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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

A news item that most people may overlook is that next week, July 21 through 27, is National NFP Week.

"What's that?" you ask. You may well ask, as NFP is one of the better-kept secrets of the Catholic Church. NFP is unknown even to many Catholics. But since life is not a Dan Brown novel, NFP is not a secret society that meets in the catacombs of Rome. The acronym stands for natural family planning. Which, contrary to what you may be thinking, does not stand for rhythm.

There are two types of natural family planning: the sympto-thermal method, wherein a couple charts the monthly progress of a woman's body temperature and cervical mucus to ascertain the time of fertility during her menstrual cycle, and the ovulation method, wherein only the patterns of cervical mucus are charted. The old rhythm method, popular in the 1950s, relied solely on calendar approximations of an average, textbook menstrual cycle, which led to many an unplanned Catholic child, since hardly any woman's cycle is as regular as a clock.

The church takes so much heat for its stand against artificial birth control that one would think the hierarchy would be preaching NFP from the steeples: it is safe, natural, consistent with church teaching, inexpensive, easily taught and used, applicable to all cycles and immediately reversible.

I can only attribute the church leaders' near-silence on this topic as resulting from the discomfort a man of the cloth might feel upon hearing the phrase "cervical mucus," let alone saying it from the pulpit. A man may get the jitters just contemplating this female physiological wonder. But while we hesitate to discuss indelicate topics, studies show that only 2 percent of American Catholic women use NFP. Contrary to the teaching of the church, 87 percent of American Catholic women of childbearing age are currently using a birth control method other than NFP. For some reason, the American church, which can be quite in-your-face on some topics, does not invest any money or muscle in NFP.

The lack of promotion of NFP has not hindered the use of the science behind it: Those high-tech ovulation monitors, so essential to infertile couples in their quest for a pregnancy, are simply reading the same signs that a woman can learn to detect by herself. NFP is so accurate in identifying fertile times that it can be used equally as effectively to conceive a child as to avoid a pregnancy. Couples who use NFP make a decision each month regarding whether or not they are ready for a baby, or another baby. If parenthood beckons, they know exactly which days to have sex. If the thought of another child stresses them out, they know which days not to have sex. When taught and used effectively, NFP is as reliable as any other method of birth control or fertility monitoring.

The theme for NFP Week in 2013 is "Pro-Woman, Pro-Man, Pro-Child." I am drawn to this theme, because for my husband and me and our family, NFP was all of those pro-s. During our fertile years, we practiced the ovulation method, and even taught it to other couples for several years. It wasn't always easy. But the fact that NFP always required communication and cooperation was good for us, and probably spilled over into other areas of our marriage. NFP was more of a spiritual commitment than a method. Every month, we had to revisit the decision of whether to aim for or avoid a pregnancy. Every month, we were both aware of the wondrous, complex mechanism of procreation. And on the practical side, every month, we were not spending money or risking any of the deleterious health effects that can accompany artificial contraception.

Obviously, NFP is optimally geared for a couple in a monogamous relationship. For Catholics, this means that you are married. If NFP is going to work as a way to space or delay children, it requires education, patience, respect, and the kind of selfless love that makes a marriage work. It's not something you can grab at the drugstore. It's not something for which only one half of the couple must take responsibility. Frankly, it's not for everyone. But it might be for a whole lot more people than it currently is, if only the word would get around, and if only we as a church were as vocal in support of NFP as we are in opposing its alternatives.

These are Valerie Schultz's opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.