Terms: Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness

In the most common usage that I have seen, natural family planning (NFP) is most commonly understood in the US to mean the system of family planning approved by the Catholic Church. It is often conflated with the rhythm method which is permissible for Catholics, but no longer commonly taught.

Fertility awareness (FA) is taken to mean an empowering knowledge of women’s fertility embraced by everyone from hard core feminists who dedicate their lives to empowering women to average women who just want an easy way to get pregnant as soon as possible.

Additionally fertility awareness is sometimes seen as the same as the fertility awareness method which is a family planning method that allows for the use of barrier methods of contraception during the fertile phase. Consequently many Catholics are suspicious of fertility awareness because they associate it with the fertility awareness method, and thus contraception.

I believe that we should look at the actual words which make up these terms and start using them in the way that makes the most sense.

Fertility awareness should mean exactly what it sounds like. Fertility awareness is awareness of one’s fertility. It does not need to be more complicated than that. Everyone should practice fertility awareness. You do not need to chart every sign of fertility all the time, but every woman should know what is going on with her body, and every husband should have a clue about understanding the fertility cycle of his wife. Fertility awareness can be used for family planning (either with or without the use of barrier methods of contraception) but it is not, in itself, a form of birth control. Fertility awareness can be useful for all women, regardless of whether they are sexually active.

Natural family planning should also be used to mean what the words themselves mean. Natural family planning is a method of family planning. As far as I am concerned, it is the best form of family planning as it can aid in both sides of family planning: avoiding and achieving pregnancy. Because natural family planning is a method of family planning, it is, by definition, a form of birth control. By timing sexual intercourse to avoid the fertile period of a woman’s cycle, a couple avoids pregnancy. And that is what it means to practice birth control.

Not everyone needs natural family planning, but every woman should know her body and be aware of her fertility cycle.

How do you think these terms should be used? Do you see anything wrong with my definitions?

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31 thoughts on “Terms: Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness

  1. Tienne McKenzie

    I tend to use the words “Natural Family Planning” when I describe what we do in my marriage because it encapsulates more than just birth control. It has the word “family” for instance, which I think is key. This is (or is supposed to be) a joint venture in which my husband and I work together to grow our family in the way that we feel is right for us. It also implies that you are planning a family. Plus, since it is the terminology that the Church has chosen, it immediately communicates that we are doing it for theological as well as practical reasons.

    That being said, I don’t have any problem using the terms interchangeably. NFP uses FA, after all, and I don’t see how empowering people to understand the way their bodies function is at all at odds with Catholic teaching.

    It’s a bit like the word “feminist” though, isn’t it? It’s usually taken to mean someone who supports leftist, radical, anti-life policies, but I consider myself a feminist as a Catholic SAHM because I believe women should have the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as men. I wouldn’t go on a Catholic blog, though, and call myself a feminist without adding caveats to the word, so perhaps the way people perceive the word is more important than its actual definition, eh?

    1. Rae Post author

      Oh, such good points!

      I wouldn’t try to mess with the definitions if I saw them as really being clear and established (even if the words didn’t match up with the meanings). But in my experience it is already a convoluted mess, and many people either think that NFP= rhythm method (which using the term FA clears up) or else they think that the church is okay with NFP because it is “natural” in the sense of not using pills!

  2. Michelle

    I like McKenzie’s comment.

    I think it’s kind of scary to say NFP is just like Birth Control. It CAN control the number of pregnancies, but I still feel like NFP is handing the control over to God. Because reading fertility signs is highly subjective and depending on what is going on with a woman’s body, the reliability can vary.

    Sure, DH and I have “controlled” the number of pregnancies and children we have…but by our understanding of all that NFP encompasses, we understand that we are NOT completely in control.

    I think that’s a big difference between FA and NFP…with FA, in that it is secular (generally), control is still encouraged within the couple and no acknowledgment of our Great Creator and Lord of All is present. I mean, there is still the question…you use a barrier method during your fertile time and what do you do if it fails and you get pregnant? You weren’t “intending” to get pregnant, so what is your next step?

    I agree with you that NFP includes FA, but FA does not include NFP, in my (ever so humble – ha!) opinion.

