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NFP: The feminist way to family plan {revised}

Updated: Jan 15, 2019


noun fem·​i·​nism | \ ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm \

Definition of feminism 

1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes

Merriam-Webster (2019)

"Equality of the sexes." This is the goal I often hear from the mouths of feminists, and I wholeheartedly agree. But how do we accomplish this when male and female reproductive biology is so objectively different? The answer in many feminist circles has been to default to the male model through hormonal suppression of (aka fixing the problem/inconvenience of) feminine cycles. I find that whole concept to be extremely anti-feminist.

It may seem like a pipe dream to strive for equal, responsible, respectful-of-both-parties way to manage fertility. Yet, it's not.

I teach NFP classes both at our local diocesan center and at a freestanding birth center. What kind of women do you think choose to learn about family planning at a freestanding birth center? Devout Catholics rejecting artificial contraception? There are a few of those. There are also a bunch of au naturale, non-religious feminists who reject the ingestion (or insertion) of artificial hormones into their bodies. Some are a bit stereotypical in their anti-shaving, cloth-pad-wearing crunchy lifestyle. Many others, though, simply realize their body deserves more respect than contraception offers.

Truth be told, these are some of my favorite clients. Sure, they look at me like I have 4 heads when I want to start the meeting with a “Hail Mary.” (I’ve since learned to #readtheroom and I added a religion question to the registration form.) But overall, they embody something I believe to be true about NFP: respect of natural female biology.

Fertility is not a disease. My monthly ovulation is neither a problem to be fixed nor an inconvenience for which I will apologize. In fact, a woman’s menstrual cycle provides extremely important data about her health.

Therefore, one might consider the menstrual cycle as a type of vital sign and an indicator of other possible medical problems. Using menarche or the menstrual cycle as a sensitive vital sign adds a powerful tool to the assessment of normal hormonal development and the exclusion of serious abnormalities, such as anorexia nervosa, inflammatory bowel disease, and many other chronic illnesses. -American Academy of Pediatrics, 2005
By including an evaluation of the menstrual cycle as an additional vital sign, clinicians reinforce its importance in assessing overall health status for patients and caretakers. -American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2015

These are two governing bodies, for your pediatrician and your OB-GYN, respectively. They standardize best practice based on current evidence. And they both speak to the importance of tracking a menstrual cycle as an indicator of health. Not a naturopathic doctor or a group convincing you to eat organic. We’d expect the natural-minded stances from them. No, this is a group of allopathic medical doctors acknowledging the importance of a physical sign that is being intentionally disabled in too many women under the guise of #empowerment and #equality.

Just as our hearts are supposed to beat and give us the vital sign of heart rate, women’s bodies are designed to menstruate and ovulate. This is a healthy state! “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!” is an old adage that applies well to fertility. Medical intervention should be used to restore proper function but not to shut down perfectly functioning systems. With the complexities of hormones waxing and waning in the female body, it is naive to think significant intentional altering of multiple hormones would not have a cascading effect.

Here are a few of the normal female hormones throughout a cycle. No two days in a row of hormone levels are exactly the same for women. Something is always shifting.

Interestingly, no two days of hormone levels are significantly different for men. They are extremely consistent.

Here is what a woman’s hormone levels look like with combination hormonal birth control.

When you have the visual of what a naturally functioning female body will do compared to what it is forced into by hormonal contraception, many of the side effects of birth control make sense. Headache, anxiety, weight gain, decreased libido, etc. These can be the result of hormone levels being outside a normal range. Ladies, we deserve better! We deserve acceptance of our biology. We don’t need to live with side effects of hormonal contraception because our fertility is viewed as an inconvenience or problem by some. The male model of hormone variation (or lack thereof) should not be the standard. Yet hormonal contraception achieves exactly this.

We ovulate. We menstruate. We procreate. Deal with it or get out of our way.

There are disease processes that can cause a woman to have a dysfunctional menstrual cycle where her hormones are not rising and falling appropriately. This is often cited as the reason women need to go on hormonal contraception. I would suggest, from my own experience with PCOS, that NFP is especially important in these situations. Cycle charting aids a woman and her doctor in identifying the source of the issue and seek to correct it. Again, this is restoring proper function! Not disrupting a perfectly functioning system.

Ok,” you’re thinking. “Even if I buy in on the health benefit, what about sex? Babies? Isn‘t NFP just the rhythm method, rebranded?”

Nope! Thank goodness! Personally, I need way more than 75-80% efficacy. Have you met my feral offspring?!

Current methods of NFP are backed by science, individualized to each woman’s cycle, and customizable to meet a woman’s preferences. There are options to chart temperature, cervical mucus, or urine hormone levels. Different methods use various combinations of these markers, as well as a variety of charting options: paper, online, app. If an NFP method isn’t working for someone, there are other options to explore to find the right fit. Even for one woman, her NFP method preference can change with her stage in life. It is much more involved than a 28 day calendar method. Best part? Across the board they’re 98-99% effective when used properly and taught by a qualified instructor. 👊🏻

As women are demanding better options for family planning, a common (but equally anti-feminist) option is being praised and developed. First, a quick Bio 101 lesson for those who slept through high school science.

Women are only fertile for about 24 hours. The egg is high maintenance. It makes the sperm hang out for a day or two or five so that they can meet in the right spot with its limited lifespan. The egg must be fertilized, implant, and begin to grow at just the right time.

The argument goes something like this: If my egg is only alive for 12-24 hours after ovulation— which happens once per month— why should I subject my body to the artificial hormones every day? Isn’t it a better idea to force men to take contraception? They’re fertile all the time.

Male contraceptives are currently being studied. But their fertility also isn’t broken. They are naturally designed to be fertile all the time. Scroll up and look at the definition of feminism again. Equality for men and women. NOT to bring men down in favor of women. So if I’m here to say that my body is just fine as it naturally functions and society can deal with the realities of female biology, it’s only fair to say that male bodies are just fine as they naturally function. We, and society, can respect the realities of male bodies, too.

The burden of family planning has fallen too heavily on to women. Absolutely, 100%. The answer, though, from a feminist standpoint, is not to shift the burden over to men. No, it should be a shared responsibility.

NFP naturally brings sex in to its proper place: a shared responsibility between partners where both parties are respected as human beings with equal dignity and individual uniqueness. Yeah, I ovulate once a month. Yeah, my husband is fertile every day. Neither of these are wrong or a problem to be solved. Mutual respect of male and female dignity, and equal awareness and responsibility for the consequences of sex.

Feminists {rightfully} seek respect for the dignity of women. Most seek it for all people. That starts with you. And with me.

Respect yourself. Your whole self. And demand the same respect from others.

For women to truly find equal footing, we have to demand our entirety (biology, psychology, career and education potential, etc.) be accepted. Without apology that it does not conform to the male model.

Here are links to the articles referenced above:

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