Morality of Natural Family Planning

Early on the morning of January 25th, NFP International received an email from a gentleman who is highly critical of NFP.  Though he does not use the word “providentialism,” that’s his position.  He also posted a similar note on a blogsite where a Catholic deacon was reviewing once again the terms used in ecclesial documents to describe the moral use of NFP.  This subject has been worked over more than a few times, so I will be relatively brief.

In all of the comments or rants I have seen against the use of NFP, the writers completely ignore Ecological Breastfeeding as a form of NFP.  What they mean by the generic term, NFP or Natural Family Planning, is solely what we call Systematic Natural Family Planning.  These writers fail to make this distinction, perhaps out of ignorance about eco-breastfeeding or perhaps in some cases because their argument about being open to God’s will falls apart completely with regard to eco-breastfeeding as a God-given natural way of spacing babies.  Unfortunately, this distinction is rarely made even within the NFP movement.

Our correspondent quoted section 17 of Humanae Vitae where Pope Paul VI predicted the harmful effects of the societal acceptance of contraception, but then he criticizes the same Pope for promoting NFP.  “In other words, Pope Paul VI predicted that contraception would evolve from ‘a lifestyle choice’ into a weapon of mass destruction. The Pope wrote all this and then went ahead and started promoting NFP.  Why?  The promptings to promote NFP are not from God[,] their [they’re] from hell…unless God is a liar!”  He then quoted familiar pro-baby verses from the Bible.

The anti-NFP critics have a point—Catholic teaching calls for generosity in having children.  But it also teaches the practice of Christian prudence which is different from materialistic prudence.  In our teaching we make it very clear that systematic NFP is not “Catholic birth control.”  The decision to use systematic NFP should be made in the light of an examination of motives and only in the face of sufficiently serious reasons not to  seek pregnancy at that time.  This is well spelled out in our manual, and any interested reader can obtain it in print or via a download at the NFPI website,  For many couples, this thoughtful consideration and decision making is the hardest part of natural family planning.

The decision to do Ecological Breastfeeding, on the other hand, doesn’t entail any such soul searching.  It requires only 1) the realization that this form of breastfeeding provides the best nutrition and baby care and 2) the mother’s freedom to have her baby with her.  For many couples, it is such a pleasant experience that they are looking forward to another baby by the time fertility returns.

It seems to me that the critics of systematic NFP would use their energy better to become well informed about what NFPI teaches in a well balanced way.  Then they would be in a position to present a rational and religious case and ask the diocese to insist that all these things be taught in all the various diocesan NFP efforts.  It is high time for every diocesan NFP effort to promote and teach ecological breastfeeding.

The right kind of diocesan natural baby spacing courses can be a work of the New Evangelization, making it clear that Jesus is the ultimate Author of Catholic teaching on love and marriage, but that may be rare at present.  In fact, some NFP programs take pride in being solely secular.  The time has come to proclaim without fear the fullness of Catholic teaching plus providing sufficient information—including eco-breastfeeding—so couples can make informed decisions for lives of Christian discipleship and baby care.

Pope Francis and “Unbridled Capitalism”

I thought that the fuss about Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) had died out, but The Cincinnati Enquirer recently devoted a full page story (Tuesday, Jan 7, 2014) headlined “Papal shot at unbridled capitalism stirs debate.”  Coming more than six weeks after the publication of the Apostolic Exhortation, the content of what the Pope said was no longer news, so the subject was political commentary.

One Catholic politician said, “I don’t dwell on what the Pope has to say about economics.  I’m more mindful of what the Pope has to say about faith and morals.”  He might be surprised to know that economics has to do with human behavior, not just numbers, and within the Catholic Church the subject started as a part of moral theology.

The subject of debate is what the Pope wrote about “unbridled capitalism.”  Please note that the words “unbridled capitalism” do not appear in the document.  Others seem to recognize that certain behaviors deserve that title, including behaviors criticized by the Pope, but the Pope does not use even the word “capitalism” in this document.

My father’s sense of justice was agitated by the unbridled capitalism that he had witnessed.  John D. Rockefeller and a partner became wealthy in the produce business  and then built an oil refinery during the Civil War.  By the end of the war, he had bought out some of his partners, and by 1870 he formed Standard Oil.  He would enter a geographic market, price his product below cost, drive the existing marketers out of business, and then raise the price and extend his growing monopoly.  That sort of abuse led to the formation of the Sherman Anti-trust Law of 1890, thus putting at least somewhat of a bridle on the previously ruthless and unbridled Rockefeller capitalism.

It is probably true that in the United States and in much of Western Europe, we no longer have the economics that can be called “unbridled capitalism.”  But that doesn’t mean that economics is no longer part of moral theology or that our systems cannot be greatly improved for the betterment of those who are excluded from participating in the benefits of a prosperous economy.

The remaining Rockefellers remain at the top of the economic sphere, and Pope Francis is on solid ground when he writes about the growing separation of the very rich from the very poor.  He rightly urges the wealthy and would-be wealthy to be less concerned about growing more wealthy and to be more concerned about the poor.  He does not, however, address the issue of what the poor can do to help themselves.

