It is a cause of some embarrassment to me to admit that I had no idea what NFP was until I went to university – and that was after spending between the ages of five and seventeen at Catholic schools. In Personal and Social Health Education (sex ed) class, we spent about fifteen minutes being told that there was only one method of contraception the Church accepted; it was called the rhythm method, and it didn’t work. After that, we moved swiftly on to sensible, modern contraceptive methods – pills, IUDs, caps – and spent an excruciating afternoon unrolling condoms so that we could ‘get comfortable with them.’ One girl blew hers up so large it exploded with an almighty bang, which caused almost as much laughter and merriment as the terrible moment the teacher unwrapped a condom with the words, ‘so girls, where do you think this goes?’ I won’t repeat the response she received from the back of the class.
By the time I reached university, I had a fairly stock view of contraception vs NFP. Contraception was practical, reliable and very much the lesser of two evils if it prevented abortion (which I unquestioningly accepted it did). NFP on the other hand was Vatican Roulette, invented by male celibates who just didn’t get it etc., etc. I had no clear idea yet of what NFP actually was, nor had I ever read Humanae Vitae, but that did not stop me feeling desperately strongly about everything. At the time there was nothing much to challenge my views – I was not in any kind of a relationship and had no incentive to think through what I really believed and why.
Two events in close succession completely changed my position in ways I could never have anticipated. The first was an unfortunate encounter with a couple of pro-life students at a party during my first term. As soon as I expressed my dodgy position, I was cast in the role of liberal villain and spent an unpleasant twenty minutes or so being barked at about why I was so obviously wrong about the whole thing. I fled both the party and the stroppy lecture, desperate to put as much distance between myself and the pro-life movement as humanly possible.
Sometime afterwards however, when we were all feeling a little calmer, a pro-life student who had been at the party urged me to attend a talk about NFP to be hosted by the pro-life society. I went along more to make up the numbers than anything else because I knew the talk was likely to be poorly attended and the organisers were worried that the speaker was going to be left to address an empty room.
During the course of the evening, the calm, mild-mannered elderly doctor gave a succinct introduction into modern NFP, and spoke of the advantages for health and relationships. In talking about NFP, she was also forced to discuss precisely how it differed from artificial contraception. In the space of half an hour, she had radically changed my perception of both NFP and contraception, answering many of my concerns and objections. I won’t pretend it was a Damascene conversion but it shattered my certainties and set me thinking, not just about NFP itself but about the reasons my generation had never learnt about it. What was it about natural fertility awareness that provoked such hostility in the media and society?
Months later, I experienced another surprise, this time more alarming. I was advised by a doctor to go on the Pill for six months for medical reasons, assured repeatedly that this would set my health right. I lasted on the Pill for six weeks, during which I experienced violent side effects including severe depression, migraine, dizzy spells and vomiting. When I staggered back to the doctor, I was told to stop taking the Pill immediately and was warned that I could never be prescribed it again for any reason.
It was difficult enough to have to deal with side effects like that while taking drugs intended to assist my health (though I was later told that taking the Pill is very rarely necessary for medical reasons) but when a male gynaecologist glanced at my notes and pompously instructed me to ‘learn to tolerate the Pill’ on the grounds that I would need it as a contraceptive one day, it riled the feminist, not the Catholic, in me. Why on earth, I thought, should a woman put her health on the line and render herself sterile when I knew now that there were practical and reliable natural alternatives? If the medical profession were so keen on women’s empowerment, why not make the effort to give women full information about the alternatives rather than trying to bully them into living with the side effects of powerful drugs?
It appeared to go against the direction medicine was moving in at the time. In Britain, from the 90s onwards, there was growing concern about the over-prescription of drugs, antibiotics in particular, and the broader tendency to hand out pills as a solution to everything. My own GP was far more likely to prescribe a short holiday than tranquilizers to a stressed patient or to suggest that a person suffering from a minor infection take some rest, drink plenty of water and allow their immune system to take charge rather than send them home with a course of antibiotics. Except when it came to the disease of being a woman with a functioning reproductive system. In that case, drugs and devices were the only sensible solution and could be dispensed at any time to anyone of any age, no questions asked.
Years later, the question persists: can being dependent on doctors or, more broadly, the pharmaceutical industry, really be seen as a way of empowering women? Without going so far as to examine extreme examples of birth control being abused, such as through China’s infamous One-Child Policy, it is difficult not to get the feeling that the widespread acceptance of contraception represents a failure to trust women to manage their own fertility independently. It is uncontroversial to state that education marks the most important step to personal freedom and NFP offers precisely that education. It is pointless to talk about women ‘controlling their own bodies’ if they are kept ignorant of the natural functions of their bodies and encouraged to see themselves as physically defective for being female and fertile.
I have many wishes for my daughters, but one of them is that, by the time they both reach their teens, the condom-unrolling exercises and questions on the blatantly obvious will have been replaced by authentic, holistic education in which they will be taught about the beauty of human fertility, learn to chart their own cycles and reach adulthood truly empowered. It is a big ask, but thanks to the student who dragged me along to that talk long ago, I will be able to teach them myself.
Editor’s note: Fiorella Nash will be traveling from her home in the UK to give several talks in northern California from August 20th-23rd.
• On Thursday, August 20, at 7:00 pm, she will speak on “Freedom and Fertility” at Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep (2055 Redwood Rd, Napa, CA).
• She will be the banquet speaker at the conclusion of the “Male and Female He Created Them: Marriage and Stewardship of the Body” event to be held in San Francisco on August 21 and 22, 2015. Her topic will be ““A Path Worth Walking: Life, Liberty, and the Rise of Pro-Life Feminism”. Registration and more info at www.canfp.org.
• On Sunday, August 23, at 7:00 pm, she will speak on “Freedom and Fertility” at Star of the Sea parish (4420 Geary Blvd., San Francisco).
This article reprinted from Spring Edition 2015 of CANFP NEWS with permission of the California Association of Natural Family Planning: www.canfp.org | email@example.com | 1‐877‐33‐CANFP
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.