We Need a Thoughtful Discussion About Birth Control (A No Easy Answers Post)

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No Easy AnswersThere is a reason I generally don’t post about headlines: it takes me time to process things and make sure my first reactions all hold water. I hate the tendency to react without thinking, the way it leads us to view everything in black and white and fail to acknowledge the nuances in every situation, and the fact that if you stop and reflect for a while before posting, the topic has passed and no one cares anymore. But usually I choose to sacrifice timeliness in the service of thoughtfulness.

All this as a preface to the fact that my sister, the lawyer, pointed out that my post on Zika and contraception included a rather major flaw that, in my attempt to react in a timely fashion, I somehow overlooked. Namely, the whole flap about Zika really is about preventing pregnancy, not just about preventing disease spread, so the whole argument about barriers vs. hormonal birth control doesn’t hold up.

I feel particularly embarrassed because the topic of sexuality and its relation to family planning is so important to me, and I get so frustrated when people of faith end up turning off those they’re trying to convince by reacting without thinking things all the way through. It’s called shooting ourselves in the foot.

I think I shot myself in the foot, and I spent half the weekend cringing about it.

However, I do not delete the post, because I still believe most of what I had to say is important to have out there. Every single article that touches on the Church’s teaching on contraception emphasizes that “Catholics aren’t paying attention to this teaching, anyway,” as if that proves anything other than that people do what they want to do and always have—screwing around on their wives, cheating their customers, spreading rumors, and a host of other things the Church has always taught are wrong. Yet there’s not one of those other cases in which anyone would even consider suggesting that noncompliance = an institution “out of touch” and a teaching in need of change.

Birth control is one of those topics that people on both sides—myself included, apparently—just don’t seem to be capable of thinking rationally on. We can all project some semblance of reason, but there are conversations we ought to be having but which are considered to be non-starters.

For instance: if Church teaching on contraception is so universally ignored, why do its opponents get so bent out of shape about it? Why do they feel this compulsion to bring it up at every possible opportunity? What possible threat could it pose to them?

And another one: Is birth control actually good medicine? Isn’t it possible that it’s actually bad medicine, disrespectful to the dignity of woman, to go in and shut down a part of her body that is working just fine?

And related, but distinct, because sometimes the body isn’t working just fine: Is it truly good medical practice to use pharmaceuticals to mask symptoms of problems like PMS, endometriosis, PCO, thyroid deficiency, etc.? Shouldn’t we default to “Let’s figure out what’s wrong and fix it,” and only go to “mask the symptoms” when all other efforts have failed?

These are questions that truly puzzle me, and on which I truly would like to see thoughtful, non-polemic discussion take place. Perhaps there are things I don’t see that would make a difference to my view on them.

Can we have that discussion? Are there any people out there willing to read through a post on birth control and get to the end of it willing to engage?

For other posts in the No Easy Answers series, click here.

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Mountains, Molehills, Contraception, and The Zika Virus

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Image by KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea, via Flickr

When I heard the radio headline yesterday afternoon, I groaned. Because I knew I was going to have to blog about the pope’s comments, and as a proponent of natural family planning, it would be hard to convince anyone that I’m approaching the topic objectively.

But there under the awning of the Gerbes fuel station, I took a deep breath, and I said to myself, “Okay. If Pope Francis does move us away from the teachings on contraception, I will be open to the Spirit, and I will be a better person for it.”

Of course, the headline was sensationalized; when I listened to the report, it became clear that a Mount Everest is being made out of, well, a hillock at most. So here are my thoughts, as someone who’s been studying and reflecting upon this extremely complex and far-reaching topic for sixteen years.

