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Friday, November 19, 2004

Contraception, Part VI: Natural Family Planning

I’ve recently been engaged in a discussion that has spun off from the comment sections of this series (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V), Part V’s especially. The discussion has centered around natural family planning and a debate as to whether or not other forms of contraception are licit. It did not occur to me to mention NFP specifically in Parts I-V of the series since I consider it to be a method of contraception. In Parts I-V, I examined many factors that affect a decision to either use contraception, including NFP, or use no form of it whatsoever, and therefore I did not examine distinctions between any of the methods themselves except as they applied to the discussion at hand.

I’ve since learned that there are many who do not consider NFP to be a method of contraception, since no artificial means of interfering with natural processes during the sex act are used. I thank Elena for informing me of this. I appreciate the information she has shared, and have considered it with great interest. I can commend many things about this method, and have been thinking about it more closely since the discussion with Elena. Unlike Elena, though, I still do not consider it to be the only licit means of preventing conception, and I do not consider it to be a “perfect” method. This disagreement has occupied the bulk of our discussion, which continued on Elena’s blog and got quite extensive. After the comment section to Part V, the discussion picked up here, and continued here, here, and here.

(note: the comments on Elena’s blog read bottom-to-top, i.e., the most recent comments are at the top)

I don’t believe there actually is a “perfect” method, which is one of the problems with contraception in general.

In the series up to this point, I examined some of the practical considerations involved in decisions to “family plan” or not. There was a lot of theological consideration behind the practical considerations even though very few references were spelled out. This was done on purpose. I believe it is of utmost importance that a person live out theology in actual practice, and this is what I enjoy writing about. I feel there’s a need for more of this type of writing.

The main strength of NFP is, of course, that it involves no interference whatsoever with the physical aspects of the marital act itself. There is a lot to be said for this, besides the Catholic arguments, which is pretty much self-evident.

There are various ways to practice NFP, some of which are not gadget-free (in comparison to no attempt to “manage” reproduction at all), in that practitioners use a thermometer regularly, and many use other fertility indicators as well (two links there). Many of these practitioners use a thermometer in conjunction with cervical mucous monitoring (sympto-thermal method), as Proverbial Wife mentions in her candid post, “Our Reproductive Life.” Others rely on cervical mucous-checking only (the Billings method).

Marla’s post offers her personal, evangelical perspective on contraception and NFP, which is an interesting read. I thank her for sharing it.

The main concern I have with NFP falls within something I have roughly termed the “marital sexual cycle.” I will attempt to explain what I mean, since I haven’t yet done so except to mention I Cor 7:5 and the phenomenon of a woman’s sense of enhanced sexuality around her time of ovulation.

First of all, while there are certain obvious things that all marital coitus has in common, the actual practice of it has many personal variations, just as people have different personalities, traits, and other variations. As married couples live day to day and both their personal lives and their interaction varies, so does their sexual relationship. As people grow individually and as their marriage grows and moves through various “stages,” the way they relate to each other adapts and varies as well, as does their sexual relationship. So when I speak of a cycle of marital sexual relations, I am speaking of something that is not static, nor necessarily predictable, nor even “regular.” But I am assuming that in general it will correspond to other aspects of the lives of married partners, both individually and corporately.

Although fertility is obviously an integral part of a sexual relationship, there are many other factors just as integral, I believe, that are part of the mystery of two-becoming-one. Therefore it’s prudent that one consider carefully and prayerfully any attempt to interfere with any of these factors, not just fertility, and not just natural physical processes which are part of the marital act. I consider NFP to be a form of contraception because it not only involves action taken (by omission, if you will) to prevent a conception, but also interrupts the other aspects of sexual communion between married partners.

Catholic users of NFP hold that they are working with their natural fertility rather than disregarding it or squelching it, but I see this as euphemistic. Just because a woman knows her fertility cycle well does not mean that, by avoiding intercourse during her fertile periods, she is “working with” her natural fertility. My understanding of the latter statement is that it entails an enjoyment of the marital sexual relationship without avoiding fertile times, and accepting the consequences. In other words, I think it could just as well be said that avoiding intercourse during a fertile period is working against natural fertility. Or, one could say that if practitioners of NFP are working with their natural fertility, then so are users of artificial contraception. In that case, I would argue that judicious use of contraception for the purpose of “family planning” is working with natural fertility, but in a different way. Or, if you prefer, both methods work against natural fertility, but in different ways.

