NFA – the perfect example of Gradualism

I’ve been meaning to revisit the topic of NFP or, as I would prefer to call it, NFA and Joseph Shaw has provided me with the perfect opportunity, with a blogpost critiquing this rather natty little video, promoting the benefits of NFP, as opposed to conventional contraception.

First off, I think Catholics need to stop referring to NFP (Natural Family Planning) and instead refer to NFA – Natural Fertility Awareness. The semantics here are important: the former term implies a contraceptive mindset, validating the secular mindset that every family needs to be meticulously planned in terms of timing and number of children, whereas Natural Fertility Awareness is more accurate in terms of the (more often than not) Catholic mindset of those who adopt this attitude towards their sex lives.

Unlike the secular rigidity of the term Family Planning, favoured by our state health agencies, the phrase Natural Fertility Awareness conveys something of the fluidity and indeed flexibility, of the process. Moreover one does not need to be sexually active in order to monitor one’s own fertility and I’m a great advocate of young women (and indeed young men) being versed in the basic principles, before they may actually need to practice it.

There is nothing inherently immoral about teaching young women how to be aware of and chart their individual fertility – the process takes a few months to get to grips with and do so accurately. The engagement period tends to be a busy and frenetic time. observations can be missed or mistaken. It isn’t unreasonable for a married couple to wish for a short honeymoon period where they aren’t plunged straight into the trials and tribulations of pregnancy at a time when they may be attempting to consolidate financially, especially if they have not previously been cohabiting or sexually intimate.

Indeed if more young women were to monitor their fertility then arguably potential problems could be identified and treated more swiftly. Even, Sir Robert Winston, the IVF pioneer has argued that too many women are being automatically referred for IVF treatment after a failure to conceive, when cheaper and more effective treatments may be available. (Such as for example, the NaPro Centre in Ireland).

Natural Fertility Awareness is scorned by the vast majority of the medical profession, who do not understand it and believe it to be some sort of outdated rhythm method from 50 years ago as opposed to a rigorously scientific method, based on a woman’s own individual fertility, rather than the standardised version assumed by manufacturers of hormonal contraception. This leads to a passive attitude adopted by woman, who are taught to believe that their natural fertility is an out of control monster which needs to be medically  suppressed in order for them to stay healthy.

Last week my youngest daughter came up with an alarming looking rash, (it turned out to be some sort of pityriasis) which needed swift checking out by a medic. Unable to get a GP appointment within a few days, I took her instead to the walk-in centre in central Brighton so she could be seen swiftly. This particular centre also happened to be an anonymous walk-in sexual health and GUM clinic. I was particularly struck by the larger -than-life size posters advertising their sexual health and contraceptive services. Basically there was nowhere you could look without seeing adverts for sexual health prominently displayed. (Which is understandable when you consider Brighton’s considerable LGBT population and the location of the clinic, next to the railway station. You can pop in for an anonymous HIV test).

I was sat in front of an enormous six foot banner stand, which displayed a photograph of a clean-cut, wholesome-looking, causal but modestly dressed, pretty young blond woman, advertising “reproductive health services.’ The image has stayed with me precisely because as I thought at the time, the model was obviously chosen for her ordinary look. The message was crystal clear, all young women will be having sex and therefore they need to ensure that they do not have an unwanted pregnancy or contract any sexually transmitted diseases.

It was precisely the sort of image that I identified with as a teenager or in my twenties, just a normal-looking young woman, probably a professional of some sort, living a normal adult life, in sexual relationships and needing to make sure that she was healthy. Sexual health being just one more adult responsibility that she had to deal with. Take the pill, use condoms with new partners, get checked from time to time to make sure you haven’t inadvertently picked up anything nasty – no big deal, all part of being an empowered grown up.

I had bought into that entire mindset which is why the poster really struck a chord with me.  I too was that ‘empowered’ young woman who believed that all romantic relationships ought to involve sex and that consensual one-night stands were no problem. Sex was  a fun and exciting thing to do and most people who had an unplanned pregnancy had been a bit stupid. (Until it happened to me). Everywhere young women go, they are subtly indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking about sex and their sex lives. The poster was deliberately designed to feature a bland image of an everyday, normal attractive woman, with whom most woman would identify. No doubt in other areas, the models used would vary according to demographics.