1. There’s always been a medical exception to the birth control teaching. So why don’t we hear about it? Well, this is just my opinion, but I think it’s because it can’t be sufficiently addressed in 140 characters, and since that’s about all most of us are willing to listen to these days, it’s better to stick to the “in general” rule of thumb and deal with the exceptions case by case. There are other reasons, of course. The medical exception is really easy to abuse, for one thing. For another, hormonal birth control is used far too often as a bandaid to cover up problems that need to be addressed at the level of cause, not symptom (i.e. irregularity, PMS, abdominal pain, etc). I wrote a lot about that for this post and then realized it was irrelevant, so I may post those thoughts on Monday.

2. If you think logically, you have to realize that the only form of contraception the pope is even addressing in the case of Zika is barrier methods*; hormones are going to do absolutely nothing to prevent disease transmission. And if you think logically, it should also be clear that barriers aren’t a slam dunk fix. They’ll surely make a difference, but there are plenty of people still getting STDs in America, and we have plenty of condoms.

3. A caution about oversimplification. The story I read on CNN yesterday ended with a quote from a Catholic theologian that I am guessing was taken out of context, because as it stands it makes no sense at all (here’s the original article; oddly enough, the link I copied yesterday goes to a very different article this morning, in which Bretzke isn’t quoted at all. Hmm.):

“In Catholic Church teaching, some would say it would be acceptable to try to prevent conception in cases like this,” Bretzke said.

Why does this make no sense? Because the Catholic Church has never said you can’t try to avoid pregnancy. Never. Ever. The assumption in the secular culture, even when lip service is paid to natural family planning (as it is in the CNN article), is that there are only two paths: contraception or perpetual pregnancy. The Church never said you can’t plan your family. It just says it matters to our human dignity how you do it.

4. Finally: NFP proponents also need to take a deep breath and recognize that NFP can’t prevent Zika, either. Just as it couldn’t help the nuns in the case Pope Francis invoked–the exception given to nuns who were being repeatedly raped. So it makes perfect sense to see the Pope offering this very specific exception to the Church’s teaching on birth control. He would be less Christlike if he did not.

*This argument, it was pointed out to me, is just plain wrong; I addressed that in another post here.

The Babies I’ll Never Have

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K and N

Nicholas, March 2009

It is Saturday afternoon and I am folding baby clothes—new, soft, tiny baby clothes—and layering them lovingly into a gift box for one of our choir members. I had forgotten how much I love baby clothes. I love everything about babies. You know, I don’t even hate the diaper changes. Did I get tired of them? Yes. But that was also play time. Tickle time, raspberry time, rubbing-noses time, sing silly songs time.

Besides, I was a breastfeeding mom. Those diapers are different.

Sitting on my bed, assembling this gift, it’s almost crushing, how much I want a baby.

I have to remind myself that I sometimes can barely breathe. How little people are constantly yelling “Mom I want” and “Mommy help me,” how I fluctuate between a wild frustration that they don’t help more than they do and a desire to do it all myself because it’s easier than teaching (and battling) them to do it. How there aren’t enough hours in the day and how long Julianna’s homework takes, and how this year I hardly even weeded my flower beds because I was so busy.

K & M Black & White

My favorite picture ever taken of me.

I have to remind myself that the price of four C sections is “irritable uterus” and the risk of rupture. I need to remember that my primary responsibility is to the family I already have. My job isn’t to keep having babies, just because I love them. It is to raise holy and happy adults. And sooner or later, you have to leave off the former because the latter takes so much time and energy.

My life has entered a new stage. But it’s a sweet pain, folding these baby clothes. I think this is what people in the natural family planning community mean when they say every month you grieve the child you could have had, even though you know it’s not the right time.

I feel it every month now, although some are worse than others. And I wonder if it will eventually fade, or if this is part of who I am now.

We Are Not Lemmings. Are We?

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About 2/3 of my mother's family, eight years ago

About 2/3 of my mother’s family, eight years ago, before all my cousins started having kids. Note: some of the kids in the picture ARE my cousins.

Can I just say how annoying I find the American obsession with poll-taking? They’ve become so institutionalized, we have come to regard polls as truth: not a reflection of people’s opinions, but a representation of reality.

