For Catholic couples, family planning means using the natural way to avoid pregnancy — no devices, drugs or surgical procedures.
Couples are to use natural family planning, or NFP. That's an umbrella term for pregnancy prevention methods based on observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman's menstrual cycle. Couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy abstain from intercourse and genital contact during the fertile phase of the woman's cycle.
"NFP reflects the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, promotes openness to life, and recognizes the value of the child," says the marriage and family office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "By respecting the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage, NFP can enrich the bond between husband and wife."
Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, concedes that married Catholics struggle to understand the moral difference between using contraceptives to avoid a pregnancy and using NFP. To many, both are using human knowledge to avoid pregnancy.
But the difference, Father Pacholczyk says, is that by using artificial contraception, the couple cuts the link between the conjugal act and a possible baby. The natural purpose, or telos, of sexuality is to draw man and woman together to procreate and raise children in the family unit, he explains.
"Any time a married couple engages in sexual activity that has been intentionally rendered infertile by contraception, they are powerfully acting against the telos of the sexual act they share," Father Pacholczyk wrote in a 2011 column. "Contraception strikes at the heart of the marital act."
The priest says using contraception is contradictory behavior, seeking to perform a procreative act while simultaneously blocking it.
But by using NFP, the couple are not acting in a contradictory way, but are respecting the natural order, says Father Pacholczyk. The contraceptive couple make themselves infertile while the NFP couples work with a natural infertility.
In Oregon, Northwest Family Services is the foremost instructor of NFP. The organization has been offering classes for 25 years.
NFP is no longer guess work and is not calendar-based, the organization says. The condition of cervical mucus and changes in body temperature are clear signs that come in response to the hormones of the menstrual cycle.
Northwest Family Services says NFP is low cost, has no harmful side effects, is effective, is easy to learn and enriches marriage. For one thing, both the man and the woman can be involved in checking symptoms and charting.
"The discipline involved in periodic abstinence can foster trust between the couple," Northwest Family Services says.