NFP, or Natural Family Planning, is an oft misunderstood thing.

So much so that, to kick off NFP Awareness Week, one user joked in the “Catholic NFP TTA” Facebook group on Tuesday that she was celebrating the week with a drinking game.

“Take a shot every time a commenter opines about grave reasons. Another shot for when someone jokes that they’re bad at NFP. What would you take a shot for?” she asked. The joke struck a chord, and other group members chimed in with more than 100 additional comments.

“‘How far is too far when you’re abstaining?’ EVERYONE DRINKS” one commenter proposed. “Take a shot whenever someone claims Marquette is the perfect method for postpartum/everyone. Take another when someone argues with that person,” suggested another.

This post, and its comments, illustrate not that NFP users are proponents of binge drinking, but rather that they are accustomed to being misunderstood - even, sometimes, by their fellow users of NFP - and that they’ve developed a sense of humor about it.

NFP is the umbrella term for a host of natural methods used to plan and space children that rely on charting a woman’s menstrual cycle and related symptoms, including basal (resting) temperature, cervical mucus and hormone levels, among other things. The methods can be used to either achieve or avoid pregnancy, and are considered the only moral method of family planning by the Catholic Church; thus, many NFP users are Catholic.

So when The Outline, a secular, online publication, published last week an NFP article entitled “The Facebook groups where Catholic women shame each other about sex,” women who use NFP were disappointed, but not surprised, they told CNA.

“Women join these groups to find support as they navigate the complicated and sometimes conflicting rules around family planning as Catholics, only to be met with judgment or contempt when they admit they may be struggling,” wrote Mary Meisenzahl, the author of The Outline piece. 

“NFP groups, as you might imagine, are also where women go to police each other’s bodies and sexual lives.”

The article included no interviews with NFP users, instructors or Facebook group administrators, and proffered a handful of posts from only one NFP Facebook group - a secret, private group entitled “NFP: Catholic Style” - as proof that the culture of Catholic NFP is one of shame and judgment.

It concludes with a recommendation that the Catholic Church change its teaching on sexuality and contraception, “as many members of these groups are getting their feelings of shame directly from the church.”

CNA spoke with multiple Catholic women and users of NFP who felt differently.

The only place where NFP is talked about freely

“These Facebook groups, as flawed as they may be, are the only places we may feel safe and open enough to simply talk about all things NFP in respect to our faith,” Virginia Pride, an administrator for “Catholic NFP TTA” Facebook group, told CNA.

“TTA” is an abbreviation in NFP for “Trying To Avoid”, and refers to couples abstaining from sex to avoid a pregnancy during the fertile windows of a woman’s cycle.

Pride told CNA that since the article was published, some women have been afraid to post openly in groups they had previously assumed were friendly to NFP and all that it entails.

“Many women in our groups now are afraid to share information with other members and admins; this in turn affects how much help they receive. Knowing how little support NFP users already receive in the real world, and you have a serious case of isolation on our hands,” Pride said.

“Perhaps Ms. Meisenzahl felt that she is doing Catholic women a favor by attempting to ‘liberate’ us from our own beliefs on sexuality and family planning, by way of intruding our communities for nefarious reasons, and using our stories and experiences without our consent for her biased articles,” Pride added.

“Whatever the case, her blind acceptance of anti-NFP and anti-Catholicism has only furthered the difficulties that Catholic women face, rather than help alleviate the issue,” she said.

A grain of salt and a sense of community

Laura Golden is a registered nurse and mother who lives in northern Minnesota. Golden has practiced the Creighton model of NFP for several years, and is training to become a Creighton NFP instructor. She told CNA that she credits the method for helping her achieve two pregnancies after experiencing difficulties.

While Golden is not an administrator of any NFP Facebook group, she said she is a member of two - one that is Creighton-specific, and the larger, more general Catholic NFP group referenced in Meisenzahl’s article. Golden currently instructs 13 couples in their use of the Creighton model - some Catholic, some not.

Golden said that she relies more on the Creighton-specific Facebook group; each NFP method comes with it’s own “jargon”, she said, and it can be easy to confuse the different terminology.

She also cautions those she instructs to take what is said in the Facebook groups with a grain of salt.

