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Couples say natural methods of family planning are healthy and promote communication and respect

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As Eric and Emily Oxley prepared for marriage, they knew they wanted to use natural family planning (NFP) because they said it grounds couples in faith, mutual respect, solid communication and healthy choices.

Now the parents of Grace, 6½, Henry, 3½, and Clare, 1, the Oxleys said NFP - which is encouraged by the Catholic Church and treats fertility as a shared gift between a man and a woman - has helped them responsibly build their family, and at the same time develop a deeper love for one another.

"With NFP, the couple tells each other 'I love all of you' not 'I love all of you except your fertility,'" said Emily, 33.

NFP also is a healthy option for women because it avoids the use of drugs and other forms of contraceptives, said the Oxleys, members of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha.

Mike Manhart, executive director of the Cincinnati-based Couple to Couple League, which offers one of two primary methods of NFP offered in the archdiocese, said health risks, including blood clots and strokes, are associated with certain supplements that contain estrogen and progesterone, including birth control pills. No health risks are linked to using NFP, he said.

And if couples don't feel ready to have a child, NFP is 99.5 percent effective when used correctly, he said. NFP also can help couples become pregnant because they are familiar with the body's cycles, Manhart said.

The Oxleys said they have integrated NFP into their lives ever since they married nearly eight years ago, and charting Emily's fertility has helped them develop a greater appreciation for the beauty of God's design while teaching them about how her body works.

Using NFP also is helpful in aiding in the evaluation and treatment of infertility and other women's health issues, said Dr. Thomas Hilgers, founder and director of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, which created the other primary form of NFP, the Creighton Model FertilityCare System.

Mark and Johnna Miller, members of Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, said NFP has been 100-percent effective in helping them build their family of eight children - Luke, 19, Sarah, 17, Mary, 16, Joseph, 14, Aaron, 11, Christina, 9, Emily, 7, and Nicholas, 4.

"I know some people look at us and go, 'Oh, you have eight kids. Yeah right, it works,' but anytime we have felt that we needed to postpone a pregnancy, it's been 100-percent effective," said Johnna, 43.

By taking just a few minutes each day to make observations necessary for NFP, Johnna said she can tell when her body is fertile - and even when something is not right and she needs to see a doctor.

"It's just so easy to use," she said.

The Millers and the Oxleys acknowledged that practicing NFP isn't always emotionally easy. For example, if couples do not feel ready to have a child, it requires them to abstain from intercourse during fertile times.

But abstinence can be a blessing, too, as can a deliberate decision to be open to life, they said.

"If you can have something any time you want it, you can easily take it for granted," Emily Oxley said. "And when you decide to be open to life on a fertile day, it adds an entirely new element to the act, knowing at that moment you could be helping God create a life." 

Emily teaches the Creighton Model, and she and Eric are involved in giving presentations on NFP to engaged couples through the Archdiocese of Omaha.

For years, the archdiocese has encouraged engaged couples to learn about NFP - and at the request of several priests the Family Life Office took an additional step two years ago, offering introductory courses to the two NFP methods, one of which is offered by the Couple to Couple League and the other by the Pope Paul VI Institute, said Valerie Conzett, the office's director.

As part of the classes, couples also learn about church teaching on chastity and respect for the body and each other through the lens of Blessed John Paul II's "Theology of the Body."

John Paul II's insights fit well with NPF as the church and society grow in understanding "of how we're made and how we can cooperate with God to build a culture of life," Conzett said.

Father Damien Cook, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Omaha, said he requires engaged couples he works with to attend a NFP introductory class because he considers NFP to be one of the "greatest gifts" spouses can give each other.

"NFP gets them communicating about something as fundamental and intrinsic to marriage as the creation of new life and does so in a sinless way, in accord with the dignity of marriage, the human person and the teachings of our Catholic Church," he said. "(The marriages of) couples who use NFP are statistically, across the board, less likely to end in divorce."

According to some studies, couples who use NFP have a 5 percent divorce rate, compared with about 40 percent in the broader population.

NFP also helps couples see their married love as a form of stewardship by receiving, guiding and protecting the future of the human race and the church, Father Cook said.   The Millers, who teach couples how to use the sympto-thermal method of NFP through the Couple to Couple League, said they have noticed an increase in the number of couples interested in learning about NFP.

Their observations appear to be borne out by statistics gathered by the Family Life Office.

Those numbers indicate that so far this year, nearly half of the 92 couples who took the three-hour archdiocesan NFP introductory course said they plan to take a full NFP course, said Heidi Emanuel, marriage and family ministry specialist for the archdiocese.

The data spans three months, and Emanuel said she hopes couples will follow through and take the classes.

Last year, about 8 percent of the 165 couples attended a full course. In 2010, when the course was first being offered, statistics were unclear, she said.

Conzett said she attributes the increased interest in NPF to more clergy promoting its use and attention to the subject brought by the federal government's controversial mandate that most employers provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and sterilization procedures.

Johnna Miller said more couples might use NFP if they fully understood the scientific advances since the rhythm method of the 1960s. Many couples also fail to appreciate the gift of sacrifice implicit in NPF because instant gratification has become a cultural norm and abstinence is seen as a negative thing, she said.

"NPF is such a gift. I would encourage people to at least look at it and try to understand the teaching of the church and what a beautiful teaching it really is," Johnna said. "It's not the church saying, 'no, you can't do this' and 'no, you can't do that.' It's giving us more of a 'yes' to the beautiful things that can come from marriage and that marital embrace."

NFP INTRO CLASSES

First offered in 2010 through the Archdiocesan Family Life Office at the request of priests who wanted to have engaged couples learn more about natural family planning methods.

Since July 2010, 281 couples have taken the Family Life Office's three-hour "NFP: Responsible Love" introductory course.

The introductory course is an overview of the Couple to Couple League's symptom-thermal method of family planning and the Pope Paul VI Institute's Creighton Model FertilityCare System.

The class includes prayer, an introduction to "Theology of the Body," and presentations by a priest and couples trained in each of the archdiocesan approved NFP methods.

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