When Peter and I were married, both of us were subjected to a number of questions from people. These questions ranged from the merely curious, to the downright intrusive. I tried to be understanding when people asked me questions that seemed out of bounds to me. I understood that the decision that I had made to marry Peter might seem a bit odd to someone from the outside. When we were married, Peter had been diagnosed with a re-occurrence of a rare type of liver cancer and had only been given a few years to live. For the most part, I was happy to answer questions about why we would choose to make a decision to get married given that diagnosis — I was happy to talk about choosing to live without fear. Looking back now, I think that the one question that I really wish that I had answered with a sharp, “It’s really none of your business,” was the question about whether or not we planned to have children.
The truth was that we would have loved to have children. The problem, though, was that Peter was taking a cocktail of experimental drugs in an attempt to kill the cancerous cells in his body. When we met with the doctor to sign the papers to allow Peter to enter into the study which would provide him with the treatment, the doctors informed us that they usually don’t accept people into the study unless they are practicing two forms of artificial birth control. According to the doctors, if I were to get pregnant while Peter was taking the drugs, the baby would most likely be deformed. As Catholics, using artificial contraception wasn’t something that we could agree to do. When we broached the idea of practicing Natural Family Planning in order to avoid pregnancy, the Doctors basically laughed in our faces and told us that it wouldn’t work. In the end, we didn’t back down, and the doctors just marked on their forms that we were practicing two forms of artificial contraception, even though they knew that we weren’t.
After we got home, we did some research on our own, and discovered that the doctor’s fears weren’t necessarily grounded in reality. Yes, there was most likely some danger if I were to get pregnant, but, honestly, the effects of this particular chemo would most likely cause sterility anyway, so there probably wasn’t as much to worry about as the doctors said. However, Peter and I discussed the matter, and Peter decided that he wanted to practice NFP to prevent conception in order to be a witness to those doctors on the effectiveness of NFP. He wanted to help pave the way for other couples coming after us, who might not have doctors who were so willing to mark a box on a form and look the other way. So, we did practice NFP while he was on the chemo drugs.
Our decision was, in our minds, firmly in conformity with the Catholic Church’s teachings on NFP. Namely, that:
“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” (Humanae Vitae, 10)
Additionally, the Church teaches that:
“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.” (Humanae Vitae, 16)
It seemed to us, after discernment, that we did indeed have “serious,” or, “well-grounded,” reasons to delay having children. The thing about the Catholic Church’s teaching on using NFP to delay having children is that although she gives us guidance, she does not actually spell out specifically what any of these “physical, economic, social, and social conditions” are. In other words, there is no handy list that could be referred to in order to determine whether or not a couple is justified in practicing NFP. This is because what would qualify as a just reason to practice NFP will be deeply personal and unique to each couple. What might constitute a well-grounded reason for one person, doesn’t necessarily translate into a well-grounded reason for someone else (for more on this, see Simcha Fisher’s excellent book, “The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning”). I think that this is where one commentator, Dr. Taylor Marshall, makes a mistake in his discussion on NFP. (http://taylormarshall.com/2014/08/nfp-and-serious-reasons-what-are-these-reasons.html). Towards the end of his blog entry he begins to articulate what he thinks constitutes “serious reasons,” and lists some reasons as being objectively serious reasons to delay having a child (for example, couples who are on government assistance, couples struggling with debt). The problem with this type of thinking is twofold. First, and foremost, that’s not what the Catholic Church teaches. The Church doesn’t state cases in which a couple definitely should, or should not, delay having children. Second, when we go beyond what the Church teaches and come up with our own reasons that are, or are not, serious reasons to delay having a child, and then apply those reasons to everyone in a particular situation, we step into judgment of other people. When we do so, we are wading into a very personal area about which we know nothing.
I don’t know whether or not others would have considered mine and Peter’s reasons for practicing NFP to be serious. That’s not really the point, though. I believed then, and I believe now, that we did have serious reasons to practice NFP. Our reasons for delaying having a baby were not something that I necessarily felt comfortable discussing with the casual acquaintance, though. In fact, that is probably the case with most people who have reason to practice NFP in order to avoid conception — they most likely have a deeply personal reason that they don’t necessarily want to discuss. What that deeply personal reason is, is no one’s business but the couple themselves.