“I tell them, if this is causing you anxiety, then delete it. If you need to turn off the notifications because it's just too much in your face, do that,” Golden told CNA. She said that for couples trying to achieve pregnancy, these groups can be overwhelming, since waiting each month to find out whether a pregnancy has been achieved can already lead to stress.

However, she added, these groups can also offer an important sense of community to NFP users who live in remote areas, or who do not personally know other NFP users.

“I live in a really small town and there's probably three couples in our parish that are of childbearing years and are using a fertility method that I'm aware of at least,” Golden said. “So if you're having an issue, you do feel really isolated because maybe you don't know anyone else that has that issue or is even using a method that's remotely familiar to you. And so when you are a part of this group, it does give you a lot of community.”

The article also missed the mark when describing the accuracy of NFP methods, Golden said. It cited a statistic from the Department of Health and Human Services, which states that NFP carries with it about a 25 percent chance of getting pregnant. However, it does not state the efficacy rates of each method of NFP, and it does not list the sympto-hormonal method of NFP (used in the Marquette Method, for example), on its list of method types.

In a study published by the National Institutes of Health, researchers tracked 204 women of childbearing years using the Marquette method of NFP over the course of a year. There were 12 pregnancies total in that year. The study found that the efficacy of the Marquette Method of NFP for avoiding pregnancy was 99.4% effective with “correct use”, and that it was 89.4% effective with “typical use” per 100 users.

To compare, birth control pills are about 93% effective with typical use, while condoms are about 87% effective with typical use, according to the CDC.

The “contraceptive mentality” and “just reasons” to avoid pregnancy

Mikayla Dalton is a Boston Cross Check method instructor and an admin for the Clearblue Monitor Methods (MM) NFP group on Facebook. She told CNA that her group has commenting guidelines that caution users against certain kinds of comments - those disparaging of others, those that attempt to start theological debates, those that are off topic, or those that encourage other users to go against the prescribed protocols of the Marquette Method, among other things.

The group tells members that any comments that go against the guidelines may be deleted, and that users may be muted or blocked if they are found to be hostile to the group. Dalton added that they also include a warning, telling women that while the group is closed, members are only lightly vetted, and that they should proceed with caution sharing personal sexual or intimate information in such a context.

“This warning strikes me as poignant now, after a person joined a group with the intent of surveilling its membership, to report on "the other," having concealed - or not been upfront about - their identity and purpose in gathering information,” Dalton told CNA.

“Having a woman break the trust people had put in each other in the group, to get some kind of journalistic ‘scoop’ is disheartening. Accusing women of shaming other women... while shaming swathes of women... is ironic,” she added.

One kind of “shaming” comment in NFP groups that Meisenzahl mentioned in her article are those that accuse NFP users of using the methods with a “contraceptive mentality” - in other words, that they are using NFP to avoid having children for selfish or unserious reasons.

The term is incorrectly applied against users of NFP, Dalton said, and when she sees such comments in her group, she and many other members are quick to offer corrections.

“This particular phrase was used by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium vitae to refer specifically to a mentality arising from the use of contraception,” Dalton said, and he uses it in contrast to those who are following God’s plan for marriage and sexuality, under which the use of NFP falls.

Meisenzahl added in her article that: "Humanae vitae refers to 'serious reasons' and 'just causes,' for avoiding pregnancy, but the preferred translation among the more extreme members of the Facebook group is 'grave reason.'"

"The Church doesn’t give a list of specific circumstances that are valid for avoiding pregnancy. For some Catholics, this means, as one user put it, 'God understands your reasons. It's up to Him to judge. What is in your heart?', so each couple can make the choice that they feel is right for their specific situation. For others, though, a lack of concrete reasons means an opportunity to police and shame women who are actively trying to avoid children."

Humanae vitae is an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI and published in 1968. The document was written to explain Church teaching regarding sexuality, contraception and marriage, and upheld NFP at a time when many within the Church were calling for the Church to change its teaching and accept contraception.

Dr. Janet Smith is a Catholic professor who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and has written and spoken extensively on Humanae vitae. She has written about many different aspects about NFP, including the “contraceptive mentality” and the reasons Catholic couples may legitimately use NFP to avoid pregnancy.