    Great post! Thank you for helping me think about this!

    1. Rae Post author

      “I think that’s a big difference between FA and NFP…with FA, in that it is secular (generally), control is still encouraged within the couple and no acknowledgment of our Great Creator and Lord of All is present.” Do you think that these terms are ingrained enough with a large enough portion of the population that it is best to “leave well enough alone?” Because it strikes me that the term natural “family planning” has much stronger connotations of control than fertility “awareness.”

      1. Michelle

        I feel like fertility “awareness” is not enough to encoupass what I believe family planning to be. Yes, that is most likely due to my faith-based approach on the whole thing. I don’t think “NATURAL family planning” makes it sound so controlling. But then, the way I learned NFP was with a huge theological background rooted in Natural Law and working within what we believe to be God’s Plan for marriage.

        Fertility Awareness makes no such claim and while I agree it is good to be aware of fertility and yes fertility awareness is part of NFP, I just don’t see how NFP is part of fertility awareness because fertility awareness is completely centered on the physical and seems to avoid the spiritual.

        1. Rae Post author

          When you say “fertility awareness” do you mean the same thing that I mean by “fertility awareness method?”

          I have read a few books that discuss natural family planning that are far enough from natural law to discuss abortion. That has made me think that “NFP” is not really tied into Catholic theology for a significant portion of those who would say they use NFP. Perhaps it just depends upon what group one is in?

          1. Michelle

            I suppose. I guess I just think it’s arguing semantics (probably on mine as much as your side of the discussion). It probably is based on the group.

            Your first sentence of your post was:
            “In the most common usage that I have seen, natural family planning (NFP) is most commonly understood in the US to mean the system of family planning approved by the Catholic Church.”

            So, is it most commonly associated with the Catholic Church? Or is it not? Surely, I understand NFP from the Catholic point of view…I am Catholic. I am, therefore, more inclined to side with those who say it’s different from “Birth Control” because it’s simply abstaining during the fertile time.

            NFP/FA…whichever you prefer…when NFP/FA incorporates using barrier methods or other contraceptive methods during the fertile time, I believe THAT is more like “birth control” as we understand it. Abstinence during the fertile time is respecting sex and the purpose God created it for and the fact that that it’s the woman’s fertile time and the couple has discerned a need to avoid pregnancy for the time being. And I find that in line less with “Birth Control” because no matter what, no barrier methods are used…and if a couple misreads their signals, could very well result with a pregnancy.

            I guess my feeling is the biggest difference between most Fertility Awareness Methods (which openly advocate using barrier/contraceptives during the fertile time…at least the materials I have read on it like Taking Charge of Your Fertility) and what I practice as NFP is the attitude toward God and between the couple regarding how to proceed during the fertile days.

            BTW – I am enjoying this discussion and I hope I’m not coming off poorly or snarky or anything…just trying to work out what I think on the subject.

          2. Rae Post author

            I will completely admit to arguing semantics with this entire post! My hope is to figure out the best words in this case, as it’s not actual substance which confuses me at this point. And thank you for helping me straighten out my words!

            You’re entirely correct that I seem to be (am) contradicting myself. Let me see if I can straighten it out…

            1. Most people that I know of in the US understand NFP to be the Church’s method of family planning.
            2. “Most people” is actually a very low number compared to the entire population, so it may still be quite fitting to adopt new language, especially since most people who do know the term NFP also equate it with the rhythm method.
            3. A significant (minority?) of people understand NFP to mean a method of family planning that does not involve artificial contraception, but may involve abortion for unplanned pregnancies.
            4. It would be good if the US, Canada, UK etc. could all use the same terms in promoting FA/NFP/Whatever-we-call-it. And share promotional materials etc.

            My ultimate goal is to come up with the terms that would work best for radically increasing the understanding and practice of whatever it is we choose to call this. I honestly believe that if Catholics got serious we could take FA/NFP from 1-2% (not sure of the current number) to 30% in 10 years. And so I am trying to figure out the best, most accurate, concise, and catchy language to use.

            I am under the impression that we agree entirely on the actual substance of what people should do, and I really appreciate you helping me to hash out my choice of words. You’ve made me think that perhaps it would be harder than I thought to change the usage in place, even if it is not established for that many people.

