Did you know that last month the Catholic Church celebrated NFP Awareness Week? NFP, or Natural Family Planning, refers to methods for postponing (or achieving) pregnancy based upon observations of a woman’s body that inform her of the fertile and infertile phases of her cycle. Overlapping with the anniversary of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, NFP Awareness Week is, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “a national educational campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the Catholic teaching on married love and the gift of human life. The annual campaign, which began in 2002, promotes awareness of Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods.”
NFP and Low Divorce Rates
Not surprisingly, in celebration of NFP Awareness Week, a number of Catholic websites and blogs featured articles and posts about NFP, many pointing out the benefits to married couples of using NFP. One that I would like to discuss here is the frequently cited connection between using NFP and low divorce rates. For example, on LifeSiteNews we find that one of the greatest benefits of NFP is its positive impact on marital stability: “An often forgotten feature of Natural Family Planning is that it strengthens both the spiritual and emotional aspects of marriage. Couples who practice Natural Family Planning have a divorce rate of about 5%, markedly lower than the 50% divorce rate of couples who utilize contraception.” Similarly, in her essay Contraception: Why Not?, often mentioned in pro-NFP blog posts and articles, Dr. Janet Smith speaks of the low divorce rate as a major selling point of NFP:
What you need to know is that couples using natural family planning almost never divorce. This is the biggest selling point of natural family planning when I’m talking to college students. The fact is, young people hate divorce. Either they’ve grown up in divorced households and they know the pain of divorce very personally or their friends have. Even if a couple has been married for 25 or 30 years and they think they are never going to get divorced, their kids don’t think that. The kids know someone else at school who went home and dad was packing up or mom was gone and they think it could happen to anybody. And so they’re living in this very fragile world. “Yeah, I don’t think Mom and Dad are going to get divorced, but Kevin didn’t think his mom and dad were going to get divorced either and they did.”
Elsewhere, we can find the assertion that NFP acts as “marriage insurance.”
Clip from a parish bulletin during NFP week:
Examining Research on the NFP and Divorce
Given these assertions on the benefits of NFP, it is worthwhile to look at the research behind these statistics. Does practicing NFP lower couples’ chances of getting divorced? The study cited by a number of articles discussing NFP and divorce rates is a survey that was sponsored by the Family of Americas Foundation entitled “The Practice of Natural Family Planning versus the Use of Artificial Birth Control: Family, Sexual and Moral Issues.” In 2000, 505 women “who had taken NFP instruction at least three to over ten years ago” were surveyed (nonrandomly) with regard to a host of social issues, and their results were compared to representative samples of American women of similar age and to Catholic women in the U.S. of similar age. Concerning marital stability, the study’s results show a much lower divorce rate in the NFP group compared to women of the general population.*
Significant to point out, however, is that the author, Mercedes Arzú Wilson, makes an important caveat. While the purpose of the study was meant to “examine the impact of Natural Family Planning on a wide variety of family, sexual and moral issues,” she acknowledges that people should not confuse correlation with causation when it comes to NFP and divorce:
Further research is required in order to determine if this relationship is in any sense causal, or whether the relationship between practicing NFP and family stability is due to other factors common to these couples, including their strong religious beliefs and practices, and if these developed after they began practicing NFP (pg. 19 Internet version).
Hence, we cannot assume that NFP is directly responsible for the low divorce rates among its users. As sociologists have previously found (for review, see Mahoney et al. 2001), religiosity can be a significant influence on marital stability. And, without controlling for the effect of religiosity, as well as other factors, we cannot know to what extent NFP is really behind marital stability, or whether the couples’ high religiosity is the contributing factor. Likewise, given that the sampling for the study was nonrandom, we also cannot say that the results of the NFP study are representative of all women using NFP.
More research on the impact of NFP on relationships is clearly needed. While the above study shows clear differences between women using NFP and women not in the NFP study to what extent NFP is the causal influence of these differences is unknown. Indeed, the USCCB lists some criteria as to how Catholics can be “good consumers of NFP research,” as well as some examples of possible NFP divorce studies that could be done using good research methodologies. Catholic speakers and organizations promoting NFP should be aware of this. While research has looked at the ways NFP users say NFP has brought them together (VandeVusse et al. 2003), others have struggled greatly with NFP, as evidenced by a quick perusal of a popular Catholic online forum (e.g. see here). If NFP is promoted as a sure-fire way to prevent divorce, couples for whom practicing it is difficult and/or for whom their marriage is strained, might feel misled by Catholic leaders.
Questions to consider
- Were you aware of NFP Awareness Week? If so, did anything stand out in the way it was presented?
- Does your parish promote NFP? If so, in what way does it do so?
- In what ways might NFP help a marriage? Why might some couples feel it hurts their marriage?
Mahoney, Annette, Kenneth I Pargament, Nalini Tarakeshwar, and Aaron B. Swank. 2001. “Religion in the Home in the 1980s and 1990s: A Meta-Analytic Review and Conceptual Analysis of Links Between Religion, Marriage, and Parenting.” Journal of Family Psychology 15(4): 559-596.
VandeVusse, Leona, Lisa Hanson, Richard Fehring, Amy Newman, and Jaime Fox. 2003. “Couples’ Views of the Effects of Natural Family Planning on Marital Dynamics.” Journal of Nursing Scholarship 35(2):171-176.
Wilson, Mercedes Arzú. 2002. “The Practice of Natural Family Planning versus the Use of Artificial Birth Control: Family, Sexual, and Moral Issues.” Catholic Social Science Review 7: 185-211.
*Additionally, according to the Art of Natural Family Planning (1996), Couple to Couple League Central has tracked one small group and found the divorce rate to be 1.3%, though the organization estimates that rate to be two or three percent higher (pg. 245).