“The best description for the kind of reasons needed is ‘just reasons’ and the best understanding is that the couple needs to take into account their current and foreseeable duties and obligations. Succinctly stated, the reasons must not be selfish,” Smith told CNA.

“Having another child is such a great good on so many levels, to seek to avoid pregnancy cannot be made for trivial reasons and should be made only after careful, prayerful discernment. The Church does identify categories of reasons - the couple should take into account the economic, physical, psychological and social conditions in which they live,” she added. 

Those reasons could include, for example, “experiencing fatigue and anxiety that predictably impedes one's ability to function at a reasonable level,” Smith noted.

“Decisions made on such a basis should be revisited regularly. People should be very hesitant to criticize the decisions couples make about their family size; the factors that need to be taken into account are not always accessible to outsiders,” she said.

The beauty of NFP

You Me and NFP: Joy-filled living” is a website founded and run by four Catholic mothers, one of whom is a Marquette Method instructor. The intent for their website, and their social media groups, was to bring a more modern look and approach to the practice of NFP, some of the founders told CNA.

“We were researching NFP resources and they kind of have like a 1980s, 1990s kind of look to it,” Valerie Kelly, one of the founders, told CNA. “And we wanted to really brand it in a modern way while staying with traditional Church teaching. But we are really sharing it and evangelizing with it. We meet people where they are and are taking them where the Lord wants them to be.”

Their website is clean and pretty, with plenty of millennial pink sprinkled with gold accents. It includes written and video testimonials from women who share why they use NFP, a “FAQ” segment on NFP, and instruction in the Marquette Method through Sarah Tramonte, one of the co-founders.

The group has a Facebook page, but comments are closed. The four women, who are also mothers, said they worried about having enough time to regulate comments in the way they would like, so they decided not to allow them.

Their Instagram page does have comments though, and while they get the occasional naysayer or negative comment, it is by and large positive comments from women seeking advice or understanding, they told CNA.

However, they added, sometimes sharing the truth about the Church’s teaching may make people uncomfortable, even when it is done in a loving way.

“It's never right to speak uncharitably, but it's always right to charitably speak the truth,” Anneli Schraufnagel, one of the cofounders of You Me and NFP (YMNFP), told CNA.

“So a lot of these conversations that women are having, I think (they) are trying to, as sisters, come to the truth of their Catholic faith because the truth of their Catholic faith ultimately will bring them joy.”

That is something that can be easy to miss for an NFP outsider looking in - that practicing NFP, as a part of the Catholic faith, is something that brings many women and families peace and joy - even if they complain about some nitty gritty details along the way.

“Sometimes the Catholic Church's teachings are hard, but sometimes hard things bring us happiness,” Schraufnagel said. “And...the ‘why's’ behind the Catholic teaching, we need to talk about them.”

Besides some of the physical benefits of NFP, which include avoiding putting additional hormones or medical devices in one’s body, the “Why NFP” section of the YMNFP website includes women talking about the “joy” that NFP brings because of the sacrifices it requires, such as periodic abstinence. They also mention feeling at peace because they are able to plan their families according to what they believe is God’s plan for sexuality and marriage.

“I don't want to sugarcoat NFP and say that it is all sunshine and daisies because it requires sacrifice and sacrifice is never easy!  But the joy that grows out of selfless love, expressed through NFP, is one of the greatest blessings you can give to yourself and to your spouse,” reads one post from Ellen on YMNFP.

"I adore my husband, and by eliminating the pill I’m now so much more able to show him that. We are living, and loving each other, authentically,” reads another quote from Jen, an NFP user.

Couples who practice NFP also experience lower divorce rates, YMNFP notes. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, “among the women who ever used NFP only 9.6 percent were currently divorced compared with the 14.4 percent who were currently divorced among the women who never used NFP.” The study noted that the religiosity of the couples who practice NFP may be a contributing factor to the lower divorce rates.

Schraufnagel said the numerous benefits of NFP that she and her cofounders have experienced are the main reasons they started YMNFP.

“That’s a huge aspect of our team at You Me and NFP; we are really passionate because we see how beautiful the Catholic Church's teachings are and how much joy is brought into our lives because of it, including, our family lives as well. And part of that is our sexuality,” she added.

“So I think it needs to be brought up and talked about in the culture that these truths are beautiful.”