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Natural Family Planning: An Introduction

An Introduction to Natural Family Planning

Reflecting the Dignity of the Human Person

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is an umbrella term for certain methods used to achieve and avoid pregnancy. These methods are based on observations of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy abstain from intercourse and genital contact during the fertile phase of the woman’s cycle. No drugs, devices, or surgical procedures are used to avoid pregnancy.

NFP reflects the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, promotes openness to life, and recognizes the value of the child. By respecting the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage, NFP enriches the bond between husband and wife.  It is for all of these reasons that the Church teaches that NFP is the only morally acceptable way of regulating birth when there is a grave reason for doing so.  Using contraceptives to oppose the life-giving aspect of sexuality, on the other hand, is considered seriously sinful.  (See Christian History & Contraception and Catholic Church Teaching & Contraception for more information.)

Any married couple can use NFP! A woman need not have “regular” cycles. NFP education helps couples to fully understand their combined fertility, thereby helping them to either achieve or avoid a pregnancy. The key to the successful use of NFP is cooperation and communication between husband and wife–a shared commitment.
NFP is unique among methods of family planning because it enables its users to work with the body rather than against it. Fertility is viewed as a reality to live, not a problem to be solved. In fact, because of how it works, NFP includes two additional benefits over other family planning methods:  (1) It can be used to achieve pregnancy as well as to avoid it; and (2) It provides important insights into a woman’s health that can help her and her doctor identify potential health issues.  NFP has helped women identify fertility problems, PCOS, endometriosis, and occasionally even cancer.

A woman’s body provides three basic ways to identify the fertile and infertile times of her cycle. A primary sign of fertility is the mucus released from the women’s cervix. A woman learns to identify the normal, healthy, cervical mucus which indicates the days that intercourse is most likely to result in a pregnancy. The second sign is her basal body temperature. Due to hormonal activity, a woman’s waking temperature changes during the menstrual cycle. Lower temperatures indicate that ovulation has not yet occurred. Higher temperatures indicate a rise in progesterone which signals the end of the fertile time. The third sign is a change in the position and texture of the cervix. Finally, additional signs such as minor abdominal pain or pressure at the time of ovulation may also be observed.

Some NFP methods supplement these observations with use of a fertility monitor like ClearBlueEasy which reads the hormones being produced by a woman’s body to determine ovulation.  This can add a layer of technological support in using NFP, and may help a woman whose biological signs are less obvious.  The Marquette Model is an example of one of these methods.  We refer people to an online Marquette class on our NFP page.

NFP instruction helps a couple identify the most opportune time to achieve as well as avoid a pregnancy. Understanding that intercourse or genital contact during the fertile time can result in pregnancy, couples using the natural methods must be clear regarding their family planning intention–that is, do they wish to achieve or avoid a pregnancy? If a couple wishes to achieve pregnancy, they have intercourse during the fertile time. If a couple wishes to avoid pregnancy, they abstain from intercourse and any genital contact during the fertile time.

Please see our NFP – Benefits page for a full list of the relational and biological benefits of NFP.

Some of the more important benefits include:

  • NFP is morally acceptable (whereas artificial contraception involves serious sin)
  • NFP is organic – no artifical hormones or devices
  • It is effective for both achieving and avoiding pregnancy
  • It helps women and their doctors monitor reproductive health
  • NFP fosters better communication between husbands and wives

The effectiveness of NFP depends upon the spouses’ following the rules of the method according to their family planning intention (i.e. achieving or limiting pregnancy). When couples understand the methods and are motivated to follow them, NFP is up to 99% successful in spacing or limiting births.

When comparing family planning methods, researches distinguish between “perfect use” – when a method is used consistently and correctly every single time – and “typical use” – or the success rate for all people using the method, no matter how precisely or consistently they use it. 

As the chart below demonstrates, NFP is just as effective at preventing pregnancy as other common family planning methods, particularly when it is used consistently and correctly[1]:

NFP/sympto-thermal (perfect use): 99.6%
NFP/sympto-thermal (typical use): 89%

The Pill (perfect use): 99.7%
The Pill (typical use): 92%

Condoms (perfect use): 98%
Condoms (typical use): 85%

Withdrawal (perfect use): 96%
Withdrawal (typical use): 73%

The best way to learn NFP is from a qualified instructor– that is, one who is certified from an NFP teacher training program. Find an NFP instructor.

[1] From Dr. Richard Fehring, Marquette University, who adapted it from—Trussell, J.  “Contraceptive failure in the United States.”  Contraception.  2004; 70:89-96.

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