Is NFP contraception?

Ajb, in comments to my post “Is Taking the Pill the Same as NFP?“, argues that NFP* is rightly called a form of contraception, “according to the generally accepted use of the term.” His evidence for this is dictionary definitions, which he provides in his comment dated March 22, 2013 at 13:13, on “Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany” (where our discussion originated).

So as not to derail that discussion, which was on a different topic, I didn’t argue the point other than to say that I personally don’t consider NFP to be contraception.  Now I will argue it.

The essence of NFP is abstaining from intercourse during the woman’s fertile periods. The rest of it is teaching people how to know when the woman is in a fertile period.

Abstaining from intercourse can’t be called contraception by any stretch. So there it is: NFP is not contraception.

Some may argue that NFP also involves having intercourse during the woman’s infertile periods. But it doesn’t. NFP doesn’t require having intercourse at any time whatsoever. Having intercourse is not part of avoiding pregnancy. How could it be?

Nota bene:  When you have intercourse during an infertile period, you are doing nothing that you wouldn’t do if you were not practicing NFP.

The only thing you do in NFP that you would not do otherwise, is deliberately abstain from sex during fertile periods. And again, abstaining from sex is not contraception by any stretch.

Ergo, NFP is not contraception.

A word about dictionary definitions: Modern dictionaries do not purport to be authoritative in the sense of saying how a word must be used. They merely say how words are commonly used. A word being commonly used in a certain way, does not comprise a requirement that it be used in that way. All kinds of things are commonly done for erroneous or ill-conceived reasons. Lumping NFP together with condoms, IUDs and the Pill, in my view, is such a thing — I mean on the part of dictionary authors, not necessarily the common people.

Because in fact, I believe the vast majority of people, when they think of contraception, think of having intercourse while taking, or having taken, an additional step to block its natural outcome, conception. Having intercourse is not contraception. Contraception is something you do in addition to having intercourse.

But having intercourse during an infertile period has no natural outcome to be blocked. And if it happens that you miscalculated, and the woman is actually fertile when you thought she wasn’t, you have taken no steps to block the natural outcome.

Ergo again, NFP is not contraception.

* Natural Family Planning

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18 thoughts on “Is NFP contraception?

  1. Definitions aside, the difference between NFP and artifical FP is not necessarily of any significance theologically – at least wrt simple barrier methods of contraception – the issue is surely whether sex is detached from conception, or not.

    So I think ajb makes an important point – in allowing NFP the RCC is NOT against Birth Control/ Family Planning – which sets it apart from some other religions and denominations which do not allow this, and of course from older RC doctrine.

    But I feel that the RCC has made a serious error in focusing on contraception as an issue – indeed it seem obvious from the evidence of failure that an error has been made.

    Furthermore, the focus on contraception has led to some of the worst excesses of that finespun but wholly unconvincing philosophico-legalistic logic-chopping which has always been a weakness of the RCC since the Great Schism.

    The proper focus is the sacramental importance of the family, the positive desirability of having children; contraception ought to be a second order question, a means to that end.

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    • Bruce:

      You write, “the issue is surely whether sex is detached from conception, or not.”

      I might agree, depending on your precise meaning. I agree that sex should not be detached from the possibility of conception, i.e. it should always be open to conception, and the Church teaches this as well, in fact requires it under pain of sin. I don’t think sex must always *result* in conception, and I assume you would agree.

      I agree that children are positively desirable, in general. I don’t agree that they are always desirable in the concrete circumstances of every family. There are legitimate reasons for not having children.

      I think Paul VI made a heroic stand in “focusing on contraception as an issue”, against the tide of secular opinion. But I don’t agree that the Church made it an issue. It was made an issue because of the clamor of the world for consequence-free sex. The Church merely said “no” to that concept.

      It seems incongruous to say that the Church should positively encourage procreation, yet not stand against contraception.

      I would say that the Church’s weakness in this area is not its preaching against contraception (and therefore for children), but its failure to do enough of it. You do hear about it: On the EWTN network, for example, and from more conservative/traditional bishops and priests. But not nearly enough.

