Planning a family naturally

fertility chartFor how sex-obsessed our culture is, it’s surprising how little we talk about the spiritual side effects of procreation and contraception. The way we view our bodies and the manner in which we approach sex are some of the most profound theological questions we face in our daily lives, and yet it doesn’t seem to make it into mainstream media much. There are exceptions of course.

Last week, Ruth Gledhill at the Times (U.K.) wrote about Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ view that gay relationships can be comparable to marriage. Part of his reasoning was the ubiquity and official acceptance of contraception:

In his 1989 essay The Body’s Grace, Dr Williams argued that the Church’s acceptance of contraception meant that it acknowledged the validity of nonprocreative sex. This could be taken as a green light for gay sex.

Yesterday, the Austin American-Statesman ran a provocative story on Protestants who use Natural Family Planning. The no-holds-barred account by Eileen Flynn provides a really interesting look at the spiritual appeal of avoiding artificial contraception:

Phaedra Taylor abstained from sex until marriage. But she began researching birth control methods before she was even engaged, and by the time she married David Taylor, she was already charting her fertility.

Taylor, a fresh-faced 28-year-old who would blend in easily with South Austin bohemians, ruled out taking birth control pills after reading a book that claimed the pill could, in some cases, make the uterus uninhabitable after conception occurred. She viewed that as abortion, which she opposes.

“I just wasn’t willing to risk it,” she said.

Taylor wanted her faith to guide her sexual and reproductive decisions after marriage. Natural family planning felt like the best way to honor God, she said.

The Taylors are one of several couples at Hope Chapel — a nondenominational church where David Taylor, 36, was the arts minister for 12 years — who practice natural family planning. Christian scholars say they may reflect a growing trend among non-Catholic Christians who are increasingly seeking out natural alternatives to artificial contraception.

Flynn speaks with a variety of people about NFP on the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. She nicely characterizes the document’s views on moral and natural laws and explains what NFP is. One of the things I liked is that she mentioned that NFP isn’t just used by couples who are trying to space out pregnancy but also by couples who want to get pregnant.

The natural family planning movement among Protestants is difficult to quantify, but there appears to be growing interest, said the Rev. Amy Laura Hall, a Methodist minister and associate professor at Duke Divinity School. Because she’s one of the few Protestant scholars writing about reproductive issues — her latest book is called “Conceiving Parenthood” — Hall frequently fields questions from Christians about family planning at conferences and by e-mail.

She said they ask questions like whether it’s truly Christian to be preoccupied with finances and getting children into the right schools rather than welcoming children as gifts on loan from God — even if they don’t fit into the parents’ ideal life plan.

The article explains precisely what spiritual objections people have to artificial birth control. It also includes criticism from Protestants who have moved away from NFP. Flynn also highlights some of the historic Protestant and Anglican antipathy toward NFP.

Usually NFP practitioners are mocked or marginalized. The American-Statesman account, however, is solid and interesting and treats its subjects as thoughtful individuals seeking to obey God and honor their spouses. Good work.

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  • Jerry

    It’s refreshing to find a story such as this that raises such important issues and does it so well. This quote from the story sums up my feeling:

    “a fascinating examination of God’s sovereignty and human free will.”

  • bob

    I wonder why no article ever mentions that birth control pills and barrier methods are *also* “Natural” methods of birth control. What does one expect; “Supernatural”?? We are designed to reproduce. We are designed to store food energy as fat so it can be burned later when needed. Those two activities take up pretty much all the time used studying biology in school; it’s one or the other. Defeating these two activities are the focus of a great deal of the economy. Birth control by timing fertility is every bit as “unnatural” as affecting fertility by taking hormones. They work “naturally” too. Condoms act pretty naturally too. The most obedient Roman Catholic following NFP methods is practising birth control, period. By taking an *unnatural* interest IN periods.

  • tmatt


    Stive to debate the press coverage, while avoiding direct commentary on what people believe. OK?

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  • o.h.

    The article doesn’t mention (and it would be tangential anyway, but interesting) that Hope Chapel has had a “problem” for several years now of members leaving for the Catholic Church (my best friend was one of them–I was her RCIA sponsor), which has caused some friction, to say the least, within the church. It’s not just NFP, but images in worship, and even (semi-)rosary prayer practices that have been catching the imagination of members. I often wonder if it’s just one odd church in an admittedly weird city, or if this is showing up in non-denominational churches elsewhere.

    Bob, at the risk of continuing the rabbit trail, “unnatural” birth control isn’t forbidden: contraception is, with “contraception” meaning the deliberate interference with/frustration of the reproductive possibility of a particular sexual act. If that act has no reproductive possibility to begin with (as with an infertile couple or an infertile period of the cycle), then there’s no contraception involved in having sex while knowing it won’t result in pregnancy. You can disagree with that teaching all you want; but don’t exhaust yourself beating up a straw man.

  • FW Ken

    o.h. -

    If I am not mistaken, Hope Chapel inherited some folks who came out of an “ecumenical community” back in the 70s. A fair number of us became Episcopalians or Catholics, and the Hope Chapel website reminds me a good bit of our old 70′s group. Having an “arts minister” is something we would have done, had we been that organized. Which is to say that their “Catholic problem” is probably not unexpected.

    What’s not so understandable is the Austin-American Statesman covering a story like this so well. It was really a fair review.

  • o.h.

    Not so surprising coming from Eileen Flynn, who really seems to know her stuff on the religion beat in Austin. Did you see this article of hers from July?
    The couple involved told me they were amazed by her careful, considerate questioning and the accuracy of the final piece. (Since the couple are Hope Chapellers, I wouldn’t be shocked if the NFP piece arose out of this earlier one.) See Flynn’s blog here:

    Wish the Statesman were always so good on local religion. When the Latin Mass was liberalized last year, they ran an AP piece with all the usual damning cliches–no lay participation, etc., etc.–they couldn’t be bothered to have someone walk up Congress Ave. to the Cathedral on a Sunday afternoon to see if the story actually reflected the facts in Austin (it didn’t).