As I have written before, one of the great impediments to participation in the benefits of a prosperous economy is fornication.  In the United States, the single greatest source of new poverty is the household headed by a single mother with children.  The American elite have tried to address this with condoms, the Pill, the Shot, and abortion, and the rate of illegitimacy has only proceeded to rise.  The answer is and must be spiritual and moral.

It is time for the Church to affirm this over and over again until it finally sinks in, first within the social-justice agencies of the Church and then within the culture.  But how can the local Church expect to have any influence on single young men and women, many of them unchurched, if it won’t even attempt to do what it can do among its own pew-sitters?  And what it can do, but largely refuses to do, is to require that engaged couples attend the right kind of NFP course, one that includes Catholic morality as well as ecological breastfeeding and the full sympto-thermal method.

What is needed is a new book on the subject of Catholic teaching on economics.  It should place its foundation in Sacred Scripture and moral theology.  Then it should place each of the social justice encyclicals and exhortations in their historical context.  It should also include the centuries-old moral theology concerning breastfeeding and the needs and rights of babies as Fr. William Virtue, PhD, did in his masterful work, Mother and Infant: The Moral Theology of Embodied Self-Giving in Motherhood in Light of the Exemplar Couplet Mary and Jesus.  It is my hunch that many folks, including Catholics, are quite unaware of both the content of this body of teaching and the social ills to which it has responded and continues to address.  In the meantime, I suggest that most of us will benefit by a careful reading of Evangelii Gaudium and also re-reading Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae. 

Your Right to Know: Spacing effectiveness of breastfeeding

You certainly have a God-given right to know the spacing effectiveness of breastfeeding, and you also need to know the differences between the different forms of breastfeeding.

Cultural breastfeeding has almost no effect on the return of fertility.  In other words, fertility returns almost as fast as it does with bottlefeeding.  That’s because Westernized cultural breastfeeding generally entails nursing according to a schedule, regularly using pacifiers and bottles, leaving the baby in the care of others, and trying to get the baby to sleep through the night as soon as possible.  All of these practices reduce the frequency and the amount of nursing, the length of nursing sessions, and generally the months of breastfeeding.  This form of breastfeeding certainly provides some benefits to baby and mother alike, but it should not be expected to delay the return of fertility.

Exclusive breastfeeding is also called the Lactational Amenorrhea Method (LAM).

This form of breastfeeding can have a very high spacing effectiveness for the first six months postpartum if three Standards are followed.

  1. The baby is exclusively breastfed.  The baby receives only his mother’s milk directly from her breasts for his nourishment.  He does not receive any other food or liquid.  His mother’s milk is his only food and liquid.  Exclusive really does mean exclusive.
  2. The mother has no menstrual bleeding after the first 8 weeks postpartum.
  3. The baby must be younger than 6 months of age.  Thus the LAM applies only for six months.

Research has shown that the LAM has a 98% spacing effectiveness during the first 6 months.  During the first 8 weeks postpartum, any bleeding may be ignored as a sign of fertility according to the LAM research.

A problem with LAM is that only about half the mothers doing exclusive breastfeeding will experience natural infertility for six months.  That is, they will have a period before six months.  That’s because many mothers doing LAM do not nurse frequently enough.

Ecological breastfeeding (EBF) means breastfeeding according to the Seven Standards of ecological breastfeeding as follows:

  1. Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life as in LAM above.
  2. Pacify or comfort your baby at your breasts.
  3. Don’t use bottles and don’t use pacifiers.
  4. Sleep with your baby for night feedings.
  5. Sleep with your baby for a daily-nap feeding.
  6. Nurse frequently day and night and avoid schedules.
  7. Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby.

Mothers who care for their babies according to the Seven Standards will experience, as a group, an average of 14 to 15 months of breastfeeding amenorrhea (no periods).

The return of menses with EBF follows a normal distribution curve.  In our two studies—

    •   7% had a first period before 6 months,

    • 56% were without menstruation at 12 months,

• 34% were still in amenorrhea at 18 months. 

    • The average duration of amenorrhea was 14.5 months. 

Research by Doctors Remfry (1895) and Prem (1971) showed that only 6% of nursing mothers actually became pregnant before they had their first period, and those studies occurred before women had learned to identify the return of fertility from the presence of cervical mucus and/or changes in the cervix.

Besides the natural baby spacing benefit, the other great blessing of ecological breastfeeding is that its frequent suckling maintains the milk supply and thus maximizes the many health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby.  For a list of the 21 benefits to babies and 8 benefits to mothers, see pages 103-104 of Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach.  And the full list of benefits grows every year.

Because of both the spacing benefits and the health benefits, we think it is highly appropriate to refer to ecological breastfeeding as God’s own plan for spacing and baby care.  It is difficult to understand why anyone who is interested in the welfare of babies and mothers is not making every reasonable effort to promote and teach ecological breastfeeding.

JFK, September 22, 2013

Next week:  Minimum standards