      You write, “The proper focus is the sacramental importance of the family, the positive desirability of having children; contraception ought to be a second order question, a means to that end”

      I think you may have misspoken. Did you mean to say that contraception ought to be a means to the end of having children?

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      • @A – No I didn’t mis-speak.

        “I agree that sex should not be detached from the possibility of conception, i.e. it should always be open to conception, and the Church teaches this as well, in fact requires it under pain of sin. ”

        I think this doctrine of it being a sin to have sex which is not open to conception is obvious nonsense, simply unbelievable – based on scholastic logic chopping which is, frankly, silly – and it is clear that hardly anybody does or could believe it.

        But it would rule out NFP.

        As I have often mentioned, Mormons have maintained above-replacement (chosen) fertility in a context of near 100 percent contraception use; and the wealthier and more educated Mormons have the largest families. This is because they really do value marriage and families, based in theology and permeating the whole teaching and church life.

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  2. What I said wasn’t that the definition should or should not be changed to y, but rather that it *is* x.

    “A word being commonly used in a certain way, does not comprise a requirement that it be used in that way.”

    Of course not. By using it another way, you are in effect creating a dialect. So, you can say that the Catholic dialect uses ‘contraception’ to exclude NFP. Or, you can say that the definition *ought to be* y. That’s fine, and you can give your reasons, and argue for that new definition based on the purposes you have at hand (such as emphasizing a certain element of naturalness that is present in NFP). What you can’t do is say that the generally received definition of contraception doesn’t include NFP.

    (The distinction based on naturalness you are referring to is recognized as having some importance in the broader language, where the term ‘artificial contraception’ is meant to create a distinction between NFP and other contraceptive methods.)

    My guess is that the reason NFP is part of the standard definition, is that people use NFP to both have sexual intercourse and avoid pregnancy during the same general time period. So, the central notion here isn’t whether something is natural in a certain sense or not and to what degree, but the purpose of a (in this case) technique that allows both for sexual intercourse and avoidance of pregnancy.

    Therefore, your claim that:

    “Abstaining from intercourse can’t be called contraception by any stretch.”

    seems false according to the core conceptual aspect of the generally received definition, because this is a necessary part of NFP as far as it is considered contraception. Again, if you simply want to stipulate that you mean something else by the word, or that you are using a word in its sense as it is used in a dialect, that’s of course your prerogative.

    Furthermore, it is irrelevant that NFP doesn’t require having sexual intercourse at other periods during a woman’s cycle. The point is that it is generally used to do so, not whether there might be exceptions.

    Consider: a woman could use an IUD and never have sexual intercourse. Therefore, are IUDs not a form of contraception? No. Rather, the proper conclusion is that the IUD in that context was not used for contraceptive purposes, i.e., any thing can be used for multiple purposes, and in some cases an IUD could be used for something other than contraception.

    Similarly, in your hypothetical case where people are using NFP but not to have sexual intercourse at infertile times, the proper response is that, in that context, NFP isn’t being used for contraceptive purposes.

    “think of having intercourse while taking, or having taken, an additional step to block its natural outcome, conception”

    Of course, NFP *includes* an additional step to block sexual intercourse’s natural outcome, namely tracking a woman’s biological signals and timing sexual intercourse so as to avoid fertile periods.

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    • Ajb:

      Let me try another tack. (I’m resisting the temptation to respond to every point you raise.)

      The dictionary definitions that you provided (linked to above) are these:

      “the deliberate prevention of conception or impregnation by any of various drugs, techniques, or devices”;

      and

      “the intentional prevention of conception by artificial or natural means. Artificial methods in common use include …” etc.

      1. These definitions assume the act of intercourse. If they didn’t, then the word “contraception” would apply to things having nothing to do with the sex act, for example, efforts of the United Nations to teach people that they ought to use contraceptives, and how to use them; or to similar efforts made in presentations at public high schools; since those are efforts to “prevent conception or impregnation”. It would also apply to someone dumping out the contents of an in vitro fertilization container. But no one calls those acts “contraception”.

