Author’s Note: A copy of this letter is being mailed to the Vatican; I plan to post any response I receive.
Last month, you called Catholics to “responsible parenthood,” reminding us that we need not breed “like rabbits” in order to be good Catholics. I am a young Catholic woman, married and raising a child. I was glad to hear the Church acknowledge that humans can – and must – enter parenthood with great intention and care! This gift of forethought is what sets humans apart from animals. A rabbit in the woods does not stop to consider when might be the best time to have a litter of kits, or whether there might be adequate food and shelter for them when they arrive; the rabbit’s body simply knows that it is breeding season, and breeds. Humans have the capacity to consider our decisions, using our reason and conscience, and we have a responsibility to do so. We are called to be fruitful and multiply, not simply to multiply!
You followed this call to responsible parenthood by affirming the Church’s teaching that Catholic couples should only use “natural” methods of family planning. At this I was dismayed, because these methods do not work for all women. I would know; I am one of them. There are a range of “natural” family planning methods, and I researched them all, in search of one that would suit my body. Unfortunately, I learned that none would work. I’d like to share what I learned with you, Pope Francis, because I know that I am not the only Catholic woman who faces this challenge.
The Calendar Method (also known as the Rhythm Method)
The calendar method counts the number of days in a woman’s cycle to predict when she will ovulate. This is widely acknowledged as being inaccurate for many, if not most, women. Newer calendar methods use a formula based on a woman’s past cycle lengths to predict ovulation, rather than assuming all women ovulate on day 14 of 28, but even the more complex models only work for women with relatively regular cycles. I have tried using the formulas to calculate my fertile period, and because my cycles vary so much from month to month, these formulas predicted a fertile range longer than my cycle itself!
Basal Body Temperature
This method relies on the charting the woman’s temperature upon first waking – to pick up on a common body temperature change that occurs during ovulation. The measurement can be rendered inaccurate by sleep disturbances, which is why it is recommended to get 3-4 uninterrupted hours of sleep before taking a reading. This is impossible for many people: new parents, for example, tending to a baby in the night, or those with certain sleep disorders that cause night wakings, like insomnia, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. These wakings can prevent the body from reaching a daily basal body temperature low enough to show the spike that indicates ovulation. I charted my temperature for a few months and never got a graph that looked anything like a typical one. After some research, I learned about the association with sleep – and realized that my narcolepsy would prevent me from ever getting accurate results.
Cervical mucous is a newer method, and the one on which the lauded Creighton Method is based. Cervical mucous, like any other mucous, can be affected by a variety of medications, including some medications used to treat common conditions like allergies and depression. In fact, Creighton Practitioners advise women on certain medications to use a different method of family planning. My daily allergy medicine ruled this option out for me as well.
Digital Ovulation Prediction
The last method, which is very new, relies on using a commercially-produced device to monitor for ovulation. The makers of these devices universally advise that they be used only to achieve pregnancy, not to prevent it – most likely because these devices predict ovulation, but do not confirm it. There can easily be false positives. There is one device on the market, called OvaCue, that does claim to confirm ovulation, but it requires a predictable cycle length. These devices are all also quite expensive, and out of reach for many women.
So, you see, none of the “natural” family planning methods work for me. What, then, are my choices? Am I consigned by my biology to simply pray that I don’t end up breeding like a rabbit? Are my spouse and I left to choose between total celibacy and irresponsibility?
For me, right now, it would be horribly irresponsible to become pregnant. I have a young son, a year and a half old. I rely on a narcolepsy medication that would be unsafe for an unborn child. That medication, however, is what allows me to function on a daily basis. Now that I already have a child to care for, I no longer have the option to sacrifice my own functioning to bring a child into the world. I have also struggled greatly with post-partum depression and other pregnancy-induced medical problems since my son’s birth. Another pregnancy would almost certainly undo most or all of my recovery thus far.
Pope Francis, I think you can understand how an idealized view of pregnancy denies the real experience of maternity: an experience that is beautiful, yes, but also complicated. Too often in Catholic thought, the wonder of the developing child in the womb becomes detached in our imaginations from his or her mother. I am not an incubator. I am a person, with dignity in my own right, dignity that demands to be upheld. And yet, if I am to follow Church teaching on contraception, I am left with no choices that uphold that dignity. To deny the gift of sexuality and live in a perpetually celibate marriage is an offense against the dignity of my marriage. To sacrifice, against my will, my own physical and mental health is an offense against the dignity of my person. To sacrifice my son’s well-being is an offense against the dignity of his life, and a violation of my call to be a good steward of the gift of parenthood. Yet, these are the options I am given by Church teaching.
Causing further pain, I have never heard this struggle acknowledged in Church discourse. An unwavering prohibition on “artificial” contraception treats me, and women like me, as invisible at best and expendable at worst. Neither of those attitudes is defensible in a consistent ethic of life, and I absolutely cannot believe that those attitudes come from the God I know.
You may have noticed my use of quotations around the words “natural” and “artificial”. You see, the conclusion that I have come to, through much study, prayer, and discernment, is that the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” contraceptives is merely a technicality. All the methods have this in common: they use humanity’s knowledge of biology to influence whether a particular act is procreative. Openness to life in marriage is not about which form of family planning a couple employs. It is about the willingness to embrace the struggles and joys of parenthood. It is about acknowledging that sometimes God overrides our opinion on the best time to have a child, and accepting that if that happens, we will welcome that child with grace and humility, together. It is about affirming that God’s omnipotence does not absolve us from acting responsibly, with consideration and forethought and discernment. And it is about using the God-given gift of science to live our vocations to their fullest.
I do not know if this letter will ever make it directly to your desk. It is my hope, though, that whoever reads this letter will take away at the very least this: that there are women whose options are gravely limited under Church teaching, and that this can be a source of suffering. I cannot speak to the desires of other women on this regard, but I can speak to mine: I do not wish to be pitied or patronized. I wish to be acknowledged, to be heard, to be respected, to be treated with the dignity of a full person.
Peace be with you.