Which is why it is so important that women are introduced into another way of thinking about their fertility, namely monitoring their own individual cycles instead of being duped into a passive acceptance of long-term hormonal suppression as being the norm.

This is why I don’t have so much of a problem as Joseph Shaw does, in terms of the secular nature of the video, which is perhaps designed to reach beyond the Catholic faithful.

I’ve personally found NFA to be so enriching for my marriage, despite not always managing to avoid pregnancy, that I want to share it with others because it’s a great thing in and of itself, and as Dr Shaw notes, the fewer people pumping estrogen into atmosphere or suffering from potential side effects, the better. Sceptic readers could do worse than read Sweetening the Pill. In January 2014, Vanity Fair published a 10,000 word expose of the Nuvaring, which has been responsible for thousands of avoidable blood clots and hundreds of deaths, all suppressed by the manufacturers who are now facing lawsuits. Wanting to get women off this stuff is an act of charity and mercy.

Advocating NFA to non-Catholics is the perfect example of graduality – get women onto a more natural and healthier way of avoiding pregnancy and it may well prove a useful first stepping stone in terms of evangelisation. It also might do something to engender better attitudes to sex and the rejection of female instrumentalisation, which has to be in the interests of the common good. I cannot emphasise how much of an uphill battle it is to overturn the entrenched attitudes hammered into children by well-meaning but ultimately ideologically blind professionals, since pre-adolescence.

Every secular priest ought to read this too. Ideally have a copy on hand to lend to couples.

For Catholics struggling with NFA, I strongly recommend Simcha Fisher’s Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, which is unashamedly written from a Catholic perspective. The book does not tell you how to chart, it does not give the pros and cons of NFA, it does not moralise, or tell you how many children you ought to have, but rather it acts as a spiritual accompaniement purely in terms of the sex and relationship issues related to NFP. If only it had been written two years ago when I was struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, in extremely challenging circumstances. Not only should married couples read it, but anyone involved in any sort of ministry involving engaged and married couples and yes priests, I mean you – it’s not a heavy theological tome, it’ll take a couple of days at most, but most definitely a decent use of your time.

Like Joseph, Simcha identifies the notion of being ‘baby-phobic’ but nonetheless she expclicity rejects the idea of the ‘contraceptive mentality’ that many Catholics using NFA have supposedly adopted. Certainly every Catholic I know who uses NFP, does so with a prayerful mentality and to accept NFA is also to accept that sex could always result in a baby, something that our experience has taught us.

In the aftermath of the Synod, there is a troubling narrative doing the rounds, namely that Catholics who avoid children must have a critical reason for doing so. As I said last year, this is explicitly, not the case, and to get hung up on the ‘grave and serious’ reasons for avoiding conceptions, ignores the actual teaching of Humanae Vitae.

What I said in August 2013, still seems pertinent.

Ultimately if a faithful Catholic couple is using NFP then they are still accepting and participating in God’s plan for creation. NFP/NFA accepts that no method of pregnancy avoidance, bar total abstinence is 100%. It is hugely unlikely that such a couple would then opt for abortion or reject an unplanned pregnancy. Practicing NFP constantly reminds one that this is always a possibility which is why NFP encourages spouses to care for and take responsibility for each other.

We should not berate those who use it in good conscience, procreation is one of the missions of marriage but not the sole mission, there are other ways of building the kingdom, the church does not treat children as a moral good to be pursued at the expense of all other moral goods. Gaudium et Spes 50 suggests that having a large family would be the generous thing to do, but also states that it is up to couples to decide.

But berating those for using NFP to avoid in good conscience, or discouraging discussion of using NFP to plan a family responsibly, is not the way to go, particularly for those encountering these concepts for the first time, which sadly seems to be a not insignificant proportion of the faithful.

To be clear, Joe Shaw did not advocate that everyone should have 10 children, nor did he insist that the reasons for avoiding children ought to be life-threatening, but he was stating that the vocation of marriage must include openness to children. The challenge is how to communicate this beyond the Catholic faithful.

Postscript for the sake of transparency

I am extremely happy to go on record as saying that following the birth of our fifth (God willing, living) child in March, I am no longer open to pregnancy.

