The following is an essay written by GraceAnne Sullivan for a college English course at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
“I take you, birth control pill, to have and to hold from this day forward, till death do us part.” This is the promise 98% of married women make daily to the birth control pill. In today’s culture, the phrase “birth control” brings to mind an everyday lifestyle of America’s typical husband and wife. From magazines to television commercials, the pressure placed on women to take part in this lifestyle is undeniably overwhelming. Of the different kinds of fertility awareness methods used among couples today, Natural Family Planning (NFP) is rarely, if ever, mentioned as an alternative method.
Many individuals have written about artificial contraception and NFP, such as Pope Paul VI in his work Humanae Vitae. This encyclical reaffirms the Church’s teachings on responsible parenthood and discusses the destructive properties artificial birth control has on the stability of marital intimacy. He discusses the crises and reality of artificial birth regulation presented in our culture and addresses the controversy of contraception within a marriage, declaring that conjugal love ought to be unreserved, faithful, and inexhaustible, and draws this back to the truth that artificial birth control can inhibit all three of these. Observing that artificial contraception can inhibit these necessary marital attributes, this poses the question of an alternate method—one that allows the freedom to most fully share the marital bond of complete intimacy and self-giving—one that does not affect different aspects of a marriage due to its artificiality: this method being NFP. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that compared to the use of artificial contraception, NFP enriches the marital bonds by helping spouses cultivate a closer, loving relationship.
The practice of NFP, a seemingly unheard-of topic today, consists of a woman tracking her fertility cycle through various natural signs given from a woman’s body. Natural Family Planning is different from a contraceptive because it does not make a fertile act an infertile one. The artificial birth control pill, however, alters a woman’s normal body chemistry (except for barrier methods, such as condoms) by putting a hormone in her body to mimic pregnancy, thereby preventing ovulation and preventing her from becoming pregnant.
Although there are many variations of birth control and NFP, the birth control pill in comparison to the symptothermal method (STM) of NFP is well researched. Focusing solely on studies regarding oral contraceptives such as the pill provides generous information to be analyzed. Since the STM combines calendar calculations, basal body temperature charting, and cervical mucus monitoring, this encompassed an optimal example of NFP and therefore serves for suitable comparison.
An important comparison between NFP and the pill are the divorce rates related to each. It has been claimed that approximately 40-50% of marriages in the United States today end in divorce—an unfortunately common problem (Kazdin). Various factors can play into reasons for divorce, so it is virtually impossible to pinpoint simply one; however, the choice between using NFP or contraception within marriage does indeed provide potential factors that may affect divorce rates. The decision for couples to use either method can play an important role when looking at long-term repercussions from either decision, as these choices can fundamentally affect certain aspects that cause divorce such as infidelity, lack of communication, or lack of intimacy.
To illustrate this point, out of a data pool of 5,530 married women (81.1% indicated practicing some religion, whereas 18.9% practiced no religion), 9.6% of those who had practiced NFP and 18.3% of those who had used contraceptives were since divorced (Fehring). This study later states that the odds ratio (the measure of association between an exposure and an outcome) indicated using methods of contraception increased the likelihood of divorce up to twice that of NFP users.
The study listed various factors that could have potentially influenced the rates of divorce, in addition to the distinction between NFP users and contraceptive users. These factors included having had a previous abortion, having had multiple sex partners, having cohabitated, having used NFP before, importance of religion, and church attendance. Additional factors listed as reasoning for divorce corresponding to either NFP or contraceptives include communication, self-control, and motivation.
It is noteworthy to mention that those using oral contraceptives are twice as likely to become divorced (Fehring). One interpretation of this data could be that couples using contraceptives are twice as likely to be experiencing negative qualities within their marriage, thus further affecting reasons for divorce, and that couples practicing NFP are fostering their marriage by enriching such qualities through their dedication to the other.