            Also, I distinguish between birth control and contraception, but I guess that is a post for another day!

            Thank you for your thoughts, and please keep letting me know what you think I should re-think!

          3. alisone

            agreed. birth control and contraception are the two definitions that I think really need some defining. I think they’re almost interchangeable these days! how to do that??

  3. Susan

    A quick thought: I’d hesitate to call NFP a form of birth control since birth control is equated with contraception. NFP is definitely NOT an action against conception; it is inactivity during a woman’s fertile time.

    1. Rae Post author

      What term do you use to convey the truth that NFP *is* birth control, without confusing people into thinking that it is contraception?

  4. Claire

    I surprised myself by cringing a little when you said that NFP is a form of “birth control.” I think it is because when couples contracept and then conceive unexpectedly, they call it a “birth control failure.” For NFP, however, we don’t usually use the word ‘failure.’
    I used to say that NFP was also “just as reliable” as other forms of BC, but now I avoid saying that. (now that I have had a couple unexpected pregnancies while using NFP!)
    The design of NFP is such that “surprise” pregnancies are, in a sense, “built into” the method–I mean that should you fail in your interpretation of your signs of fertility, a pregnancy is pretty likely. So it is not a form of control or contraception, but instead an abstinence-based method.
    Totally different. :)

    1. Rae Post author

      I am sorry for making you cringe. :-)

      I still wonder though whether your thought on openness to life and not viewing surprises as “failures” is not in itself a good reason to prefer the term “awareness” rather than “family planning.” Because to me it makes much more sense to say that your awareness of your fertility was such that you did not expect there to be a significant chance of conception, but God had other plans than to say that you used a method of family planning with surprises built in!

      Obviously surprises happen (I’m probably one myself) but I don’t understand how it makes sense to have a method of family planning with surprises built in. Is that really “family planning?”

      And when you say that NFP is “an abstinence-based method,” how would you finish that sentence? A method of what?

      I hope that I don’t seem cutting. I’m seriously trying to figure out the language issue as it just does not make sense to me (yet?).

      1. Claire

        Hmm… an abstinence based method of what? I guess, “child spacing”? “regulating conception”? I guess I don’t know. In my mind I have switched from calling it natural family planning to calling it “trying to regulate conception,” but I hadn’t reallyever thought about that until reading through this series. It was just something I have been unconsciously doing for the last several years!

        As to the question of surprise, here’s my take: with the materials offered through CCL, there are two times in a woman’s cycle when couples may choose to engage in intercourse, if they are trying to avoid (TTA). The first they call Phase I, and the second is Phase III, right?

        In my opinion, only Phase III could properly be called “family planning” because the chance of conception is so low as to be almost impossible. It is based on observations that indicate that ovulation and fertility are in a safely distant PAST.

        But Phase I is the one where there is a possible element of surprise because it is based on conjecture–what will happen next, and on a woman’s previous cycle history and all that. But well, sometimes our bodies surprise us! Sometimes the woman with the very, very predictable cycle (ovulates around, say, day 16 or 17, for instance) will for no apparent reason have a very early ovulation (say, for instance, day 8). Not that that has ever happened to anyone I know… (wink wink)

        So I guess this makes me wonder, how can these two methods of “birth control” be placed in the same category of “family planning”?!

        (oh, and with the Phase III example, I also feel that it is possible to have false temp. rises during Phase II that could seem to indicate that O is in the past, but it might not actually be. So, despite good charting and all that, sometimes I think it could just happen. But really, I am ok with that. )

        1. Rae Post author

          I talked with my husband about your comment last night (the method of what part) and he thought maybe “birth regulation” as in Humanae Vitae “on the regulation of birth.” I also like your terms. I think that they all mean the same thing as the technical definition of birth control, but they evoke a different feeling since birth control has been conflated with contraception.

          I entirely agree with you about the distinction between Phase I and Phase III. Phase I abstinence is a great modification of the rhythm method for those who just need to space births out a bit more. But if you *really* need to avoid conception, then a lot more abstinence is required. So you’re quite right that they are not the same level of family planning, though I think that they could both count as different types (only abstaining during Phase II being a casual “let’s try to space things out” and abstaining during Phases I and II being serious family planning to avoid pregnancy).