      An intentional act to prevent conception is only called “contraception” if those efforts take place in the context of sexual intercourse, either presently taking place or contemplated in the near future. For this reason I say the definition should be, “having sexual intercourse while deliberately taking, or having taken, actions to prevent the natural results thereof”; or, “taking actions to enable one to have intercourse while preventing the natural results thereof”.

      2. These definitions also assume the phrase “other than intercourse itself”; so that the definition is actually, “taking deliberate action, apart from intercourse itself, to prevent conception as a result of having intercourse”. Without this assumption, you would be saying that intercourse itself is contraception, which is absurd.

      3. But when you purport that NFP takes actions to prevent conception, the action you’re referring to is intercourse itself. That is, having it only at certain times, and abstaining the rest of the time. But abstaining from intercourse can’t be contraception, since the definition of “contraception” assumes, not abstaining, but *having* intercourse. And having intercourse at a particular time can’t be contraception, because the definition of contraception assumes an action other than intercourse itself.

      Again NFP boils down to having intercourse only at certain times. But “having it at only certain times” means nothing other than having it sometimes, and abstaining from it at other times. Whereas neither having intercourse nor abstaining from intercourse can meet the definition of “contraception”.

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  3. Bruce:

    You write, “I think this doctrine of it being a sin to have sex which is not open to conception is obvious nonsense, simply unbelievable – based on scholastic logic chopping which is, frankly, silly – and it is clear that hardly anybody does or could believe it.”

    It would be nice to know more specifically what you’re referring to when you use terms like “scholastic logic-chopping”, but maybe it’s something you’re not interested in going into in detail.

    Same when you call it “obvious nonsense” — I can’t tell what is purported to be non-sensical about it. The number of people who believe it is obviously irrelevant to its truth or falsity.

    You write, “But it would rule out NFP.”

    Again I have no idea what this conclusion is based on so I can’t argue with it. But I see no way in which it rules out NFP.

    You write, “As I have often mentioned, Mormons have maintained above-replacement (chosen) fertility in a context of near 100 percent contraception use; and the wealthier and more educated Mormons have the largest families. This is because they really do value marriage and families, based in theology and permeating the whole teaching and church life.”

    I have no reason to doubt that Mormons have, so far, maintained above-replacement fertility or that there is nearly 100% contraception use among them. Whether “this is because” of the reasons you name, I can’t say. It could be. It’s a plausible explanation. It could also be, at least in part, due to the influence of culture being passed from one generation to the next: Maybe big, religious families tend to beget big, religious families, especially when everyone else in their social circle also belongs to a big, religious family. That’s a wonderful thing, so far as it goes. But in any case, it has clearly been waning in recent decades, due, undoubtedly, to “near 100 percent contraception use”. (http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=23525552) How many more decades will it last? We’ll see, I guess.

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  4. The meaning of an act often comes from the context. It is not “having intercourse” or “not having intercourse” that makes NFP a form of contraception, but rather the context of an intention and technique that makes it into contraception.

    Ultimately, though, an argument about definitions is an argument about conventions. If a bunch of people (such as the Catholic Church) want to define contraception in their own use as not including NFP, that’s their right.

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  5. Bruce and Ajb: I am signing off for the evening but will try to respond tomorrow. As of tomorrow evening I will likely be out of commission until Easter Sunday or Monday. As always I appreciate the interesting discussion.

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  6. Ajb:

    You write, ‘The meaning of an act often comes from the context. It is not “having intercourse” or “not having intercourse” that makes NFP a form of contraception, but rather the context of an intention and technique that makes it into contraception.’

    I’m not sure what “the meaning of an act” means. But apparently you’re saying that the same act can “mean” different things depending on the intent.

    It’s true that in some cases, intention can make the difference between an act fitting one definition, or fitting another. For example, murder and manslaughter. The definition of murder has two components: (1) the intention to kill a human being, and (2) killing a human being. The definition of “manslaughter” has only one component: Killing a human being; the intention is absent. Thus, the unintentional killing of a human being does not fit the definition of “murder”, because it lacks one component of the definition.