  • Brian Walden

    Bob, natural refers to nature in the philosophical sense. As in what is the nature (or purpose) of man? Proponents of NFP believe that contraception goes against man’s nature in that sense – not that, for example, it would be ok to use sheepskin but not latex.

  • Karen

    I wonder, as a reader, what book Mrs. Taylor read that gave her the perspective on birth control pills.

  • FW Ken

    o.h. –

    Thanks for the link to the earlier. Thomas Cogdell used to sit in my lap at prayer meetings back in the 70s. If he’s 40… I am OLD!
    :-) :-)

  • o.h.

    FW Ken,

    Thomas is godfather to my children (Church rules allow one non-Catholic godparent), & I can’t imagine any Christian man, Catholic or Protestant, I would trust more with my children’s faith. The Holy Spirit was clearly working hard while T. was sitting on your lap. :-)

    OK Mollie, thread hijack over–sorry!

  • FW Ken

    Almost over… I have to add that John and Ann Cogdell were in my mind when I talked about Episcopalians (they were at St. David’s back then), artistic types, and Hope Chapel. :-)

  • Clare Krishan

    Comments thread at Rod Dreher’s CrunchyCon blog hosted by BeliefNet has a good discussion of the degree of agreement between the appeal of a natural common-sense prudence and our theological precepts of morality:

    with this addition from the MSM

    on the practicalities of Darwinian natural-selection when folks practice artificial Darwinism “The Pill makes women pick bad mates — Ability to sniff out a compatible partner affected by taking contraceptives” by Jeanna Bryner

  • pen brynisa

    As it turns out, the Archbishop of Canterbury does not actually hold the view “that gay relationships can be comparable to marriage”.

    He issued a press report clarifying his position.

  • Clare Krishan

    Can we consider this story solely from the “Get Religion” angle? The comments at the UK Times article on the same theme has a surprising number of American commentators:
    with the preponderance of voices decriing the deleterious effects on women of the artificial method of managing their fertility (N.B. a dynamic range of habits of intimacy are reflected, no offence intended to sensitive readers)
    What of the natural law and the muting of rational discourse in the public square? Are Catholics the only Christians left with enough ‘nous’ to recognize the serious demise of sensible discourse in today’s media? Why are so many secularists silent on this one? Who raised such a cadre of ignoramuses? Who failed to pass on what was the common heritage of Western Civilization down through the centuries? US!

  • Dave2

    bob, Brian Walden,

    Views concerning the ‘nature’ of things in the natural world haven’t been the same since the Scientific Revolution, when the traditional teleological view of nature (with organisms and body parts seen as having functions/purposes) began to give way to a mechanistic view of nature (with the natural world seen as a great machine of matter in motion obeying scientific laws).

    The ‘natural law’ ethics prominent in Roman Catholicism can be traced to medieval Aristotelians like St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom it was noncontroversial that the natural world could be divided up into distinct substances, each with a final cause or purpose belonging to its nature. And on this approach, there is a serious difference between coitus interruptus and consummated sex: the latter is in harmony with the purpose of sexual organs and the latter is an unnatural frustration of their purpose.

    Descartes, who was key in developing the new sciences and their new approach to substance and nature (and who was very dismissive of final causes), says just what you’d expect about the term ‘natural’: strictly speaking, all operations of matter are equally natural, and if we see some of them as ‘unnatural’ because it is contrary to a thing’s ‘purpose’, this is only an extraneous label we have given it, rather than anything belonging to its real nature.

    “Yet a clock constructed with wheels and weights observes all the laws of its nature just as closely when it is badly made and tells the wrong time as when it completely fulfils the wishes of the clockmaker. In the same way, I might consider the body of a man as a kind of machine equipped with and made up of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin in such a way that, even if there were no mind in it, it would still perform all the same movements as it now does in those cases where movement is not under the control of the will or, consequently, of the mind. I can easily see that if such a body suffers from dropsy, for example, and is affected by the dryness of the throat which normally produces in the mind the sensation of thirst, the resulting condition of the nerves and other parts will dispose the body to take a drink, with the result that the disease will be aggravated. Yet this is just as natural as the body’s being stimulated by a similar dryness of the throat to take a drink when there is no such illness and the drink is beneficial. Admittedly, when I consider the purpose of the clock, I may say that it is departing from its nature when it does not tell the right time; and similarly when I consider the mechanism of the human body, I may think that, in relation to the movements which normally occur in it, it too is deviating from its nature if the throat is dry at a time when drinking is not beneficial to its continued health. But I am well aware that ‘nature’ as I have just used it has a very different significance from ‘nature’ in the other sense. As I have just used it, ‘nature’ is simply a label which depends on my thought; it is quite extraneous to the things to which it is applied, and depends simply on my comparison between the idea of a sick man and a badly-made clock, and the idea of a healthy man and a well-made clock. But by ‘nature’ in the other sense I understand something which is really to be found in the things themselves; in this sense, therefore, the term contains something of the truth.” (Meditations 6.17)

  • Dave

    Dave2, Darwin put paid to all[*] attempts to import intent into nature. Natural selection has no purpose or intent; it simply operates and has consequences. Hence my total skepticism of “natural law” arguments and the religious use of the term “unnatural.”

    *Footnote: I should say all attempts based on observing life on Earth. The anthropic principle — the tuning of key universal physical constants that allows life to emerge in the first place — is still a true conundrum.