Part 2 (Conclusion): NFP at work in the lives of young couples; a doctor teaches his patients the natural way.
Since the early days of the Church, periodic abstinence rather than contraceptives has been the spiritually approved method for avoiding or for knowing when to achieve pregnancy.
The methods under the umbrella term of Natural Family Planning — observing symptoms from ovulation to temperature for fertility awareness — are more scientifically supported than outdated methods such as calendar rhythm, with NFP having a 98 to 99 percent success rate.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s most recent Family Growth Survey from 2006 to 2010, only 0.1 percent (with a standard error of 0.05 percent) of women surveyed between the ages of 15 to 44 use a modern NFP method to either avoid or achieve pregnancy.
Couple to Couple League International executive director Dr. Michael Manhart explained that the world views pregnancy as “a disease” and to make that 0.1 percent rise, the Church must take control of the conversation. To make sure young couples are fully educated, the Diocese of Little Rock began making the NFP course a requirement for marriage preparation in 2012.
According to Manhart, 83 percent of couples taking a CCL NFP course (not including home study) in 2014 were engaged. Nationally, 69 percent showed that one of the reasons for taking the class was for Church marriage requirement.
Elizabeth Reha, diocesan Family Life Office director, said the in-person classes offered through the diocese do not ask whether they are taking the NFP course solely for marriage requirement.
Though CCL doesn’t track specifically how many couples continue to use NFP after they are married, Manhart said a good indication is the number of membership renewals they receive. Those who sign up for the course are enrolled for a year to take advantage of the services.
“I’ve looked at this on a national basis across several years and the first year renewal is low,” Manhart said.
However, about four years or more after a couple takes the course, the organization sees about a 10 to 12 percent coming back for a renewal. “Once married life has kicked in, we see more of them coming back. We assume they are renewing their membership because what we offer is something that’s valuable to them.”
While those participating might be low, the education factor has always been key to the success of spreading the word on NFP.
Manhart said that 95 percent of couples who take the course say they have a better understanding of NFP after the course.
“Even those that are on the pill currently while they’re in the class come out of it with a more positive appreciation because the Church is teaching something that’s important; that might not be what they want right now but maybe something down the road, so there’s the option of that,” Reha said. “So, it was worthwhile for them to learn what their body does.”
Shari Drakes, a registered nurse who lives in Hot Springs, has been a certified Creighton Method instructor and does most of her teaching via Skype, said in her experience, engaged couples in their 20s are much more receptive to NFP.
“They’re also very holistic in general. There’s a little bit more ‘green’ in them; they want to do things that are natural and not do anything to their body chemically,” Drakes said. “My older generations, anybody after 30 is a little less receptive. Some have second marriages or have already done some form of birth control or already had that life experience and that plays into part of it.”
Julia Pritchett, 24, who is the national program coordinator for the national pro-life organization Sidewalk Advocates for Life, has taken one of three NFP Couple to Couple League classes in Fayetteville with her fiancé Matt Engledowl.
“I’m a programmer actually and part of that is I really like solving problems. For me, when we were going to the class it really captured my attention because I thought it was trying to solve a problem and figure out how something worked,” Engledowl said. “First of all, we’re not animals and I think the culture kind of perpetuates this idea we’re animalistic when it comes to sex … I think being able to abstain is an important part of marriage.”
Pritchett was introduced to NFP in ninth grade and since has studied the Creighton Method and now is learning Sympto-Thermal. Last year as a missionary in Philadelphia, she went to a variety of high schools — from public to private — talking in part about sexual integrity.
“I would say most didn’t” know about NFP, she said. “I would say the good thing about young people is they are impressionable in a good way. They haven’t been tainted by too many outside influences … (NFP is ) healthier, natural and safer.”
Pritchett, who attends St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville with Engledowl, said something about NFP that has made her and other friends who are getting married apprehensive is the timetable to learn it before marriage.
“Do I have enough time to learn it? That seems to be all our biggest fears. Am I confident we’ve learned it the way that we should before we get married?” Pritchett said, adding if a method doesn’t work for a couple, the great thing is there are more out there. “Not every method works for everybody … God made each one of us unique. It respects each woman’s individuality.”
Rebecca Tucker, 32, an operations rail manager at BNSF Logistics, and her fiancé Barret Miller, 30, a programmer analyst at Tyson Foods, took an in-person NFP class through Couple to Couple League. They are getting married Oct. 17 at St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville.
“I knew a little bit about it. I had a couple friends who were Catholic and married in the Church the last few years, but I really didn’t understand the depth of what we’d learn,” Tucker said. “Honestly I was very nervous about it just because I wasn’t sure what to expect, it is a very personal topic, but I was very pleased. I think they make it very comfortable in the class.”
Miller, who is Presbyterian, did not know specifics about NFP prior to the class.
“I believe in the science behind it,” Miller said, “It helps you learn, you and your wife’s body and that’s good to know, it’s natural … It’s good to know this is an option, for people of any religious backgrounds.”
But, on the other hand, “it puts more responsibility on the couples,” Miller said.
Tucker agreed, adding it was a lot to process and daunting to carefully document and to know whether or not the signs are being interpreted correctly or not.
