Natural family planning (NFP) refers to several different ways to prevent or to attempt pregnancy that are generally endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, and some other religious groups. These methods are often used more to prevent pregnancy, though studies have shown a certain amount of success in using them in the opposite direction to result in pregnancy. NFP practices are based on analysis of a woman’s cycle by various means to detect ovulation and by abstaining from intercourse during times when a woman is most likely to become pregnant, if pregnancy prevention is the goal.
It is well known that the Roman Catholic Church does not approve of the use of barrier or artificial methods of birth control. Typically, the church believes it is acceptable to attempt pregnancy prevention if no artificial means are used. The methods that make up part of natural family planning lean heavily on the idea that abstinence is important to avoid pregnancy, and it is not an affront to God to understand when pregnancy is most likely to occur or to avoid sexual intercourse during this time period.
A few different methods for predicting ovulation can fall under the heading of natural family planning. These include ones that analyze vaginal mucus. As ovulation nears, mucus becomes clear, stretchy and more prevalent. By tracking the changes in mucus as they occur over the month, a woman may be able to determine her fertile periods and avoid intercourse during this time. Women may also measure basal temperature to determine likely days of ovulation, or use a fertility monitor to assess pregnancy likelihood. Some with very regular cycles can assume likelihood of pregnancy occurring based on tracking on a calendar.
When women are breastfeeding, they may use natural family planning called the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM). There are certain guidelines for this including lack of periods, nursing at least once every 4 hours, and the infant being under six months old. This doesn’t work for everyone, because even despite regular nursing, some women may begin ovulation again sooner, as indicated by return of normal menstrual cycles.
It’s difficult to gauge effectiveness of natural family planning. When couples use a method perfectly, they may have an annual fail rate of about 5-10%, or sometimes even higher. The LAM method tends to be fairly effective with a fail rate of between 2-5%. NFP isn’t always used perfectly though, and some methods may be less effective than others.
There are benefits and disadvantages to natural family planning. It will clearly not prevent all pregnancies and it does nothing to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. This is of great concern to many world health organizations, especially in countries where marital infidelity is common and rate of devastating STDs like HIV is very high. However, for people using additional birth control like condoms with NFP, it might help lower rate of unintended pregnancy, though it should be clearly understood the church does not endorse this practice.
There are many Catholic couples, especially in western countries, that part ways with the church on its birth control teachings. It’s fair to state that many American Catholic couples, for instance, do not practice NFP. There remain a fair number of American Catholic couples that support NFP and swear by its various methods as reliable means to prevent pregnancy.