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NFP & Bodily Autonomy: Self-Knowledge

Updated: Jun 22, 2019

I’m seeing a lot of demands for “bodily autonomy” these days. And I love it.

As a Theology of the Body nerd, my brain whips out its metaphorical yellow highlighter and my fingers nudge up my very real, embarrassing-that-they’re-necessary reading glasses (I’m 23) whenever the phrase shows up in my newsfeed. But as an NFP-practicing Catholic, I cringe as I read riled proclamations wielding this phrase to combat the recent wave of state-level, pro-life laws passed across the nation.

I hear you, sisters. My heart cries out in unison with all who are rallying their voices seeking the securement of our right to make free choices concerning our bodies—at the crux of it, our very selves. Because we should long for bodily autonomy, for ourselves and for all. We should demand it.

But maybe it’s been too long since we’ve stopped to reflect and ask: Are we seeking bodily autonomy in the right place? Are legal access to abortion and easy access to contraception really the keys that unlock a woman’s power to choose what is best for her body, her life, her very self?

A friend of mine was attending a bachelorette party of a high-school friend in Las Vegas, herself also engaged at the time and in the beginning stages of learning NFP. The subject of birth control came up in conversation and, over their cocktails, my friend proceeded to explain how she and her fiancé planned to monitor their fertility by charting her body’s fertility markers.

“Like what?” one girl asked.

“Like the type of cervical mucus.”

“The what mucus?”

Baffled and pretty self-conscious, she tried to explain, at a low volume and between sips of her drink, how cervical mucus could signal the phases of a woman’s cycle. Telling me this story later, she mused: “If she really hadn’t ever noticed cervical mucus there could be something wrong. I should have suggested that she see a doctor.”

This young woman’s reaction to NFP isn’t unusual, and her complete unawareness of her body’s natural fertility markers is representative of women all around the world.

So, um…shouldn’t we do something about this?

True freedom, true bodily autonomy, is inexplicably tied to knowledge.

In a whole multitude of aspects of our society, we recognize this truth. Every time I am prompted to check the little box next to the “I have read the Terms & Conditions” statement on an online form, the company is fulfilling its obligation to provide me with all the information necessary for me to give my fully informed consent.

Similarly, we strive to be informed voters, informed citizens, and informed consumers all in an effort to maximize our ability to make good, sensible, free choices, unbound by the slavery of ignorance.

It is even more vital that the same be true surrounding our power to make free choices about and with our bodies.

But rather than being informed how our bodies work, the complexities of our reproductive cycles, and the totally sound way God designed the female body, we’ve been prescribed the pill and subtly fed the falsehood that we depend on it for “regulation,” “protection,” and “health.” All the while, the true function and intricacies of our bodies remain hidden under a totally unnecessary veil of mystery.

The lack of basic education for girls just undergoing puberty all the way to the knowledge gap in mainstream medicine concerning grown women’s reproductive health has not only been a serious disservice to women’s overall healthcare, but has actually lulled women and men into a vague and utterly false sense that there is just no way to know before having sex on a given day whether they may become pregnant. But there is. By practicing NFP, women and their partners can know if, in that moment, they have the potential to bring forth a new life.

How’s that for the power to make a free choice?

Put in another way, knowledge not only increases our freedom, but also lends greater intention.

Take the example of Jesus—knowing what he was to suffer, he made the free choice to endure it all, and by the fullness of his foreknowledge, dedicated every moment of his Passion to us. His knowledge enabled his free choice, and his free choice assures us of his love for us in the purest way possible.

Among couples truly practicing NFP, you may still hear talk of “unplanned” babies, that is, those kids conceived in periods of “avoidance” when, knowing full well their united bodies’ potential to conceive new life, the couple comes together anyway. But you won’t hear talk of an unintended pregnancy—foreknowledge throws that option out the window, and every child, “planned” or no, is first considered in their parents’ minds and then freely chosen.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” -Jeremiah 1:5

Here we see that knowledge, in and of itself, is its own expression of love.

We want bodily autonomy, ladies? Then let’s be knowers—but not just for our own sake.

St. Thomas Aquinas says “Love follows knowledge.”

The self-knowledge fostered by NFP inherently paves the way for a greater capacity to love—our spouses, our children, our God, and, yes, ourselves.

Lily Burr is a free-lance writer, copyeditor, and stay-at-home mom for her 1-year-old son, Oliver. Her favorite things are the Mass, gardening, family walks in the Nebraska sunshine, and reading—especially the works of Jane Austen, Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien. She takes two spoonfuls of sugar in her tea and a generous helping of coconut creamer in her coffee.

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