“I think just making sure you’re interpreting things correctly … just being really structured with it, paying attention to the signs” can be challenging she said, explaining there are a lot of variables that change every day. “If you don’t feel good, have a fever, under a lot of stress from work, not getting up exactly at the same time.”
However, Tucker said it’s good to be able to reach out to instructors even after the class and suggests taking the course early in the marriage prep process.
While not every Catholic couple has decided to use NFP, couple Matt and Sam Denefe are advocates of “going green in bed.”
“I made her a shirt that says ‘Go green in bed,’” Matt Denefe said. Sam added that it also says, “‘Human ecology the way God planned it’ … it’s awesome. He has a matching one, but we’ve never worn it at the same time.”
The couple, married on Aug. 31, 2013, took an in-person NFP course as part of their marriage prep, but their desire to use NFP started before they met. Sam Denefe, 25, who will be Our Lady of the Holy Souls director of adult faith formation this summer, leaving her job as youth director at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Marche, said she went back to her Catholic faith during her junior year at Hendrix College in Conway.
“There was one thing that was kind of left for me and that was birth control because I was on birth control at the time. And I really didn’t see a problem with it,” she said. “Throughout my conversion I kept on praying like, ‘God, I don’t agree with you on this. If it’s really what you want me to do you’re going to have to show me.’ And I really started thinking about it and there’s no way I’m smarter than 2,000 years of the best theologians, the best philosophers.”
She heard in her RCIA class a speaker talk about the dangers of the birth control pill and said what “sealed the deal” was watching Janet E. Smith’s popular talk “Contraception: Why Not?”
After years of using the pill, a nurse practitioner told her she might not be able to have children “because my menstrual cycle didn’t kick back in like it was supposed to,” Sam Denefe said.
Matt Denefe, 22, who will be attending the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences with hopes of being a surgeon, received the sex talk from his parents when he was in fifth grade and they informed him about NFP.
The couple uses the Sympto-Thermal Method. Sam Denefe said she sets her alarm for 5 a.m. each morning and takes her oral temperature. Ovulation causes a spike in temperature, which can indicate fertility.
“My thermometer will save what I take so I don’t even remember taking it most days now. I throw my thermometer in the bed or sometimes I find it on the floor,” she said.
Instead of charting by hand, Sam Denefe said she uses a free app called “OvuView,” one of several official NFP apps that track fertility for the user when they add things like their temperature or mucus consistency, depending on the method.
“It is awesome,” Sam Denefe said of the app she uses. “It will show me when my spike is and you know around that time you just abstain.”
Though the Department of Health and Human Services lists a drawback to NFP as “most women don’t have totally regular menstrual cycles or periods, so you cannot definitely know the exact days you can get pregnant,” Sam Denefe said it is not the case.
“My cycle is not normal,” she said. “My cycle tends to be almost 40 days long, which is ridiculous but we’re still able to use NFP.”
Besides understanding fertility better, the couple said their relationship is more open and that sex is always a conversation.
“They say that couples that practice NFP actually have sex more than couples that don’t and it’s kind of like if it’s always available eventually you just forget about it,” Matt Denefe said. “But with this, every single day it’s a conversation, can we or can we not? Abstaining is natural. God could have made you fertile 24 hours a day if he intended for having intercourse only when you want to have a child, but he didn’t. He gave us a cycle to work with.”
The couple admits that they likely will get a few raised eyebrows of the effectiveness of NFP because of their almost 11-month-old miracle — daughter, Faith.
“Going into NFP you know that it’s 98 percent accurate but the whole theology behind NFP is you’re still open to a child. To this day, I know we did NFP to the book when we had her, but there’s still always that chance for God to intervene, and I think that’s what happened with Faith,” Matt Denefe said. “It wasn’t due to faultiness in the method or anything like that. If you look at NFP as ‘well you screwed up NFP,’ you’re not looking at NFP in the right sense in the first place.”
Couple to Couple League instructors Paul and Alicia Osborne have taught in-person Sympto-Thermal NFP classes in Little Rock for four years. Alicia Osborne said she’s known people who are taking the class for marriage requirement but also for a healthy lifestyle.
“I would say 75 to 80 percent of our couples have said they would use it,” Alicia Osborne said. “The other 20 or 25 percent either they don’t tell us or I expect they do not. They don’t ever come and say we’re not going to use it.”
Ultimately, NFP is about sacrifice.
Drakes said she recently counseled a young Catholic couple who had both planned to abstain from sex until their wedding night and had not planned to have children right away. They found that the weekend of their wedding, the bride was in her fertile period.
“It’s a beautiful thing, but the hardest part of the system,” Drakes said. “It’s a hard talk. I feel for them. I cried, they cried … There are couples who still obey. Just because the world says you have to have sex on your wedding night, you can make that decision every day for the rest of your life. Is this night really greater than all those days?”
While the long-term goal is more widespread practice of NFP, the short of it is the journey of education coupled with Church teaching.
“Vatican II documents talk about having a well-informed conscience. To have a well-informed conscience, you have to have all the information you can, prayerfully consider it and make a decision,” Reha said. “I tell my pre-Cana class, ‘you have the world’s information — now let me give you the Church’s information and you can make an honest decision, prayerfully, as to what is best for your marriage. But you can’t make that decision if you don’t have all the information.’”
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