Recently I’ve had a few conversations with Catholic friends about family planning where they’ve opened up about their own struggles. One friend, who has several kids, said something like, “The method we were taught failed us many times, or perhaps did not work at all. And when we spoke up about this our concern was dismissed” Not too long after that another friend of mine was telling me that after having one of their kids they had to abstain for six months in order to avoid getting pregnant again right away because their cycles were so weird that following the NFP method meant simple don’t have sex. Another friend is deathly afraid to get pregnant because she has a medical condition that has caused multiple miscarriages and will cause more in the future, so the failure rate of NFP really scares her. These are the stories about NFP that I’ve come to hear on a regular basis now, couples that find themselves in a place where NFP, indefinitely or for a time, simply isn’t good enough.
When the Catholic Church talks about family planning there are three principles that frame the discussion. The first is that parents have the obligation to be responsible, to look after the common good of one’s family. This means that the “physical, economic, psychological and social” circumstances of the family should be taken into consideration when a couple is considering having another child (Humanae Vitae 10). The second is that artificial contraception, that is, “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is absolutely prohibited by the moral law (Humanae Vitae 14). And the third principle is that long periods of abstinence in marriage due to spacing children have the possibility of damaging the vows of faithfulness and fruitfulness in that marriage (Gaudium et Spes 51).
In other words, couples need to be discerning about having children, but they can’t use contraception, and an extended lack of sexual intimacy could harm the marriage. Clearly then, there are very limited options for Catholics here, two options to be exact. The first option is do nothing. To let Divine Providence guide one’s fertility and family size. The second option is NFP. For many couples I imagine that the first option is a privilege they wish they had, that they didn’t have the health issues, psychological conditions, economic problems, etc. that force them to do whatever they can to avoid pregnancy. This leaves us with NFP, but what does a couple do when NFP isn’t good enough?
Like the friends I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve encountered many people over the past few years who have found themselves on the margins of both the Catholic community and the secular world. These folks are apart of a silent minority of “hyperfertile” NFP users. They have tried multiple NFP methods with multiple instructors but ultimately their only recourse to prevent having a dozen kids back to back has been months (or more) of abstinence at a time. Then there are the couples who have serious, life threatening reasons not to get pregnant, and who also have irregular cycles that make NFP difficult and less effective. These couples are on the margins of a secular society that just encourages contraception and sterilization, but they have also found little support from their Church. Their suffering gets dismissed out of hand with statements like “God must have wanted the baby” or “carry your cross” with little empathy or actual support.
It’s often said in Catholic circles that fertility isn’t a disease, that “hyperfertility” is just someone’s body acting the way it’s supposed to. However, while this is technically correct, it’s also very dismissive. Due to health issues, family issues, financial issues, and the other consequences of sin, hyperfertility can be a genuine and severe source of suffering. In some cases fertility has all the characteristics of an illness. If a woman truly risks death every time she gets pregnant then at the end of the day her and her husband’s fertility is reasonably treated like a disease.
The Catholic community needs to know that these struggles are legitimate. The Church, from clergy to regular Catholics, needs to offer more support for our brothers and sisters who find themselves carrying this cross. We need to recognize that couples in these situations need actual assistance, not just platitudes. Telling someone to just “carry their cross” without at the same time offering to help them carry that cross is the Catholic version of saying “just suck it up.”
We need to listen to people’s actual stories about the suffering in their life caused by NFP instead of constantly being on the defensive about how great NFP is. We need to offer to make dinner or babysit or simply be a friend for the parents of large families. We need to invest more resources into developing easier and more effective methods of NFP.
I think that Catholics (at least in the circles I run in) have done a good job in the past several years of recognizing the heavy burden and real suffering of infertility. We’ve invested resources into ethical treatments for infertility and we’ve made efforts to empathize and support those in our life who we know suffer from this. My hope is that the suffering that comes from hyperfertility and irregular cycles could likewise be acknowledged and supported.
Bishop Barron recently said, “At the core of Jesus’ program is a willingness to bear other people’s burdens, to help them carry their loads. And this applies to the moral life as well. If we lay the burden of God’s law on people, we must be willing, at the same time, to help them bear it.” There are people freely embracing the full weight of the moral law but are finding little support from their Catholic community, what can we do to help change that?