    So let’s look at the definition of “contraception”. As stated in my last comment, the definitions you provided have at least three components (one stated explicitly and two that are assumed): (1) the act of intercourse; (2) an act besides intercourse which prevents conception (otherwise intercourse would be contraception, which is absurd); and (3) the intention to prevent conception. If an act lacks any of those components, it does not fit the definition of “contraception”.

    The acts involved in NFP are (1) abstaining from sex during fertile periods, and (2) having sex during infertile periods (or not; it’s optional).

    Does abstaining from sex during fertile periods contain all of the elements of the definition of “contraception”? I would argue that it contains none of them. There is no intercourse; there is no act besides intercourse; and there is no intent to prevent conception. You may say the intent is there. I would disagree, since if there is no intercourse, conception simply is not possible. There can’t be an intention to *prevent* a result which is impossible in the first place. But even granting that the intention is present, the first two components are still lacking. Therefore, abstaining from sex during fertile periods does not fit the definition of “contraception”.

    Does having intercourse during an infertile period contain all the elements of the definition of “contraception”? It includes the first component, intercourse; and arguably the third, the intention of preventing conception. But it does not include the second component, an act besides intercourse which prevents conception.

    You may argue that having intercourse *at that time* is the act besides intercourse which prevents conception. Granted that the timing may give an indication of the intention. But the act of having intercourse at the time when you’re having intercourse, can’t be an act in addition to having intercourse.

    Merely throwing in the word “intention” does not force the square peg of the act into the round hole of your definitions. Those definitions simply do not apply to the acts under consideration in NFP, and you have not shown otherwise.

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  7. According to your definition, it seems that using the pill does not qualify as contraception, as there is no additional act *at the time of intercourse* which prevents pregnancy.

    Obviously, it qualifies as contraception because an act is taken at *another time* to delay ovulation (or what have you).

    Similarly, the act which prevents pregnancy in NFP is recording the biological signals, and using these to time sexual intercourse. That is the *technique* which makes it a form of contraception.

    If NFP only involved having sexual intercourse and not having sexual intercourse, randomly, there would be little reason to think it would be *effective*.

    I think I’ve clearly outlined a plausible interpretation of the logic behind the definition. I’ll leave it up to others to decide which case they feel is more compelling.

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  8. Ajb: You write, “Similarly, the act which prevents pregnancy in NFP is recording the biological signals, and using these to time sexual intercourse. That is the *technique* which makes it a form of contraception.”

    The definition of “contraception” arrived at during the course of this discussion, which I have repeated several times and which so far you have not disputed, is, “having sexual intercourse while deliberately taking, or having taken, actions to prevent the natural results thereof”.

    So once more, in hope of clarifying: In NFP, (1) When abstaining from intercourse, no action is taken which prevents the natural result of intercourse, because no intercourse is taking place; (2) when having intercourse during infertile periods, no action is taken which prevents the natural result of intercourse, because THERE IS NO NATURAL RESULT of intercourse during an infertile period; (3) if your calculations are off and it turns out she is actually fertile, you have taken no action which prevents the natural result of intercourse.

    Thus at no point in the practice of NFP is the natural result of intercourse prevented. The fact of calculating when the woman is fertile and when she’s not, cannot be “an act in addition to intercourse which prevents the natural result thereof”, because THE NATURAL RESULT IS NEVER PREVENTED.

    That’s the whole point. That’s why it’s called “natural”. If it were preventing the natural result, it would have to be called “unnatural family planning”.

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  9. As it happens, I can’t see any sense in or make any sense of the distinction Catholics make between ‘artificial’ family planning or ‘natural’ family planning. The object of both is sex without conception.

    But there is a practical case to be made for opposing contraception (besides the entirely salutary one of putting you foursquare against the sexual assumptions of the world at the very outset)–that is that in almost all denominations, contraception is correlated strongly with a fall in birth rates. Mormons were against contraception until the 70s and early 80s, and there is a downward inflection point in Mormon birthrates at about the same time.

    What I’m not clear on is whether contraception is the cause or the effect.

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    • The difference, as I see it, is this: With artificial birth control (ABC) the object is to avoid babies while having all the sex you want. Whereas in natural family planning (NFP), the object is to avoid babies by abstaining from sex.