I should not need to justify this to the Catholic faithful and it speaks volumes that I immediately feel defensive about this decision. Couples ought to be trusted to prayerfully discern what is right for them in their particular circumstances without having to defend themselves to random shouty online strangers.

For those wishing to ‘judge’ my Catholicity, the reasons are as follows:

  1. As I age, pregnancy is exacting an increasing toll on my body physically. This is in turn having an impact on the rest of the family as I am constantly exhausted and unable to function at full capacity. Due to the transient nature of our living circumstances over the past few years, there are no family or friends close by to help pick up the slack. While pregnancy is only a temporary stage, this recent piece from First Things notes that Catholics should not shy away from accepting and validating its difficulties. I am one of those women for whom pregnancy is a form of the Passion.
  2. I am facing my fourth cesarian section. While I know of women who have had as many as seven, 4 is considered the upper limit for this to be performed safely by most surgeons. During the birth of our youngest daughter there were some difficulties in terms of scar tissue and a large amount of adhesions; this next procedure is expected to be complicated and may well result in some damage to surrounding organs or emergency hysterectomy. A recent ante-natal appointment resulted not in discussion of the wellbeing of my unborn baby, but my being exhorted to accept sterilisation while I was on the table. An option which I have declined.

So no doubt in being very clear that we wish to avoid pregnancy – we fall into the scandalous contraceptive mindset. Perhaps the difference is that it’s not that we reject the idea of further children, but of further pregnancies?

However if the Catholic Church really wishes to throw off her image of misogynistic judgementalism, perhaps advocates of the vocation of marriage, ought to embrace the positive instead of loudly critiquing what they believe to be the motivations of the imaginary minority. I don’t need some shouty man imagining that he can persuade the world to tell me how I need to put my health and family at risk if I wish to save my soul or trying to engage me in online discussion about how married couples need to be open to life 100% of the time. Actually this is one issue where the feminists have a point, there is something particularly grating about a man who does not ever experience the physical tribulations of pregnancy and childbirth telling women how they ought to feel about the subject, no matter how logical, rational or theologically correct he may be.

Using NFA requires trust and a whole new way of thinking. Let’s encourage people to do that without telling them exactly what their decisions should be or implying that they ought to have fifty children until their uterus drops out.

Stop Gendercide in the UK


In 2012, an investigation by the Telegraph uncovered several abortion clinics where doctors were prepared to carry out abortions for women who had discovered that they were carrying a baby girl.

Opinion appears to be divided on whether or not this practice is actually illegal in the UK, back in February the health minister Lord Howe, said guidance would be sent to all abortion clinics warning them that the practice of sex-selective abortion is illegal, however both the BMA and BPAS (the UK’s leading abortion provider) dispute this interpretation of the law, the BMA claiming that there could be mental health grounds and BPAS believing that the law is silent on the matter. This is a view backed up by Neil Addison, Catholic barrister and director of the Thomas More Legal Centre.

In order to clarify the situation, a cross-party group of MPs, led by Fiona Bruce, are putting forward a Ten Minute Rule Bill on 4 November. The Abortion (Sex-Selective Bill) would not only remove all doubt about the legality of gender-selective abortion, but would also allow the Government to find a way to offer help to women who are seeking gender-selective abortions.


As the interview above demonstrates (click on the picture for the link) gender-selective abortion is an issue faced by many women in the UK, which is often under-reported. It is by no means a callous decision, women feel that they have little other choice when faced by cultural pressure and often domestic violence. Criminalising the practice would send a firm signal that discrimination and violence against women and girls is not to be tolerated. The anonymous interviewee, “Asher” still shows signs of trauma; she clearly isn’t reconciled with her allegedly free choice, 18 years later. This is not the empowered decision sold by the feminists, but a woman accepting and validating patriarchal attitudes, having witnessed first-hand how much worse life is for girls in some communities. Women, especially feminists ought to be rolling up their sleeves and fighting the injustice that demands baby girls are treated as lesser human beings. Not only that, but most women who undergo sex-selective abortion are forced to endure an additional horror of a late-stage abortion entailing giving birth to a deceased baby, as scan techniques identifying the gender are not effective until around 16 weeks at the earliest.

When defending late-stage abortions feminists claim that the nature of them means that it is only the very desperate who seek them. Expecting a child of a particular sex should not put one in a desperate situation in any progressive society.