          I am under the impression that abstaining except for a Phase III (verified by cervical fluid *and* temp change *and* cervix change, and maybe hormonal monitoring as well) is at least as effective as the pill in preventing pregnancy, so I think it can be called family planning if anything can.

          I know of stories of women who had 3 high temps and got pregnant, but I also personally know women who insist that they took the pill every single day and still got pregnant.

          1. Claire

            I see your point about unplanned pregnancies with Phase III and the Pill. However, I think that there is still a big difference between forgetting to take a Pill one day a cycle and failing to interpret a temp shift correctly. For the latter method, “failure” means a pretty high chance of conception. (I am thinking here of how it takes most women several cycles to be fertile again after going off the Pill…)

            Even so, the point that unexpected preg. occur with both methods is still taken. I guess there has only ever been one truly “surprise” pregnancy in human history, and she got some forewarning on that one. :)

            I was also thinking about Joy’s comment (below) and it seems to me that in terms of method “failure”, the effectiveness of any method must be based on its “user failure” rates. To me, the difference between remembering to pop a pill at the same time every day is still a world away from everything that is involved in tracking fertility signs. That is what I mean by “surprise” being somewhat part of the fabric of any method of NFP. With NFP, we are not trusting in a pharmaceutical company & a mixture of certain chemicals. It’s just different.

            Maybe rather than “surprise” I ought to say that “failure” (meaning “user failure”) is an integral part of the method, along with the human will (two wills, actually), respect for one’s spouse, and trust in God…along with the science of the method (of which I am a great believer, don’t get me wrong!).

            Enough blabbing. I can’t believe I am STILL talking. (sorry)

          2. Rae Post author

            I *really* appreciate your thoughts! Thank you!

            And I completely agree that NFP is different from taking the pill.

  5. Joy

    Really enjoying this discussion, my 2cents:
    NFP is birth control because the user is seeking to control whether a conception/birth occurs but not contraception because nothing is happening to prevent a conception if that is what God desires ( ie the parents want control but not exclusive). Which leads to the question that if you become pregnant at a time you did not intend but God did, is it a failure? I don’t know.

      1. Jenelle

        While the comments and your thoughts make sense on this, there is a bit of control in NFP, it is hard for me to use that term. BC is so accepted now in so many forms of contraception that it is hard to separate the term from contraception. Using Natural Family Planning on the other hand does show that there is planning involved and it is not just an awareness of fertility without knowing how to use that awareness.

        I’m not going to say I cringed at the term of BC, but I would be cautious in using it. Openness to life is more than “not using contraception” it is an attitude. The BC attitude is to use a method (including NFP) and not think about it. The issue of fertility is a done deal – we’re not going to accept it. That is just as easy to do naturally as with pills and condoms. If you have that attitude, then you are not practicing NFP the way the church teaches. It must be a discussion that is prayed over and thought through on more than the yearly basis of renewing a prescription.

        1. Joy

          Wow that is a really interesting perspective because it can work both ways; as part of the BC attitude as you have laid it out and its polar opposite ~ a couple who has decided to neither seek nor avoid a pregnancy ~ the issue of fertility is a done deal and they accept it and whatever children that may come to them.

        2. Rae Post author

          I think that I really need another post on this. I’m just not sure whether to post it here, or load it up with Church teaching… leaning toward the latter.

  6. That Married Couple

    Maybe I’m repeating others here, but I try to stay away from the phrase “birth control” because to most people it is synonymous with contraception. I think it’s really hard for people to separate the two. I also think Michelle’s point about “control” is good.

    However, I do agree with you that all women should learn fertility awareness (as distinct from the fertility awareness method – which I never thought made much sense, because why would you knowingly risk using a barrier method with a low success rate when you’re completely aware of your fertility and the possibilities along with all of that – but that’s a separate tangent). I think that’s a really important term to use, because that’s one of the few ways we can spread this to more secular audiences.

    How do you feel about the term “periodic abstinence”? I don’t think it’s stellar myself, but that is a pretty apt description. Also, I didn’t realize they used different terms in Canada and the UK. What are they?

