On babymaking

conception3A British philosopher, and former faculty member at my alma mater, published a small paper recently that argued that practitioners of natural family planning cause “massive” early embryonic death. Incendiary! So I guess I should not be surprised that major media are picking up on the study.

Philosopher Luc Bovens’ theory requires acceptance of a few assumptions. Here’s how he describes the third assumption:

[T]here is a greater chance that a conception will lead to a viable embryo if it occurs in the centre interval of the fertile period than if it occurs on the tail ends of the fertile period. This assumption is not backed up by empirical evidence, but does have a certain plausibility.

Emphasis mine. Kudos to Bovens for admitting the assumption is not supported by data. Amanda Schaffer has an interesting piece in The New York Times that analyzes the merits or lack thereof of Bovens’ theory. But I had to point something out from her story:

Dr. Bovens uses the term rhythm method to refer to any approach that allows couples to predict the woman’s most fertile time of month, so that they can abstain from sex during that time. Traditionally, the term referred more narrowly to a strategy of counting calendar days from the woman’s menstrual period, to estimate ovulation.

Natural family planning is the more widely used, contemporary term for the broad range of techniques aimed at helping women to predict fertile days so they can avoid having sex then.

Emphasis again mine. I have many, many friends who use natural family planning. And saying that it is used to predict fertile days so couples can avoid having sex is just not telling the whole story. Many couples use natural family planning to ensure that they do get pregnant.

Frequently I hear jokes such as, “What do you call a couple who uses natural family planning? Parents!” Oh how these jokes annoy me. It is considered a failure of natural family planning if a couple gets pregnant — even though that is precisely why it is used by many!

An obstetrician friend of mine says that many couples’ problems with conceiving are caused by not having enough sex and consequently not having sex at the right time. It is a sad fact that many women and many men have no idea how or when conception is most likely to occur. A little more education about the process could not hurt. To that end, Schaffer’s article that explains a bit about when women are most fertile is a good thing.

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  • AL

    You’re right. And in general, getting pregnant these days, especially if you have a career, is too often viewed as almost a tragedy! When did this belief emerge and why? Your article makes a great point. No one wants family responsiblity any more and our world is suffering because of it.

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  • Judy Harrow

    Bingo! In my experience, couples who want to have children use natural family planning to increase the probability. Couples who do not want children, or do not want any more children than they already have, use more reliable methods.

    So, yes, users of natural family planning are called parents — and this is a success story for most of them, not a failure at all.

  • http://maximaculpa.blogspot.com Chrysostomos

    A bit of legerdemain in Bovens’ article: “Rhythm method users try to avoid pregnancy by aiming at the period in which conception is less likely to occur and in which viability is lower.” Such couple are planning on conception being less likely, but are they actually planning on the embryos having lower viability? The pill works precisely when it either prevents conception or ensures the demise of the embryo. It was designed to work that way. NFP isn’t.

  • Micah Weedman

    I have three children that are the result of (failed) practicing of NFP–we weren’t at all trying to get pregnant. All in all, though, several years of NFP resulted in only two pregnancies, one of which yielded two kids.

    I do think this is an important thing–jokes about NFP make me laugh, becuase at least in my own experience, they are, in H. Simpson’s immortal words, funny becuase they are true. But the point of NFP is far more rich than merely wanting to postpone kids until they are affordable and careers are well established–NFP opens the door for hospitality to surprise kids in a way wholly different than contraception.
    Perhaps this is an aspect that only practitioners (and perhaps only pracitioners who have kids) can fully understand.

  • Liz B.

    You can use the techniques involved in NFP in two quite distinct ways: to avoid pregnancy or to encourage it. The paper itself is only addressing one of these uses, so I don’t think it’s too far off base for the media coverage to be considering it only in that sense as well. I don’t see much harm in it either; bringing in the other sense of NFP here seems irrelevant.

    And I think it’s obvious that when people talk about unplanned pregnancies as NFP failures, they’re talking about the use of NFP as a method of birth control. Conflating that with the use of NFP as a technique to increase the likelihood of conception is just silly. On the other hand, people who use NFP are perhaps more likely to have an explicit “but if it happens, we’ll take it as God’s gift and be excited” plan than others, and therefore might not be as likely to label it a “failure”– they would say the whole process is a success because they’re going where God takes them. But I think that’s totally different than the case where someone is trying to get pregnant and then does…

  • anon

    Every discussion of NFP I ever see treats it either as a form of contraception (that the user is praying won’t fail) or as a form of fertility treatment. But many couples who use it, including me & dh, drift between these poles, from NFP-as-contraception right after the birth of a baby, to what we call “HANFP”–half-a***d natural family planning, where you let yourself get careless, to just vaguely noticing that you’re probably in a fertile period, to just ignoring it altogether. At what point is the couple “using NFP”? To be human is to have mixed and fluctuating motives and desires; which makes me suspect studies on any kind of birth control use.