If we listen to the stories of all women, not just those for whom natural family planning works in the way that the magisterium says that it does, we will see that natural family planning is not always good. In fact, in some cases, it is natural family planning, rather than artificial birth control, that is harmful to marriage and families.
In her article, “Papal Ideals, Marital Realities: One View From the Ground,” Northwestern professor Cristina Traina critiques magisterial teaching on sex and marriage, especially as it relates to artificial contraception and sexual complementarity, from the standpoint of her experience as a married, Catholic woman. Her argument is not so much theological as it is practical— she offers her experience as evidence that church teaching on marriage and sex does not always “work,” and in some cases can actually harm, rather than protect, particular marriages. This approach is particularly effective since the magisterium often argues that contraception and betrayal of gender roles do great harm to marriage and family.
“in my experience there is no necessary, exclusive connection between physical openness to procreation and genuine openness to my husband in a particular sexual encounter. Even in loving procreative sex, I may not focus on him; in intentionally non-procreative sex, I generally do; and in sex that even minutely risks pregnancy when it is unwise, unsafe, or both, I welcome neither partner nor child.”
With this, Traina calls into question John Paul II’s repeated insistence that to practice artificial contraception is necessarily a type of selfishness that interferes with the agapic self-gift demanded by marriage. Therefore, in contrast to JPII who claims that, unless one is “open” to procreation one is not truly open to one’s partner, she shows that, sometimes, being physically “open” to procreation is actually an impediment to being open to and loving towards one’s spouse. In other words, the unitive and procreative functions of sexual intercourse not only do not always go together in practice, but sometimes these ends cannot go together.
She also calls into question the wisdom of unlimited self-gift of the embodied self whether in sex or in pregnancy, recalling a time in her life in which “another pregnancy would [have] spelled physical and professional disaster for me and economic hardship for my family.” Thus, her decision to forego a fourth pregnancy was not an act of selfishness or rejection of her husband, but a rational and prudent judgment “consistent with [her] ‘natural’ ends of responsible parenthood and citizenship.”
Because she and her husband were trying to obey magisterial teaching and therefore not using artificial birth control, what started as a “fear of pregnancy” became “a visceral fear of sex itself” as her “fertility symptoms were in uninterpretable chaos for well over a year, making intercourse an unconscionable risk.” She further details how her inability to have intercourse with her husband during one of the most stressful years of their marriage was a severe threat to their marriage. Keep in mind also that, according to magisterial teaching, even married couples are not allowed to bring each other to orgasm by any means other than sexual intercourse. In fact, they are not even allowed manual or oral stimulation except as a preparation for intercourse. The only exception to this is that a husband can bring his wife to orgasm by manual or oral means but only after he ejaculates inside of her during intercourse. So clearly, if a couple is not having intercourse, they are forbidden all types of genital intimacy and expression. She concludes,
“if, as John Paul II insists, mutual delight in intercourse is proper only when conception is not impeded and when the possibility of its occurence is met with relaxed, joyful expectation; and if, as he also insists, intercourse is the only proper expression of marital sexuality; then for the typical couple enmeshed in ordinary responsibilities, opportunities for generous, appropriate marital sexuality are few in a lifetime. This is not, in my experience, the path to a happy marriage.”
Traina reminds the reader not only of the danger inherent in pregnancy, especially for impoverished women, but also of the unreliability of women’s fertility signals in situations of “malnutrition, violence, or displacement.” Especially for poor women or women living amidst war and violent conflict, “non-contraceptive pregnancy prevention—even with a husband’s cooperation—becomes very difficult.”
Traina’s insight is affirmed by the experience a friend of mine had working with indigenous women in central America. For these women, pregnancy and childbirth were physically depleting; however, artificial contraception was highly taboo, in large part because of church teaching. My friend, Elena Tsinikas, worked at a medical clinic at which they tried to teach these women Natural Family Planning. However, this was almost a complete failure since the women’s husbands were unwilling both to abstain from sex and to take ‘no’ for an answer. It would also seem as though this situation would fall even further from John Paul II’s standard of total self-gift, since there is no gift without freedom.
Elena tells the story of a married woman who, after giving birth to three children, decided with her husband to take some time off before having a fourth child. After asking around in her community about using artificial birth control, she was told
“if she used birth control she would be murdering her future children and denying them the right to a life God had planned for them. Dominga said she felt very ashamed at the women’s reply, so she went to a priest, who taught her about natural family planning methods.”
However, the very thing that makes natural family planning morally acceptable in the eyes of the magisterium is the very thing that made it an unrealistic option for Dominga. As Elena explains,
“Because this method of family planning confines sexual activity to only specific days of the month, each time Dominga’s husband wanted to have sex on the wrong day and Dominga told him, ‘not today,’ an argument would ensue. Her husband accused her of having an affair. He would say, ‘if you don’t want to have sex with me, it must be because you have been out having sex with your lover.’ Inevitably these arguments would end with her husband saying, ‘I am the the man and you are the woman. I tell you when we have sex, you don’t get to decide.'”
Dominga would go on to have 9 children, who at the time of this post were in between 7 and 24. To Elena, Dominga said:
“she wishes she had planned her pregnancies and used birth control because it is has been and continues to be very difficult to care for all 9 children, to feed them all and make sure they get an education. ‘People say it’s a sin to use family planning,’ said Dominga, ‘but I think it’s a sin to bring more children into the world if you can’t take care of them the way they deserve.’ She told me that her life as a parent has been very difficult, and the struggle to provide for the children has been a constant stress and worry for her and her husband.”
In contrast to John Paul II’s insistence that artificial birth control is a violation of marriage which inherently and therefore always produces harm, we have the testimony of two women from very different context telling us that, sometimes, it is the inability to use artificial birth control that is the source of harm and marital tension.
In the story of Cristina Traina, it would seem that the only way she could have complied with church teaching would have been to have given up her job as a professor and her participation in civic life and confined her responsibilities to the home. In Traina’s case, this would have resulted in economic hardship for her family as she was the “breadwinner.” Moreover, given John Paul II’s personalistic emphasis on sex as a means of expression and fulfillment for the human person, it would seem strange to conclude that women are allowed the expression of their person during sex but not in other spheres of life.
In the story of Dominga, the problem is that while her husband is the one unwilling to follow NFP, she is the one who most immediately responsible for the consequences of his sin. Also, while her husband has the freedom to choose when and how often he wants to have sex, Dominga lacks any sort of sexual autonomy and therefore ability to make prudential decisions about bringing new life into the world. According to the magisterium, it would seem as though the only option open to a woman like Dominga is that she submit to the sexual impulses of her husband, no matter what the cost to her.
This can’t be God’s will for women and men, can it?