Natural family planning (NPF) or “periodic abstinence” according the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is an umbrella term for certain methods used to achieve and avoid pregnancies. These methods rely on observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Couples seeking to avoid pregnancy through NPF abstain from intercourse and genital contact during the fertile phase of the woman’s cycle. NPF does not require the use of drugs, devices or surgical procedures to be effective in avoiding pregnancy. NPF “reflects the dignity of the human person within the context of marriage and family life, promotes openness to life, and recognizes the value of the child. By respecting the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage, NPF can enrich the bond between husband and wife” (USCCB, Standards for Diocesan Natural Family Planning Ministry, p.23).
The Catholic Church supports and approves of NPF because it respects the ends of marriage (unitive and procreative). From the beginning of creation, God designed marriage as an intimate partnership of life and love between a man and a woman for the whole of life (Gaudium et spes, 48; Code of Canon Law, n. 1055). Therefore, the fecundity of marriage and responsible parenthood demand that husband and wife embrace the sacred responsibility of deciding when and how many children to have in marriage. Pope Paul VI wrote “if there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from 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…” (Humanae Vitae, 16). NPF or “recourse to the rhythm of the cycle” as John Paul II calls it, is open to love and life. It conforms to the culture of life and the civilization of love that characterize the sacrament of marriage. The Second Vatican Council advocates that “parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love” (Gaudium et spes, 50). The Catholic Church therefore condemns unnatural forms of birth control and approves the use of NPF where there is a sufficient reason to avoid or postpone pregnancy. The Church warns against selfishness in family planning and recommends that “it must be done with respect for the order established by God” (Humanae Vitae, 16)