Simple & Natural Means of Birth Control

By Stephanie Block

Janet Smith, a philosopher and educator who has spoken extensively about Humanae Vitae, the Catholic encyclical from 1968 that discusses the moral problems of artificial birth control (“artificial” birth control refers to chemical and barrier methods rather than abstinence from sexual intercourse), gives a hilarious scenario between a couple who are committed to natural family planning.

They have a recurring conversation every month. It may happen on that weekend when the mother-in-law takes the children and they’re looking forward to a nice weekend together. A little quiet lunch, maybe some shopping, a movie, a romantic dinner, and a relaxed evening with no children, no stress… just a nice night. But the woman gets up in the morning and says, “Darling, I’m afraid I’ve entered the fertile phase.” So, there’s disappointment. The weekend is not going to be everything they thought it would be.
They ask themselves, “Why are we doing this? Why are we abstaining? Why did we decide it’s not a good idea to have a baby?”

And the husband might say, “Well, you know, the reason we decided not to have a baby right now is you said you’re too tired. You’ve got too many little ones or you’ve got a job now and you’re really fatigued and you really can’t imagine having another child. Are you still tired?”

She might say, “Well, no. As a matter of fact, I’m not too tired right now. The younger ones are a little bit older and you know I think I may be able to handle another baby. Let’s take a risk. Let’s really enjoy this day in the way we planned.”

Or, she might say, “Of course I’m still tired. You never help. You said you’d give the kids a bath. You don’t give them a bath. You said you’d let me have Saturday afternoons free. I’ve never had a Saturday afternoon free. Of course I’m still tired.”

To which, he’ll say, of course, “I’ll start bathing them tomorrow, dear.”

Or, she might say, “The reason we’re not having a child right now is you said our financial burdens are too great. You can’t imagine supporting the family we already have, let alone any more. Are you still financially burdened?”

To which he might say, “Well, no, I’m not. We’d just refinanced the house and I was kind-of panicking. I’m getting a promotion soon. Things are OK. Let’s take a risk.”
Or, he might say, “Of course we’re still financially burdened. What world are you living in? Your friend, Jane, gets a fence around the house; you have to have a fence around the house. Your friend, Jane, gets a new kitchen; you need a new kitchen. Your friend, Jane, gets new dishes; you need new dishes.”
To which, she’ll say, of course, “I don’t need those new dishes.”

The important thing, says Janet Smith, is that they’re having this conversation and it’s a conversation that’s focused around important matters, which is why they’re having babies and why they are not having babies and how their life is going together and are they sharing the burdens or not. Couples using contraception tell her that they can go for a very long time without having that conversation.

Implicit to this conversation is the fact that there are serious and licit reasons – wanting new dishes probably doesn’t fall into that category but being overwhelmed and exhausted very well might – for even the most generous and life-affirming spouses to avoid having babies at certain points.

Also implicit to this conversation is that there are licit ways of avoiding pregnancy, namely the identification of periods of fertility in a woman’s cycle followed by abstinence from sexual intercourse during those times.

What’s missing from this discussion is that there is no simple, effective method for spouses to identify these periods of fertility. Women’s bodies are sensitive. Mental or physical stresses (and whose life is free of these?) can suddenly alter fertility cycles – not to mention the variables caused after giving birth or during lactation. And some women just have quirky, idiosyncratic systems.

While there are methods that can achieve, with almost 100% accuracy, identification of fertility, they require training, charting, and a lot of attention.


Entering into this conversation is something called the Standard Days Method of family planning. Older Catholics remember using “the rhythm method” – sardonically dubbed “Vatican Roulette” because of all the resultant “rhythm” babies. This is something along those lines.

Proponents of the Standard Days Method have “determined that women who usually have menstrual cycles between 26 and 32 days long are potentially fertile – or able to get pregnant – on days 8 through 19 of their cycles. So the Standard Days Method identifies a fixed set of days in each menstrual cycle as the days when a woman can get pregnant if she has unprotected intercourse. If the woman doesn’t want to get pregnant, she and her partner avoid unprotected intercourse on days 8 through 19 of her cycle.” Women using the method correctly found that “it was more than 95% effective. That is, out of 100 women using the method for 1 year, fewer than 5 would get pregnant.”

To help a woman monitor her cycle, she is encouraged to wear a bracelet, “a string of 32 color-coded beads, with each bead representing a day of a woman’s menstrual cycle. They have a black rubber ring that the woman moves one bead each day in the direction of the arrow. When the woman starts her period, she puts the ring on the first bead, which is red. She continues moving the ring one bead each day of her cycle. When the ring is on a dark bead, she is on a day in her cycle when she can have intercourse without getting pregnant. But when she in on a day represented by the white beads, she may be fertile and could get pregnant...” [ ]

Simple enough and certainly, from the perspective of bureaucrats trying to manage the demographics of given areas, an effective way to curb population growth.


However, the presumption here is that none of the five individual women (and their families) in every group of 100 who may get pregnant using the Standard Days Method of family planning will be gravely affected by the situation.

If the reason for avoiding pregnancy is serious enough to justify turning to a family planning method in the first place, is this really suitable?

Or, considered another way, if these 100 couples are comfortable knowing that five of them (statistically speaking) will get pregnant while using the method, do they really have serious enough reasons for avoiding pregnancy in the first place?

Or, does anyone still consider such questions anymore?

Stephanie Block edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and is co-founder of the Catholic Media Coalition.

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