In I Corinthians 7, Paul encourages married individuals not to withhold themselves from each other sexually except for purposes of prayer. No mention here of “family planning.” What stands out to me in this passage is that Paul says, “Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." (vv. 3-4)

Paul is saying here that marital expression of one’s sexuality is a ministry to one’s spouse. Yes, of course, it’s fun and gratifying (hopefully) to minister in this way, but I emphasize this point because, to me, abstinence is something that should be done if one feels sexually inclined toward anyone who is not their spouse, or done only for purposes of prayer (or necessity) once one is married. Other than that, it seems that Paul is saying that sex is to be freely given and freely enjoyed except for mutually agreed-upon periods of abstinence for the sake of prayer. (vv. 5-6)

These verses are problematic in light of use of NFP, and are the basis of my understanding of a “natural cycle of a marital sexual relationship.” I think this verse is actually a better argument against use of any form of contraception whatsoever than even against NFP as a method.

On the matter of increased whatever-you-want-to-call-it during a woman’s fertile period: when contemplating this, one must ask, “why does it exist?” The obvious answer is “to encourage folks to reproduce.” I would also offer that, if indeed the human marital sexual relationship (the only licit form of sexual relationship) is multi-faceted, i.e., encompassing more than fertility, then this increased “whatever” also serves to fully cement the marital relationship in emotional and mental ways as well. This is why I question a method of contraception that avoids this aspect of a woman’s life every month that the couple does not wish to conceive, and, in light of I Cor. 7:5, for her spouse’s sake as much if not more than for her sake, and for the sake of their bond.

Not that I think avoiding this aspect of marital sex is any worse than avoiding creating a baby, mind you, but I question whether or not it’s any better. It’s another factor that needs to be considered in the whole contraception debate. I see no Scriptural mandate for abstinence in marriage besides prayer, and therfore believe it is up to each and every couple to decide before God what they will do about contraception, and what method they will use. I don’t see any clear prohibition either way in Scripture. If a couple feels called to abstain for the purpose of avoiding conception, or feels called to judiciously use another form of contraception, or feels called to abandon all forms of conception-avoidance altogether, then that is their business, and no business of mine to judge or decide for them.

I realize that this may sound similar to arguments that favor “reproductive choice,” but there is a clear distinction: with use of contraception, no life is terminated (except possibly with use of the “pill,” which I touched on in Part V); with abortion, clearly a life is terminated. I also realize that there are spiritual arguments to the contrary, which hold that potential life in the form of sperm and ova should be treated with the same sanctity as life. I don’t share this view, although the question is an interesting one, and perhaps I will examine it at a later date.

I am also not of the opinion that, if the practice of NFP develops self-control in married partners (via abstinence), then users of other forms of contraception are lacking in self-control because they desire to participate in the marital sexual act while holding back part of the physical aspect. My reasons are stated above; if there are in fact other facets to the marital sexual ministry besides reproduction, then it is not “self-indulgent” to indulge in these things; it is in fact consecrated. The Catholic view, however, holds that it cannot be consecrated if any physical element is being withheld. This is a valid argument. I am not yet convinced, though, that the physical elements, i.e., those which involves gametes, are more important than the other elements, though I am open to considering any evidence to the contrary.

There are certainly other times of abstinence that will occur in the marital sexual relationship besides ones of an obviously prayerful nature: out-of-town trips, problem pregnancy, post-partum, illness, menstruation, etc. There may be other natural “dead” times as well that aren’t necessarily bad. In other words, I'm surmising that life puts plenty of abstinence into most normal marital sexual relationships (part of the natural cycle) without requiring the addition of more.


The Catholic view, as Elena has informed me, considers all forms of artificial contraception to be sin. Perhaps even mortal sin. The basis for this is the story of Onan. We have discussed this quite at length.

