Having had a baby seven weeks ago – thank you all for your prayers; it’s a long road, but he’s heading in the right direction – last week it was time for a routine 6-week maternal check-up. For all mothers, this involves an awkward mandatory interrogation about contraception, but for some Catholic mothers the conversation can take on an added frisson:
Doctor: So have you thought about contraception?
Me: Well, actually we practise Natural Family Planning.
Doctor (following pregnant – no pun intended – pause): Er, well that’s what you do when it doesn’t matter if you get pregnant. But if you decide you want a coil, condoms, Pill … don’t hesitate to come and see us! Have you been on a course?
Me: Can I go now?
In all honesty, the above doctor’s response is actually a synthesis of three such conversations over the years, but the general tenor is consistent. One leaves feeling that the doctor feels the size of your family is a matter of indifference to you, and that they’d be far happier if you signed up for a prescription.
In fairness to them, they are obliged to warn you of the risks of pregnancies too close together, and that, for example, breastfeeding alone is not a reliable method of avoiding pregnancy. There is also the fact that NFP is an umbrella term for a wide range of methods and can indicate very varying degrees on knowledge on the part of couples, from “I know what the Doering Rule is dontchaknow” to the kind of cycle day counting that has disgraced the method.
Finally, while I have no concrete information to back this up, I can imagine that the multiple methods of contraception occupy three bullet points on a single PowerPoint slide in the midst of a medical degree that demands the absorption of masses of data, and that the numbers of NFP-users doctors ever have to advise are tiny.
Nevertheless, I think there would be something to be said for less excruciating encounters at the 6-week check than mine. For one thing, with the availability of specialist apps, cheap and accurate thermometers and the emergence of NFP as a healthy and natural contraceptive alternative for what one blogger calls the “Crunchy Granola Set”, there is a larger potential pool of practitioners beyond a minority of Catholics who may need advice.
Surely an effective method of delaying pregnancy (as the NHS guidelines confirm) with no side effects and no cost to the NHS is worth boning up on? Given that NFP also relies upon awareness of a woman’s normal cycle, it is also a possible means of both diagnosing and avoiding difficulties that arise when women want to achieve pregnancy, difficulties often masked when artificial contraception is used.
Beyond these considerations, as I noted above, my doctors’ responses imply a belief that those using NFP don’t care about pregnancy, that is, that artificial contraception is a more responsible route. On the contrary, successful long-term practice of NFP demands communication between partners, commitment, and, indeed, openness to the possibility of pregnancy and the responsibilities that will bring.
All in all then, perhaps the medical school bullet points might valuably be expanded a little, not to save the blushes of my doctor, but to recognise the real benefits and possibilities of NFP.