Catholics should take a fresh look at natural methods of fertility regulation, says Valeria Findlay-Wilson. They might just be surprised by what they discover The Church's teaching on family planning and contraception has been a huge obstacle for many people since the publication of Humane Vitae, Even among practising Catholics the percentage of married couples wbo use natural methods is very low. The general perception is that on this subject the Church is just asking too much and does not take "real life" and its pressures into account.
What most people do not stop to consider is just what it would be like nowadays, in real life, to use a method approved by the Church. If they did, and if they looked beyond the myths and jokes, they might be very surprised.
Modem methods such as the Billings Ovulation Method have been found to be statistically as reliable as the Pill. The key to this success rate is that fertility is monitored as it develops in each unique cycle. There are rules concerning the timing of intercourse that allow the onset of fertility to be evident and therefore make it possible to avoid conception.
Because the assumption is that each cycle is different from the previous one, even if only by a day or two, the method is applicable in every situation: when breastfeeding and waiting for fertility to come back, when stress, illness or travel interfere with hormones and delay ovulation, when women approaching the menopause begin to have disrupted and irregular bleeds.
My own experience began when I was breastfeeding my first baby: not the ideal situation to learn, but I still managed, guided lovingly and patiently by a trained teacher who clearly did the job out of love of God and willingness to serve others. In the years that followed, we used the method to space the birth of our children; although happy to have a large family we always felt strongly about having the right gaps, and went from wanting less than two years to needing at least four.
Like many other women who use the method, I love just knowing what my body is doing on any given day of the month. Both my husband and I discovered a lot more about the menstrual cycle and how our combined fertility worked. As is often the case, knowledge brings increased respect: we were and still are amazed at the extraordinary details of this carefully timed and finely balanced mechanism. On the practical side, I appreciated the fact that there was no need to take my temperature every morning, because I am like a zombie when I first wake up. The only requirement is increased self-awareness and accurate daily charting of the sensations noticed while going about one's ordinary business. No self-examination, no tests, no special equipment, no fuss.
The key to fertility is cervical mucus: this, which is usually dismissed as "just a discharge", is produced by the cervix in response to changing levels of oestrogens in the ovaries. John and Evelyn Billings discovered that every woman who is ovulating is able to notice the presence or absence of mucus as it leaves her body, in the same way as she notices the onset of her period. In a short time she can train herself to become aware of the surprisingly obvious changes of sensation it causes as it develops and changes during the cycle. Research over 50 years and the analysis of tens of thousands of cycles have shown that, amazingly, the charts women produce in this way mirror accurately and reliably what happens in the ovaries.
It is very important to have individual tuition by an accredited person — this method may be "natural" but it is no DIY business if you are serious about avoiding pregnancy. (And if you are not, good for you! Europe needs more Christian babies.) Is it all as easy and fantastic as it sounds? Well, I was a bit upset by the unplanned arrival of our third daughter... but I had to admit that my charting had become extremely sloppy and so I, not the Billings Method, was responsible. (She was the most beautiful and happy baby). We applied the rules to the letter for the next four years and all was well. The most difficult times have been the few occasions of fairly prolonged abstinence for example when weaning babies, because the rapidly fluctuating hormones were making it hard to interpret the chart and apply the rules safely (and given how I feel about gaps, we'll take no risks at that stage).
It is not fair that so little information about the Billings Ovulation Method is available to women of all faiths and none. It has been such good news for me and has done wonderful things for my marriage: I want everyone to be able to choose it if it suits them. For this reason four years ago I trained to become a Billings instructor.
When I first talk to a new client, I still worry about their reaction to the necessity for regular abstinence (defined as avoidance of all genital contact: in practice, a time to keep your mind off sex as well as avoiding it physically). Sometimes couples think they can use barrier methods at the fertile times, but this is just not compatible with the requirements of charting. Most people surprise me by being totally positive about this from the start, partly because they realise that no couples are actually available to each other 365 days a year: tiredness, illness or work take their toll. Such times are easier to cope with if you are used to regular periods of abstinence. One person actually told me after a few months: "This is the best thing that has ever happened to our marriage."
When you can't have sex, you have to fmd other ways of being loving and intimate: people become more thoughtful and more tolerant of each other. They communicate better, because the whole business is in fact based on having to talk to each other so as to make joint decisions about the application of the rules. Couples who use Natural Family Planning find that they respect each other more, and they never, ever take sex for granted. Of course some effort of the will and some motivation is required, but not heroic strength or superhuman determination. And if you are wondering just how much abstinence is required: there are a few opportunities for intercourse at the beginning of the cycle before the ovary starts growing an egg (more or less days depending on the length of the cycle) and total freedom in the 10-16 days between ovulation and the next period.
This, then, is what the Church asks us to do. The difficulties and effort involved are nothing an ordinary couple can't manage, with a minimum of self-control and a bit of help from the grace God gives in the sacrament of marriage. The beauty and wisdom of God's plan mean that the advantages are well worth the effort: on top of the benefits to self-esteem and relationship there is also the fact that this gives women the knowledge they need to spot abnormalities and be alerted to potential physical problems at an early stage.
Natural Family Planning is a way of life that promotes health and happiness. Every woman has a right to know about it and every woman should have a real chance to choose it. I fmd it a terrible waste that it remains some sort of well-kept secret.
Valeria Findlay-Wilson is a fulltime mother and an accredited teacher of the Billings Ovulation Method. More information about the method can be found on the website www.woomb.org