Even in smaller groups of women this trend still can be seen, which points to the
consistency of these studies and thus the legitimacy of the information presented. In 2000, 505 women “who had taken NFP instruction at least three to over ten years ago” had been randomly surveyed, and the results taken from this study were compared to samples of women of similar age and Catholic women of similar age (Wilson).
Concerning marital stability and divorce rates, this study shows a significantly lower rate in the group practicing NFP compared to the general population. The research conducted more direct comparisons and added more variables than in Fehring’s study by splitting up the data pool into groups of similar age and beliefs. It was impressive to note the consistency of this article’s data to Fehring’s, given that both of the studies were conducted several years apart. Again, this study presented an 18% divorce rate of spouses who had used contraceptives that were since divorced, and recorded a 9% divorce rate for couples who had used NFP within marriage. The author points out, “the impressive low divorce rate seems to be closely linked to the practice of NFP, but a future matched sample study would enable us to make a more accurate comparative study” (Wilson). It should be noted, however, that Wilson makes a clear distinction in the beginning of the study. Although the intention of this article is to “examine the impact of Natural Family Planning on a wide variety of family, sexual, and moral issues,” she recognizes that people “should not confuse correlation with causation concerning NFP and divorce” (Wilson).
Therefore, it remains uncertain whether NFP is directly related to the crux of low divorce rates among users nationwide. It is virtually impossible to pinpoint reasoning for one’s divorce, basing it solely on either the practice of NFP or contraception. However, it can be easily inferred from these studies that the choice of NFP or contraception can play a part in some factors of divorce, as these studies tend to show. Undeniably, NFP cultivates variables such as intimate communication between spouses and an increased awareness of fertility and infertility. In contrast, this enrichment seems to be lacking within marriages using artificial contraceptives—a coincidence that also points to considerably higher divorce rates.
Aside from divorce rates, observing success rates of the pill and the STM is an important factor in people’s willingness to regard it as a valid method. When comparing and analyzing different methods of fertility awareness and their prospective failure rates, a random populus of women using either the STM or the pill compared the lowest expected failure rates during the first year of use to first year continuation rates after the year-long experiment was over (Trussell).
In this study NFP practice was labeled as “periodic abstinence” and further broken into four subcategories. The symptothermal method (STM) had a lowest expectancy failure of 2%, which can be equated to a 98% success rate when used “perfectly” (Trussell). Scientists define “perfect use” of an NFP method or a contraceptive as one that never deviates from its guidelines, exactly following periods of abstinence, or, in the case of oral contraceptives, taking it at the same time each day, everyday. The pill was reported to have a .5% lowest expectancy failure rate, equivalent to a 99.5% success rate. However, Trussell found that there was only a 75% continuation rate of the pill after year one, as opposed to NFP’s 84%. It is noteworthy that although the pill has a higher success rate in this study, the rate of women who continue to use this method drops by 1⁄4. This may be due to a lack of satisfaction factors which will be discussed in depth in the following point.
Complementing Trussell’s article and further confirming the validity of his research, other studies note the same correlation. It is noted that “At best, the use of NFP is similarly effective to condoms and the pill, but is less effective than the most effective fertility control methods, such as IUDs” (Rhomberg). With perfect use, the STM has a 99% success rate, and a “typical use” success rate of 92.5%. The pill recorded at a 99.7% success rate, yet a 92% “typical use” success rate (Rhomberg).
This graph parallels Trussell’s study that although the pill has a slightly higher success rate than NFP, the manner in which these methods are “typically” used reflects the opposite; Trussell’s claim that the continued use of NFP after year one was greater than the pill serves to strengthen the previous information found from Rhomberg. The data presented points to an important observation that there is an intrinsic element in oral contraception that leaves people desiring something more, evidenced by the lower continuation rate. This article strongly suggests that couples prefer an overall increase in positive marital bonding and satisfactory qualities of NFP rather than a slight increase in “perfect” success of the pill, which may be due to an increased feeling of intimacy, communication, or other fundamental factors of satisfaction.