    “My ultimate goal is to come up with the terms that would work best for radically increasing the understanding and practice of whatever it is we choose to call this. I honestly believe that if Catholics got serious we could take FA/NFP from 1-2% (not sure of the current number) to 30% in 10 years. And so I am trying to figure out the best, most accurate, concise, and catchy language to use.”

    Awesome! I hope you plan to post more on how we could go about this. Because I’m in :)

  7. Batrice Adcock, MSN

    I teach that NFP is an application of the principles of fertility awareness. NFP is true family planning, in that it can be used to achieve or avoid pregnancy. It most definitely is not a form of contraception because it does nothing against life, as can be the case for abortifacient forms of birth control. I agree that the term “birth control” is so closely associated with the term “contraception” that I do not call NFP “birth control”. I simply call it true family planning.

    Stephen asked about websites:
    And, this article I wrote:
    “A Healthy Alternative”

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  10. Stephanie

    Regarding the term “Birth Control”:

    “Control” implies a dominance over something – that is, birth and the creation of human life. Our MAIN reason as Catholics (I believe, although it’s been awhile since I’ve read HV) for rejecting artificial contraceptives is that God has infinitely more power in the creation of new life than we do, and our role as co-creators gives us the privilege of MERELY following His lead and His direction. The idea of “controlling” births is contrary to our participation in God’s creative power and in His parenthood, and by attempting to control, we grasp at a power that belongs only to God.

    I don’t disagree with anything related to respect over our sexuality and fertility; this is a huge part of the reason for rejecting artificial contraceptives as well. I would say that the main issue is that we should not attempt to exercise a divine power that does not belong to us. Thus, a reason for not calling NFP/FA “birth control.”

    Just my thoughts :)

    1. Rae Post author

      I think that I’m going to have to take this subject up again in more detail on my Catholic blog. Thanks for the reminder! One thing though, I read HV quite differently than you, and the English title is “On the Regulation of Birth” right? What do you see as the main difference between “birth regulation” (which is clearly what the Church approves) and “birth control” (which is problematic for some Catholics such as yourself)?

      If you have time to explain that to me it might be hugely helpful for me both in rethinking my view and in posting more fully about this elsewhere.

      I think that we do agree on the underlying truth, and I’d love to figure out the issues with words. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      1. Batrice Adcock, MSN

        Reading the last couple of comments, it is true that NFP actually gives us much control over our fertility. The tough thing is discerning whether we have a serious reason for avoiding pregnancy. The Catholic Church teaches that we are called to be responsible parents, and we have access to Natural Family Planning if we generously and prayerfully discern we have a serious reason for avoiding pregnancy temporarily or even indefinitely. Why is NFP ok? It works with the way God designed our bodies. It does not chemically alter a healthy reproductive system, it puts no barrier between spouses, and it does not neuter spouses. NFP allows for the one flesh union between a married man and woman that Scripture calls for.

        The teaching on responsible parenting is very practical–here it is, as explained by the US Bishops:

        1. In God’s plan, marriage is a permanent, faithful, exclusive relationship between husband and wife, directed toward mutual sanctification, unity, and parenthood.

        2. Marriage is a sacrament, a sign of God’s presence in the world, and a source of grace for the couple.

        3. The unifying factor between the spouses is conjugal love: that is, an interpersonal love between husband and wife that is mutually enriching, permanent, exclusive, faithful, total, and fruitful.

        4. Decisions regarding parenthood are primarily the responsibility of the couple, based on a recognition that human life is a sacred gift from God and that the transmission of human life and the socialization and education of children are both the privilege and prerogative of the married couple. Decisions about parenthood should be made by the couple in a spirit of love and generosity, in light of their responsibilities to God, to themselves, to their children already born, and to society in accordance with a properly formed conscience.

        5. Sexual intercourse is part of God’s plan to enable couples to intensify their mutual intimacy and to bring new life into the world. By God’s design there is an inseparable connection between the two meanings of the act of intercourse: the love-giving (unitive) and the life-giving (procreative).

        United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2000). Standards for Diocesan Natural Family Planning Ministry. Retrieved from http://www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/nfp/standard.shtml

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