Too difficult?

A few weeks back, I blogged about a scientific study which had confirmed the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning.

Now, a piece in Scientific American criticizes that study, saying it is hopelessly unrealistic for couples to abstain for the time during which a woman is fertile each cycle.

Hilda Hutcherson, an ob-gyn and co-director of the New York Center for Women’s Sexual Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, found that her patients often stop using periodic abstinence methods after only a few months. “It’s difficult to abstain from sex for two out of four weeks,” she says. “That means half the month you can’t have sex. That’s very difficult for young couples.”

I suspect that some NFP-backers will respond by arguing that the average couple has to abstain for less than two weeks each cycle, or that the average couple using NFP has relations as many times per month as other American married couples do. But while these statistics are accurate, I believe that citing them is counterproductive in making the case for NFP.

First off, there are couples using NFP who, due to irregular cycles and extremely serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy, must abstain for significantly more than two weeks. The more times such couples hear the mantras about how easy NFP is, the more likely it is that they will grow discouraged or wonder why they’ve been cursed with so few opportunities to be together. Some might even conclude that all the talk about “less than two weeks” and “just as many times per month as other couples” is simply an elaborate bait-and-switch, and abandon NFP. Perhaps that’s why some of Dr. Hutcherson’s patients stopped using it. (Or, perhaps some of them simply decided it was now time to get pregnant…but that’s an issue for another day.)

But more importantly, to respond in such a way is to accept the critics’ premise—and their framing of the issue as a question of “functionality.” Under this frame, NFP is unacceptable and should not be promoted because the measurable output (avoiding pregnancy during a given cycle) requires far more of an input (abstaining for two weeks) than anyone but the most religiously zealous (who are no doubt putting up with the abstinence only because they fear burning in hell) should be expected to provide.

Instead, I think those in the NFP movement can learn a lesson in argumentation from those who farm with draft animals. Plowing, planting, and harvesting crops with horses is a much slower and labor intensive process than using tractors and combines. The measurable outputs (bushels per acre) per unit of time and effort invested are significantly poorer than what can be achieved with mechanization. And many who use draft horses (particularly the Amish) are motivated by religious concerns. However, there still remain a number of draft horse enthusiasts who are not motivated by religion, and who still use these animals in the fields. One of the leaders in this movement is Mr. Lynn R. Miller, author of several books and editor/publisher of The Small Farmer’s Journal, which is dedicated to promoting farming with draft animals.

Miller never argues that this method of farming is easy, or that it isn’t much more difficult than conventional methods of production. As he says on his website:

It is an evasive and subtle craft but it can be learned. In order to succeed you must seek out good help during the learning process. For the small diversified farm or ranch, horsepower is not just an option, it is a tremendous plus for self-sufficiency.

And:

Can I make a decent living with a small farm? Yes. And the good news is that it ain’t easy. You have to work hard and use your imagination and creativity. That’s the fun and rewarding part. The hard part will be making the decision, the commitment, and taking the plunge.

In other words, it sounds a lot like Natural Family Planning! Sure, some may initially approach it because of religious motivations. And it does take an investment of time to learn the method and understand it. But, the longer we use this method, the more rewarding we find it.

And why is that true, even when (and perhaps especially when) the periods of abstinence are long? It’s because NFP practitioners approach the marital relationship holistically, much like the teamster approaches his small farm. A farmer who is only in it for the bushels per acre is a sad and one-dimensional farmer; the farmer who works with his horses through the natural cycles of production and rest can find great satisfaction in that process. The same can be said for spouses: it is sad when unity is only measured by the physical dimension. In fact, for a healthy marriage, many dimensions of unity must be cultivated; artificial contraception allows spouses to ignore these and cut to the physical whenever they like. NFP, precisely because it has the admittedly-difficult periods of abstinence, leads spouses to cultivate all the other dimensions of their relationship and fit them together in their proper places.

I think this line of argument is the most effective response to pieces like the one in Scientific American. NFP is much more than a method of avoiding pregnancy, and we must challenge those who seek to reduce it to such. In terms of ease and maximizing opportunities for physical relations, NFP loses to the Pill as readily as draft horses lose to tractors — regardless of whether the period of abstinence is seven days or fourteen or twenty-one. Rather, we need to step back and re-frame the issue as one of maximizing total marital health and happiness at times when avoiding pregnancy is necessary. In that comparison, NFP wins going away.

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