      The former, I contend, severs the link between sex and procreation, whereas the latter preserves and respects it.

      Whether contraception causes a fall in birth rates or merely accompanies it, might not the severing of sex from procreation be at the root of them both?

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  10. Sure. My guess is that NFP does the same thing, that birthrates among the rare Humanae Vitae faithful Catholics have also fallen. Old-school Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons basically took the line that you shouldn’t have sex unless you were *trying* to have a baby.

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  11. Hmm. I’m not sure when Protestants, Catholics and Mormons would have presented such a united front on that issue.

    St. Augustine did write that married people should not have sex just to indulge their lust, which he considered a venial sin. But he drew a sharp line between doing that, and using an “appliance” or administering “poison” to make a woman infertile, which to him was utterly reprehensible. Indeed people who acted thus, he thought, were not even truly man and wife.

    The Catechism of the Council of Trent (published 1566) gives three reasons for marrying: (1) mutual benefit to the spouses (companionship, mutual assistance); (2) the desire for family (procreation); and (3) to supply “an antidote by which to avoid sins of lust”.

    The Catholic Church as early as the 1850s apparently advised priests hearing confessions that they should not forbid people from resorting to what they believed to be infertile periods, “providing that they do nothing to impede conception”. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_family_planning#Pre-20th_century)

    It seems that for most of Church history there were three options: (1) have sex only when you are trying to conceive; (2) have sex to satisfy your sexual urge, but without impeding conception; and (3) have sex to satisfy your sexual urge while taking artificial or unnatural steps to impede conception. It seems to me that the first was held up as an ideal; the second (notwithstanding Augustine) was not particularly praiseworthy but not a sin either; and the third was morally reprehensible.

    The discovery of the “rhythm method” threw a new wrinkle into it, but it wasn’t long before the popes were saying that it was morally fine. The reasoning, basically, was that there’s no rule preventing you from abstaining from sex at any particular time; the main caveat being that it would be wrong to try to keep your marriage childless on a permanent basis without grave reasons, since that would violate the nature of marriage and defeat its main purpose in the first place.

    “My guess is that NFP does the same thing, that birthrates among the rare Humanae Vitae faithful Catholics have also fallen.”

    Maybe, if you’re comparing modern American Catholics with Catholics of 150 years ago or more. Still, anecdotally, at my kids’ school, which is of a conservative/traditional bent, there are plenty of very fruitful families, some quite prodigiously so. And it is part of a national association of schools (www.napcis.org) sharing the same basic philosophy, and therefore presumably populated by the same types of families (having grown from 4 schools in 1995 to 62 today). I have a conservative Catholic cousin with 7 kids, and another with 8. My wife’s nephew has been married for a year and a half and already has one baby with another on the way.

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  12. “The reasoning, basically, was that there’s no rule preventing you from abstaining from sex at any particular time….”

    It occurs to me: If there were a moral rule preventing you from abstaining from sex at particular times, that would imply that there is a moral rule *requiring* you to have sex at particular times. But of course there’s not. On the contrary, continence in marriage was considered commendable among Christians from the beginning.

    I suppose the part of NFP that people consider questionable, or similar to ABC, would be choosing specifically to have sex during infertile periods. But I think that misses the point.

    Before the discovery of NFP, people would have sex whenever. If they wanted to avoid having additional children, they would have two choices: Either (1) abstain from sex entirely, or (2) use ABC. To a faithful Catholic, of course, number 2 was not an option, so there was only abstention. But NFP gave such persons an additional choice: Rather than abstaining from sex entirely, they could abstain from sex only at certain times.

    And since there is no moral rule *requiring* you to have sex during those times, obviously in choosing to abstain during those times, you are not violating any moral law.

    [Edit: Nor are you violating any moral law by having sex during the remaining times, any more than you would had you not learned about NFP. Whereas use of ABC was considered a violation of the moral law from the beginning.]

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  13. Pingback: More on NFP not the same as ABC | Agellius's Blog

  14. Pingback: The Anglicans slam birth control | Agellius's Blog

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