For instance, last week I ran across an article about a survey in which parents identified their own stress level. The conclusion? The most stressful number of kids is three. This was not a scientific study–just a survey.

There are so many problems with this survey. A friend blogged a whole bunch of them last week, and did a fabulous job, but I have others.

1. This is completely useless “information.” How does it help anyone to know that people with three children self-identify as more stressed than parents of other numbers?

2. It undercuts anyone who is not in the “most stressful” category. Obviously they should just chill, because their life isn’t as bad as they think.

3. Because we are lemmings, we will use useless information like this to “help” us make important decisions on family size. Obviously we should quit at two children, because if we have a third our life is over. We are doomed to be a bundle of stress all the time. (Yeah, I know. You think other people’s opinions don’t influence you, but be honest. When you see a poll that relates to some decision you’re contemplating, course it weighs into the decision!)

4. There is stress in all stages of family-building.

Those who don’t have kids yet are stressing because they are trying to have them, or trying not to have them, and worrying about whether their decision is the right one: is this the right time? What if I put it off too long? Why can’t I get pregnant NOW?

In short: stress.

When you have one child, you’re obsessively worried about said child. You have to do everything right, and you know for sure if you screw up, your kid’s entire future will be shot, permanently and irretrievably lost. You worry about whether you’re reading the right number of minutes, teaching enough signs and attending the right enrichment programs. Why? Because you’ve never done this before, and it’s a big responsibility!

In short: stress.

When you have two kids, you have to split yourself in two for the first time. All that energy you devoted to one now has to make do for two. There’s guilt, because the older child took a hit in Mommy (or Daddy) attention.

In short: stress.

When you have three children,  you are always outnumbered. At least one of the older kids is virtually guaranteed to be going through some really hard stage while you’re also dealing with the time-intensive baby stage.

In short: stress.

When you have four or more, all the above applies, although you’re used to it. But you get so busy helping older kids with homework and driving them to activities that the youngest gets a paltry shadow of the intensive parent interaction that child #1 got. Kids bicker: there’s the “he’s touching me” “she’s watching me play” bit, the minding everyone’s business but their own, the every time you turn around the thing you just put away is out again, and there isn’t enough of you to go around and you know it’s your own fault that the house is a mess because you’re not willing to take the time to make the kids clean up themselves but for Heaven’s sake, it’s just easier to do it yourself most of the time, because you know what battles ensue in getting kids to do it!

In short: stress.

The point is, it doesn’t matter whether you have no kids or twenty, you’re going to be stressed, because that’s what human beings do to ourselves. Asking people to identify their own stress level, with no further breakdown of situation, is nonsense. Certain stages are more stressful than others, and sometimes it’s a shift in type rather than intensity. All these people have kids of different ages, and a different spread between their kids.

Besides, each person’s unique life circumstances play into the stress dynamic. Your mood on a given day affects how you answer those questions, for crying out loud–to say nothing of job stress, house hunting, kids’ projects, health, whether your kids are having trouble in school or sailing through–even whether toilet training is going well or poorly on the day they asked. To reduce all that complexity to a simple, bald statement like “three is the most stressful number of children”…that’s just a load of crap.

Opinion polls tell you nothing about reality. They tell you only people’s perception of it. I just wish we’d all keep that in mind, instead of running over the cliff of public opinion like a bunch of lemmings.

(Note: yes, I know lemmings don’t actually follow each other over cliffs. It’s a figure of speech.)

A Holistic, Natural Life

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I’m posting today on a subject very close to my heart. I know that probably half of my readers think this topic has nothing to do with you, but I would like to invite each of you to take time to read it, even though it’s aimed at natural family planning users, because the point I’m making in the post is that the birth control-natural methods debate is not just about religion–that there are many, many reasons why reasoning, thinking people think natural methods of family planning are way better than artificial ones. And you might be surprised to see that those reasons echo concerns that are felt across our society, by religious and non-religious alike. At the least, I hope you’ll read in order to get a different perspective on this than what you may have heard of before.