A recent investigation commissioned by the Independent in January 2014, estimated that as many as 4,700 girls could be missing from the 2011 Census data, but according to Rani Bilkhu, spokeswoman for the Stop Gendercide campaign and founder of women’s rights organisation Jeena International, this figure is conservative.

I’d love to see white feminists and outspoken proponents of abortion right up til birth, Kate Smurthwaite and Sarah Ditum attempt to defend this situation, telling Asian women that it’s quite alright for them to abort their baby girls to satisfy cultural and familial male expectations.

Every woman should be allowed to have a daughter. While this is predominantly a problem which affects a minority culture in this country (hence the silence) gender selective abortion is not confined to Asian communities. Anecdotally I’ve come across a few white women who have aborted children in order to achieve family ‘balance’.

I am currently 19 weeks and 6 days pregnant with our fifth child, being mother to 4 beautiful girls. Over the last week the baby has begun to really make their presence felt, I regularly feel the baby moving about inside, kicking or reacting strongly to certain stimuli.

On Tuesday I have the 20 week scan in which we definitely intend to discover the sex of the baby. Many many people have asked or assumed that we have deliberately conceived this baby in order to ‘try for a boy’. This must be our last child, for a whole host of reasons. Many people have throughout the course of my pregnancies expressed disappointment on behalf of my husband that I am yet to produce a male. I even had a parishioner once reduce me to tears when I hobbled into the Easter vigil a few hours post hospital discharge with a newborn 4 day old girl who said “oh no, how disappointing, not another girl, you’ll have to try again and give him his boy”!

If I were to discover this baby is a girl, legally I’d have another 4 weeks in which to abort the baby with no questions asked. Is this what it means to be an unborn child in 21st Century Britain? In order to survive and be awarded basic human rights, you must be, amongst other things, of the correct gender?

To support the bill please lobby your MP, via stop gendercide and spread the word on FaceBook and social media.

Why Stephen Fry is wrong about sexual consent


The celebrity witch-hunt following the revelations about Jimmy Savile has cause something of a problematic backlash.

Establishment liberal luvvie Stephen Fry, who couldn’t resist leaking some outrageous tidbits from yet another set of memoirs he’s flogging, said on BBC’s Newsnight, that 14-year-old children who had sex with rock stars were not victims, because even with the benefit of adult hindsight now they are in their ‘50s, they would not categorise themselves as such.

The thing is with sexual abuse is that by its very nature it involves an element of coercion, and therefore even the 14 year olds who thought that they wanted sex with the gorgeous rock star whose poster had adorned their bedroom wall, in all probability probably didn’t.

14 year olds tend to have rather vague fantasies towards their objects of affection, or at least they did back in the day when 24 hour internet porn was not available and they were not programmed into believing that self-worth was tied up with sexual attractiveness and ability to perform the sophisticated tricks of a Parisian courtesan.

That’s not wishful thinking. it wasn’t so long since I was 14 and certainly at that stage I had not been party to hardcore porn, the most we did was a bit of teenage giggling over illicit copies of Jilly Cooper. Some of us did get coerced by older boys into doing things which we later regretted (perils of sex being a complete taboo topic at home and school and no-one ever attempting to have any sort of sensible conversation about you with boys and sex) but it’s interesting to note that it was the Lower and Upper Sixth who were conducting relationships with the Fourth Year. In today’s money that’s Year 12 and 13 eyeing up the Year 10’s. In some ways that’s not a new thing, most 14 year olds will believe themselves more grown-up and cool with the attention and flattery of an older boyfriend, especially when one considers that boys tend to physically develop later than girls.

But even when I was a teen in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there simply wasn’t the expectation that going out with someone meant that you were having sex with them or having sexual contact, which is perhaps why nobody talked about it. Funnily enough I was having a conversation with someone in their ‘70s the other day who told me that when she was in her teens and twenties she had loads of boyfriends. ‘I couldn’t say that now’  she told me, ‘because everyone will think that I slept with them all because that’s what having a boyfriend means these days. When I was young having a boyfriend meant that you went out with them a few times, let them buy you a drink or go to a dance with them and then when you got bored you’d move on! There was always someone who might try to get fresh with you, but you’d tell them to get lost and warn all your friends about them!’ There may have been stigma about previous sexual partners, but not boyfriends or dating.