The information gained from these sources adequately points to the potential satisfaction qualities that could be gained from using NFP or oral contraceptives. There is a perceptible connection between success rates and satisfaction qualities of both methods, and several sources point to this correlation. To exhibit this finding, a group of 2,287 individuals were compared who had been married for an average of fifteen years, one group using NFP, and the other who switched from NFP to contraceptive methods. The couples were given a questionnaire with five categories with two to five subcategories in each. Three of these categories included positive qualities (Enhanced Relationships, Improved Knowledge, and Method Success), while the remaining two (Strained Sexual Interactions and Worsened Relationships) analyzed any possible negative characteristics. When determining qualities in enhanced relationships using NFP, 31% of respondents recorded that they experienced a deepened relationship, improved communication, and gained more respect for their partner (VandeVusse). Another 13% of respondents indicated that they had an increased knowledge in the “female cycle, the associated bodily changes, and related emotions.” It was most interesting to note that when looking at method successes, 15% of individuals in the study responded favorably to health aspects of NFP. One response states that “The pill…made me feel depressed and resentful toward my husband. The [NFP] method had no side effects. I felt free and powerful as soon as I stopped taking the pill” (VandeVusse).
Of the negative responses given toward NFP, 13% noted strained sexual interactions due to difficulties with abstinence, decreases in spontaneity, and unbalanced sexual drives between partners. These negative characteristics toward abstinence may have some correlation to the 6% anger and frustration rate that was recorded in this study due to misunderstandings, lack of communication, or other factors. Regarding factors of satisfaction, overall research states that out of the 2,287 respondents, 74% were positively impacted while the remaining 26% were negatively impacted when switching from oral contraceptives to NFP (VandeVusse).
By this comparison of positive and negative aspects within marriages, the aforementioned thesis is supported in a comprehensive way. This discussed disparity highlights the overall satisfaction that exists when using the STM as opposed to oral contraceptives, and therefore further supports the claim that NFP does indeed possess advantages over oral contraception. Strongly connecting back to Rhomberg’s and Fehring’s conclusions, these positive factors of overall satisfaction enhance the validity of the argument that NFP does indeed enrich a marriage more than that of oral contraceptives. It is important for marriages to possess these foundational qualities in order to further build a successful marriage. If these foundational qualities are lacking, then it becomes much more difficult to cultivate a healthy marriage.
After observing and analyzing these articles, tying all information together and drawing appropriate conclusions, the reader is pointed to a specific trend—that although the pill is essentially more effective than STM when used perfectly, it becomes less effective and even less preferred as time increases when “typically used.” This serves as complementary information to Fehring’s and Wilson’s articles regarding divorce. As previously mentioned in their studies, divorce cannot be measured solely on either the practice of NFP or contraception, but it is shown that this choice can potentially play a role in satisfaction factors within the marriage.
All of the studies collected, specifically VandeVusse’s, tended to show that this enrichment of qualities seems to be lacking within marriages using oral contraceptives, whereas cultivating qualities such as intimate communication when NFP was used. It is shown that NFP strengthens positive attributes such as enhanced relationships, improved knowledge in the female cycle, and an overall increased well-being. However, oral contraceptives do not enhance or add an element of depth or wonder to the marital bond. For example, NFP displays the intricacies of a woman’s cycle, expressing awareness; conversely, oral contraceptives do not educate women in their sense of self, fertility, or reasons for infertility—ultimately the entire basis of the beauty of the feminine genius—something that is not present in oral contraceptives. Primarily, the information above complements and ties all points together logically. These points demonstrate the positive advantages NFP indeed displays over contraceptives, confirming the validity of the claimed thesis. Compared to oral contraception, NFP allows for a greater depth and beauty to be explored within marriage—a depth and beauty that brings the joy of marriage to an ultimate fulfillment.
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