I’m sure poor Onan never realized how famous he’d become :-) A particular interpretation of the Onan story is the primary basis of the Catholic endorsement of natural family planning because it views as condemnatory any method of suppressing or preventing the meeting of gametes during the sex act. This interpretation holds that Onan’s sin was “spilling his seed,” in and of itself. He contracepted, i.e., wasted his seed, so that he would not impregnate his wife. Therefore, God killed him.

For detail on the Catholic view of this passage, I refer you to Elena’s posts and comments. (Also the sidebar on her blog) I detailed my views in her comment threads as well, but will summarize here: the Catholic interpretation of this passage ignores the whole of all the elements. If Onan had wanted to avoid the levirate obligation, he could’ve submitted to being “desandaled and spat upon” (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). However, he chose not to go this route. He agreed to take his sister-in-law as wife. Following that, he refused to fulfil his obligation to his brother, which was to give him offspring via his sister-in-law (which he had agreed to do by marrying her), by refusing to impregnate her. He didn’t merely refuse to impregnate her by abstaining; he copulated with her up to the point of, well, you know.

So, he used her. Onan used his wife, and blew off his brother (and God). He used his wife and failed to carry out his obligation to continue his brother’s line. He contracepted in order to prevent having any children that would “not be his.” His act was also deceptive.

The Catholic view, as well as the historical Protestant view to a point, and some of the historical Jewish views, sees the fact that God killed Onan to be condemnatory of any act of “wasting seed.” This view makes no distinction between a levirate marriage and a non-levirate one (in which there is no obligation to carry on a brother’s line). I don’t see the basis for this, since Onan’s particular instance of wasting seed was under levirate contract, and the verse in Genesis 38:9 specifically says, “And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so it came about that when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother”.

Even if one takes this passage to say that any failure to consummate any marital union by spilling seed constitutes sin, I don’t see how this could apply to anyone other than someone who refused to produce any children at all via spilling or withholding of seed.

We have no other Biblical examples of spilling seed in either a levirate or common law marriage, therefore the Catholic view appears to me to be an unwarranted extrapolation. There is no reference to “wasting seed” or misuse of the seed itself in discussion of any other sexual sin. If sex is holy only within marriage, and children are only to be had by two people married for life, then I would think that, if gametes are as holy as the Catholic view holds, any emission of them outside of marriage would be a misuse of seed, if not a wasting of it, and would be mentioned as such in Biblical text dealing with these other sexual sins.

This is why I think that Onan’s contraceptive act is to be distinguished from fornication, adultery, and homosexual sex. The reason he spilled his seed was to keep it from making babies. It’s obvious, though, that God does not intend for seed to be given to someone other than one’s spouse, nor used to create babies with someone other than one’s spouse, so if it’s the misuse of the seed itself that is so important, why isn’t this specifically mentioned in conjunction with fornication, adultery, and homosexuality?

In Leviticus 20, sexual immorality is condemned as something which uncovers nakedness, i.e., someone becomes privy to something that does not rightly belong to them. This is to be distinguished from a spouse's nakedness, which does belong to the other spouse, in all of its aspects.

The Catholic view of the Onan story supports itself with references to other examples of wasting seed, i.e. homosexual acts, drawing the conclusion that any act of wasting seed is evil since Onan’s sin was punishable by death, and homosexual acts were also punishable by death. Although wasting seed, punishment by death, and possibly self-gratification to the exclusion of partner-gratification are common denominators here, there is more wrong with the homosexual act than the fact that seed is wasted. In other words, I don’t think that the reason a homosexual act is wrong is because seed is wasted, or, in the case of women, ova are not used. See Romans 2.

That Onan’s sin was punishable by death does not limit his sin to being the mere act of wasting seed, nor even to being a sexual sin, although clearly it was a sexual sin. But the distinction and determination as to just what the nature of his sexual sin was is important, unless the sole purpose of sex is to always allow for procreation within marriage, i.e., no contraception, no abstinence.

