy is treated like a disease that is the worst possible outcome of sex. Creating a new life is definitively not a disease.

    All in all, it’s extremely liberating, dignified, and beautiful to know about your fertilit

  • franklincatholic

    First off, awesome article, please bring more content like this to the Washington Post. And thank you for not describing NFP as the Rhythm Method. Most of my practicing Catholic friends use NFP and we are all college educated women in our 30s with 2-4 kids on average. I highly highly recommend the Marquette method of NFP, it is neither outdated, nor complicted and I update my charts daily on my ipad. It is awesome and I plan to teach it in Chicago once I finish my nursing degree.

  • Secular1

    Darthskull, if your contention is right then why even follow NFP. Just do it whenver one get frisky. This is all unadulterated BS. Follwoing them sill books ties you up in knots. Let’s face it those ancients were a bunch of bigots and ignorant.

    Cab you answer, why your skydaddy let Judah and his brother go scotfree after they butchered their sister’s in-laws’ family. Whereas killed Judah’s son for coitus interruptus. So killing people is much tamer crime than coitus interruptus. Justify this to yourself.

  • kellygibs

    When using NFP to plan your family (postpone, avoid, conceive) there is always the underlying openness to God’s plan.

    Using NFP to avoid pregnancy is not “evil” as long as you realize you are not in control and ultimately God is. By using contraception you are attempting to take the power into your own hands.

    When postponing, during fertile times in a woman’s cycle, a couple is able to express love in different ways. And then we sex is available again it is often even more exciting due to the few days of waiting. Couples using NFP tend to have MORE SEX!

    In addition – using NFP allows a couple to accept each other fully, communicate about sexual desires, and constantly be in conversation about family planning. All of these are positive things that do no include the long list of scary side effects.

    I have been married for 4 years and used NFP all 4 and have successfully postponed pregnancy until I finished my master’s degree.

    Even if this is not a method that you would personally use or that your religion calls you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve respect for couples that do use it.

    Respect differences.

  • WomanAtTheWell

    Thank you amelia45! I have been saying the same thing for years.

    The GOAL, the MOTIVE is the same with NFP as it is with any other contraceptive = to CONTROL when pregnancy does/does not happen.
    Let’s even take the pill out of the discussion, because some Catholics call it an “abortifacient”.
    They still must answer the question…Why is NFP holy enough to be permitted by the Catholic church, but barrier methods (condom, diaphragm) are not?

  • newbie5

    Everyone would not have a choice namely Catholic institutions. That’s what this is all about.

  • newbie5

    Secular1. You’re posts are nonsense. Judah who? Are we quoting Bible texts out of context here? One can pretty much justify almost anything by quoting a single text/verse out of context. This is why fundamentalism doesn’t work.

  • Darthskull

    This country needs more freedom (including of conscious for employers), not less of it.

  • JamieDenver

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m really surprised that more women, especially catholic women don’t use NFP. Like you said, it is incredibly empowering without all the side effects and risks of birth control pills and it’s not that hard to do.

  • JamieDenver

    Birth control pills suck –all the side effects are just not worth it. Condoms are no fun. I have found that NFP is the best way to avoid a pregnancy when you’re not ready. Preparation and planning is not evil.

  • JMasque

    @ConcernedforAmerica –
    If you are really concerned about America –
    So why am I forced to use money which claims that I trust in God? Why am I forced to say the pledge ‘Under God?’
    @amelia45 – You nailed it! It is about freedom – FOR ALL women to choose.

  • jmb1918

    “Why don’t Catholics use Natural Family Planning?”

    [raises hand, waves wildly]

    Oooh, I know! Because it doesn’t work in the real world. Duh.

  • whifflegolf

    oh for pete’s sake! Don’t you know how many “unplanned pregnancies” occur when “the Pill” is used and condoms are notorious unreliable. If you don’t have sex when a woman is ovulating the chance of pregnancy is zero. The side effects of the pill are not reported because of politcal correctness.

  • savvy5

    woman at the well,

    They still must answer the question…Why is NFP holy enough to be permitted by the Catholic church, but barrier methods (condom, diaphragm) are not?

    It’s because it does not affect the means. Sex is still unitive and procreative. It still fulfills a two-fold purpose.

    Barrier methods, affect the means, and amounts to a lie being told by your body.

  • savvy5

    So Naprotechnology is Catholic? I thought science was non-sectarian.

  • mmarya

    Great article! As a teacher and user of NFP I totally agree– we need to do more. thanks for writing.

  • hannah88

    The Catholic Church needs to start marketing NFP as “Organic,” plenty of people will sign on to that. Great article!

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