As theologians and experts at the Vatican debate the morality of contraception under the sceptical eye of secular and Catholic media alike, what risks being overlooked is the lived experience of Catholics who faithfully adhere to the Church’s teachings on birth control and family planning.

Challenging the conventional wisdom of contraception in a culture bent on instant gratification and quick fixes to health problems may sound like a lost cause (and it is undoubtedly counter-cultural), but a closer look at those who practice the natural family planning (NFP) lifestyle (the Church-approved family planning alternative to contraception) is illuminating.

The framing of contraception as an issue best left to the consciences of married couples misses the bigger picture: that NFP provides those who practice it a superior marital relationship experience in the long run. What looks on its face to be a “no”, is upon closer inspection a “yes” to a better way of loving (and willing the good of) the other. And we have the data to show it.

Natural Family Planning (NFP), also called Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABMs), or simply FAM, is a collection of methods that teach couples how to avoid or achieve pregnancy by teaching a woman (and usually her husband as well), to observe and track the natural signs of infertility and fertility over the course of her menstrual cycle. Avoiding or purposely having intercourse during the determined fertile time is an effective way to avoid or achieve a pregnancy, respectively.

Modern methods of NFP differ from the original, rudimentary “rhythm method,” which rather than using real-time fertility data (as modern methods do), used retrospective data to attempt to predict future times of fertility (with varying degrees of success, depending on how “regular” a woman’s cycle was).

In 2019, the CDC updated its contraception effectiveness report, recognizing that several modern methods of NFP / FABMs are  in avoiding pregnancy (which, for context, places them alongside the most effective methods of contraception on the market, including IUDs and pills).

Catholic or not, young people getting married have high aspirations for a fulfilling marital relationship: they want a long-term, solid, faithful, and united relationship. They want to continue to feel the love they have for one another and to grow closer in all areas, including physical intimacy. What some Catholics tend to ignore in their exhortations on the benefits of contraception for marriages is the research which shows that couples are more likely to achieve these good and lofty relationship goals through the practice of NFP than by using contraception.

A recent study using the latest data set of ever-married US women of reproductive age from the 2015–2017 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) looked at odds of divorce among those ever-married women who ever used sterilization, the hormonal pill, and condoms as a method of family planning, and compared them to women who ever used NFP, attended church frequently, and felt that religion was important in their lives (Fehring and Manhart).

The data showed that marriages fared better among couples who used NFP: “With ever-use of NFP, 14 percent were divorced or separated, and the rate was 10 percent when excluding the rhythm method users from the sample. In contrast, 39 percent of women who were sterilized and 27 percent of women using the Pill were divorced or separated.” It is clear that users of NFP were also more likely to have a strong religious practice, a significant factor in preventing divorce.

Yet my own qualitative research into the marriages of NFP users showed that the practice itself made a difference. In the past six months, I personally conducted 36 in-depth interviews of Catholic couples to learn about their experiences and insights concerning the effects of NFP on their marriages. Most of these couples had been married in the 80s and 90s, and over half of them had used NFP from early on in their marriage. What I found through these interviews was that the use of NFP had positively impacted their relationships in multiple ways (and those who began the practice later in their marriages wished they had begun it earlier).

At the merely biological level, the practice of NFP opened a window into the mystery of the woman’s body, cycle, and fertility for her and her husband alike. “You don’t see it because you don’t know, and then all of a sudden you start seeing it: it reveals your body to yourself,” one woman said. ”Learning about the fertility of a woman” was the biggest surprise for a husband, “that fertility is such a huge aspect of who a woman is.” That knowledge is practical and can be used to diagnose and effectively treat cycle-related issues like polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis, which are leading causes of menstrual cycle-related disability and infertility in women around the world.

On the other side of the coin, the ease with which healthy, fertile couples can quickly achieve and recognize pregnancy while using NFP is a benefit that eludes contracepting couples “I knew right away when I was pregnant, like day 3 or 5.”

Because of this daily awareness of the cycle, men also reported becoming more in-tune with their wives. A husband mentioned how “ it led to more bonding, to get to know your spouse better, better understanding of her being a woman.” At the same time, it led women to open up about an intimate part of themselves, and to overcome the feelings of stigma and shame some women have about their fertility and sexuality.

For example, one woman shared how she “hated the [NFP] class” as she was embarrassed by the information about her body that was presented in it  and that her husband was there to hear it. But later on, she was surprised by “how comfortable I have become with my husband being part of that.”

To use NFP effectively, couples have to communicate regularly about a woman’s menstrual cycle, their needs and desires, and their openness to getting pregnant at the time. It is therefore an ongoing, monthly conversation that takes practice and time to become comfortable with, but my research showed that the process is worthwhile. As one husband explained, “Being in tune with your wife’s cycle builds empathy and understanding. It’s a unitive process not just during the act but in between, not just during sex, and in a real way, not just emotional.”

Despite its many benefits, practicing NFP is not easy – hence the push to liberalize the Church’s teachings on contraception, by doing away with its strict prohibition, as exhorted in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. The couples from my research shared that they faced challenges in three main areas.

1.Charting can be complex, especially at certain times of life such as postpartum and perimenopause, (when it is essential to have the help of a good teacher).

2. As abstinence from intercourse is the only way to licitly avoid pregnancy with NFP, it is a discipline that has to be acquired and maintained but it was found to be a way to build self-control, discipline, and empathy in other areas of life as well.

3. Learning to communicate was just as big a challenge, as couples have to learn to trust each other, and to be patient and compassionate with one another.

“It took two years for us to lift the fear we had of having children. We would fight over charting, I would try to take control. The beginning was to trust each other,” reports a husband of 30 years. A wife shared how they became better aware of the importance of working together as a team, “because there were times when I was feeling ‘Oh, I’m kind of alone with this.’” Another wife reported that “It made us more aware of how we communicate and its impact.”.

Working diligently through these challenges together bore great fruits for the couples in my research. One husband shared about “the absolute oneness it cultivates and brings into our marriage. It forced us by its very nature to cultivate that oneness.” A wife of 28 years told me: “With birth control, I can imagine that’s very isolating, you hide things from your husband. With NFP, there is nothing like that, you’re both in it together, it’s always together. It affects all areas, how we work together with the children, with our older parents, with everything. We’re really a team.”

Even women who are not Catholic are beginning to recognize the disadvantages of contraceptives, and are embracing the unique health benefits of ovulating, menstruating, and charting their natural cycles each month. We see this fomenting sea-change in the growing interest in our website, which attracts 2,000 to 3,000 readers a day. Likewise, this past summer and fall, “natural birth control” was a trending on social media, with 43.5 million views for the hashtag #naturalbirthcontrol and 3.8 million views for #gettingoffbirthcontrol on TikTok.

The Catholic Church’s unique stance on birth control has been and remains relevant. Rather than an unwelcome restriction, it is a teaching based in love, the fruits of which can be seen in the marriages it strengthens.

It is also practically certain that without the Church confirming its admittedly unpopular position back in 1968, we wouldn’t have the solid community of people who carried the torch of this gift by practicing it, teaching it, and promoting it for the past 50 years, even in the face of intense opposition. And we almost surely wouldn’t have the scientific research and progress of NFP methods and the burgeoning field of restorative reproductive medicine led by Catholics scientists and doctors, both of which are gaining in recognition and popularity, even in secular circles.

In short, a rejection of the Church’s contraceptive teachings would be a great loss for women, marriages, and society as a whole.

Gerard and Anna Migeon founded Natural Womanhood, a non-profit that promotes fertility charting so that women know their bodies, and enjoy good health, sexual intimacy, and effective family planning. They...