The Catholic view also sees Romans 2 as condemning contraception for being an “unnatural act” because it involves interfering with egg and sperm. Again, I don’t think one can necessarily make this follow from a passage concerned with those who burn in their desire for members of the same sex. This unnatural desire for someone of the same sex is what Romans 2 is saying is unnatural, not the fact that seed or ova are wasted.

I wonder, if Onan had merely abstained in order to keep from giving his brother children, would God still have smote him? I'm sure the Catholic view would be "no." But do we know this for certain?

I think it is going too far, as in treading into an area of the heart that only God and the individual can know, for someone to claim that sex with use of artificial contraception is merely self-gratifying, i.e., that partners are using each other. I imagine that it’s possible that an NFP couple could also “use” one another. It is certainly less likely that a couple would do this while purposely or knowingly allowing for the possibility of conception during intercourse, but this does not automatically exclude it as a possibility. Even users of artificial contraception, if they are honest and aware, know that the only 100% fail-proof method of contraception is abstinence, and they enter into sexual relations with this in mind.

On Biblical commands to exercise fertility, it’s true that in Genesis 1:28, God tells mankind to “be fruitful and multiply.” Yet this is not an automatic condemnation of conception-avoidance. It could, however, be argued that there is a condemnation of not having any children at all, or perhaps less than a certain number. How many children must one have to fulfill this command, then? How is a “contracepting” couple not fulfilling this command if they do have children? If a couple has, say, five children, and decides to try to avoid having any more, have they fulfilled their “quota” for multiplication (if there is in fact one), and are they afterward merely using each other for pleasure by using contraception? Or by enjoying the sex act only during times they are fairly certain that conception is not possible?


I guess that summarizes my thoughts regarding NFP, for what they’re worth. I welcome gracious discussion.


  • Good job on the summary Bonnie! I still disagree with your conclusions but I think you presented the gist of our discussions very well.

    These links were on my blog but we never got to them and your readers might find them interesting.

    Dawn Eden, an evangelical who has come to the conclusion that contraception is wrong. Her blogging is hereThe quotes of the Protestant Reformers might be of interest to your readers. That's hereAlso an article The Anthropological Differences between NFP and Contraception makes a very compelling case for NFP and against ABC.

    By Blogger Elena, at 4:52 PM  

  • Thanks, Elena!

    I'll comment on those links later when I have time.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 7:23 PM  

  • My year-end wrap up on this topic! here

    By Blogger Elena, at 9:12 AM  

  • Great summary of the Onan story - now if I get an questions on my blog, I can just send them here! I have just been thinking at length about your point that spilling the seed ought to be listed with adultery, etc. in the NT if it alone were a sin unto death. I also thought even contraception might need to be listed again there along with the other black and white sexual sins if there is indeed a law against it.

    You are a great thinker, I enjoy your blog and look foreward to intellectuelle.

    By Blogger Annie Crawford, at 4:42 PM  

  • You wrote: "the phenomenon of a woman’s sense of enhanced sexuality around her time of ovulation." My answer to this is that God gives men a heightened desire at certain times in their lives - esp in the teen and early 20's. No way would anyone suggest that this should be indulged nor would anyone state that God provided that to increase population. I believe there are reasons for the enhanced desire in both men and women at these particular times and would be open to posting those if anyone is interested.

    You wrote: "I consider NFP to be a form of contraception because it not only involves action taken (by omission, if you will) to prevent a conception, but also interrupts the other aspects of sexual communion between married partners."
    The assumption being made here is that those practicing NFP use an all or nothing method. We don't. We may refrain from intercourse during a fertile time but not necessarily any relations. Of course this gets us into the Onan discussion. . .

    You wrote; "My understanding of the latter statement is that it entails an enjoyment of the marital sexual relationship without avoiding fertile times, and accepting the consequences."
    Children are a consequence? I thought they were a blessing. . .

    You wrote:"sex is to be freely given and freely enjoyed except for mutually agreed-upon periods of abstinence for the sake of prayer."
    What if that "time of prayer" is to seek God regarding having another child? I have read writings that suggest that was exactly what Paul was referring to here when he says "mutually agreed-upon periods of abstinence".

    My .02

    By Blogger jo, at 5:35 AM  

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