Of course teenagers have always been having sex as well as being seen as rife for sexual abuse, but surely in a progressive society, one that recognises that an adult psyche is not fully formed in adolescence we ought to be preventing this? A 14 year old girl or boy is one who is still in the process of maturing both physically and emotionally, and the presence of sexual characteristics does not indicate a psyche to match. An 11 year old who has begun her periods is technically ready to bear children, but no-one in their right minds would suggest she is capable of consenting to a sexual relationship.

An adult is always in a position of power over a teenager and never more so when they are the subject of teenage crush. Even if a 14 year old believes that she wants to sleep with a rock star, in the vast majority of cases she is unable to match him in terms of emotional maturity – there is a world of difference between a 20 year old and 15 year old, let alone a 30 or 40 year old. The older party will have learnt various techniques of emotional manipulation and flattery, the younger party being putty in their hands and very suggestible. The damage which can be inflicted by premature sexual contact ought not to be underestimated.

Bill Wyman aside (whose ex-wife admits that she had sex with him at 14 and bitterly regrets it, accepting that she was still a child), most older men are not interested in a long term relationship with teenage girls, or not a healthy one at any rate. It is a predatory adult psyche that wishes to conduct a sexual relationship with a child or teen who is unable to form a sexual relationships on adult terms. Adults are attracted to teens thanks to a combination of their physical appearance and psychological malleability.

This inequality is why boundaries exist between pupils and teachers or any adults with a level of pastoral responsibility towards children. Abuse is defined as ‘the improper usage or treatment of an entity, often to unfairly gain benefit’. While people are not entities, teenage girls and boys will have their sexuality and psyche harmed by those who violate their boundaries and refuse to respect  and accept their vulnerability.

It’s tempting to give Stephen Fry a free pass because he patently has no interest in teenage girls in the rock star/groupie scenario he would appear to be describing, but the same applies to 14 year old teenage boys such as those tempted into seedy rent boy type scenarios such as those which allegedly occurred at the now notorious Elm Guest House, and who are equally capable of being used as sexual objects by those with specific proclivities. Arguably a boy is even less capable of giving his consent than a girl if he is still coming to terms with his developing sexuality, but both sexes have not really got to grips with sexual maturity at the age of 14 and sex involves the projection and imposition of an adult fantasy on to them.

It’s also rather unseemly and crass to be attempting to grade levels of sexual assault. Regardless of what is done to the child or teen, inappropriate sexual behaviour is being forced upon them, which needs to be treated with the utmost gravity. How this is dealt with in terms of sentencing, is in the hands of the judge taking into account all the circumstances of a particular case that comes before them.

Fry is obviously correct to warn against the presumption of guilt in celebrity abuse accusations before the case has even gone to trial, and blogger Anna Raccoon is worth reading in order to give a balanced account of how some of these cases have been overblown. One suspects that in some cases, money is a motivating factor for people to come forward. Justice demands that all the evidence is properly examined rather than an accusation being enough to secure prosecution and subsequent conviction.

There’s also a delicate balance between ensuring that on the one hand historic sex abuse does not go unpunished and on the other, not punishing people who did not believe that they were doing anything illegal or immoral and were acting according to the sexual mores of their day.

There is something ironic that in these days of unfettered sexual liberalism, social boundaries seem to reverting (and rightly so) to those of a previous era, whereby sexual touching of someone you are not in a relationship with, is a taboo. The ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s seem to have been a time when people were still getting to grips with the sexual revolution, all boundaries were swept aside and literally anything went – everyone was seen as a target or potential sexual partner. Far from being liberated, women were turned into sex objects in a way that had never been so previously overt.

The pendulum is swinging back the other way – society is undergoing a correction. The problem with this is however that we appear to wanting to regulate every single element of a sexual relationship to conform with societal norms, namely frequent partners, but clinicalised, sterilised, devoid of life-giving potential and potential infection.

Fry’s almer mater has already introduced compulsory sexual consent workshops for students. Which begs the question – if 18 year olds are considered unable to fully understand what sexual consent is all about, then why are 14 year olds, regardless of whether their sexual partner is a famous rock star or someone their own age?