Contraception, Abortion, and Power Politics in the Family

There was a thrill of excitement as I read the excerpt of "Motherhood and Morality in America". This frames the morality debate in a completely different light than it is normally viewed – rather than as a view on the morality of the act itself, than as a power differential between men and women. This reframing of the debate explains why such positions as "reducing abortions" can be seen not as positive steps, but instead as insidious evils. This explains why the anti-contraception and the anti-abortion crowd run together.

The discussion of natural family planning is right in sync with that, and part of the reason I espoused it strongly to Catholic families during my time on a Catholic homeschooling group. I do not, however, agree with Ms. Luker in her somewhat negative view of the relationship structure of those who use Natural Family Planning (or NFP). NFP is no longer the simplistic and very fallible "rhythm method" that was available when the pill was first developed; instead, it relies on a woman’s knowledge and observation of her own body and cycles. Done properly, its efficacy rates rival those of other methods of birth control.

Luker states – and I’m grossly oversimplifying here – that in the traditionally conservative families NFP provides a monthly Lysistrata effect. That the wife then becomes more powerful as the holder of sexual favor, but with the corrosive effect of her self-worth being based solely around her reproductive merits. While this is a possible – and perhaps even likely – outcome, I do not believe this is an effect of NFP itself.

On the contrary, to properly and successfully use modern methods of NFP requires an intimate knowledge of one’s own body, and a relationship where there is already a degree of equality. One family of my acquaintance – who was using NFP – ended up having multiple children because the husband did not abide by what his wife told him about her fertility. The power differential there existed regardless of the method of birth control. Imagine if the conversation was about his refusal to wear a condom instead?

Especially for those concerned about reported and experienced side effects from oral contraceptives can provide a return to a more "natural" state. The experience and ritual can provide a routine that is bonding, rather than burdensome. And despite the experiences Ms. Luker reported, it can also lead to couples being "more creative" during a woman’s fertile time.

Like all things, it is a tool. It can be a tool of fear and power-differential withholding, or it can be a thing of respect. But those uses will happen without NFP – not because of it.

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