It’s official – I’ll be taking a teacher certification course through SymptoPro to become a symptothermal teacher! I can’t wait to start learning about fertility and helping other women learn more about it, too.
This has made me think about what my degree in anthropology could contribute to the Church in terms of fertility-awareness and natural family planning. The department I received my degree from was renown for its focus on medical anthropology. And my thesis was a biocultural model of health among women who received tattoos. Since fertility is related to a woman’s health, I definitely think medical anthropological methods could contribute to the Church’s desire to encourage the use of fertility awareness and natural family planning.
From what I’ve seen so far, the Church is unfortunately developing NFP programs in the same way that international health organizations like USAID develop interventions to increase contraception. But…uh…international health interventions on fertility aren’t working. So why would it work for the Church?
Let’s look at a research article I found in Medical Anthropology Quarterly to see why USAID-type interventions aren’t working. Maybe then we can apply the problems to the Church.
The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994 called for a global commitment to reducing fertility. Unlike other population reduction platforms, however, the one in Cairo seemed more progressive and equality-oriented, since its objectives emphasized responding to the needs of individuals, rather than an attempt to slow population growth. Sounds good to me! I always feel a bit icky reading family planning articles that merely want to have less people in the world. That smacks to me of a scarcity and fear mentality, which is not what God would want.
And yet, in Senegal where this research took place, high fertility patterns within marriage remain relatively unchanged despite this seemingly positive approach to fertility reduction.
Why? A lack of awareness of contraception does not seem to be the explanation for Senegal’s high fertility rates. Three decades of family planning programs encouraged by the Cairo conference have established widespread familiarity with contraceptives on the part of the Senegalese public.
The problem, instead, seems to be in the lack of cultural awareness on the part of these public health interventions. Senegalese women desire to have many children, so they have a lot of anxiety about using contraceptives. This is because women in polygynous unions gain power and social status in the household through their children, and additional children increase their share of their husband’s estate.
The author of the paper explains it best: “For many Senegalese women, the strategic deployment of their bodily resources, including their sexual availability and reproductive potential, are the basis of social and material security.”
If women have no other option but to get married and have lots of babies in order to have a good life, then of course they won’t use contraceptives.
The Cairo conference platform wanted to empower women by offering contraceptives and high-quality reproductive health-care (the latter of which I wholeheartedly agree with, not so much the former). But those things are band-aids. Real empowerment would mean the creation of new social norms or economic opportunities for women outside of having babies.
Now let’s talk about what this has to do with the Church’s attempts to expand the use of NFP.
The Senegal research shows that reproduction and fertility are not individual medical choices, but rather complex social phenomena. Women don’t experience the full benefits of life until they make a decision that is in line with the cultural formula for reproductive success – and that’s different in each cultural context. In this case, it means popping out babies.
I think the tradition of the Church wholeheartedly encourages us to remember that cultural norms and gender relations constrain women’s abilities to make autonomous reproductive choices. After all, the Catechism states that one requirement of committing a mortal sin is complete consent, i.e. “a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CC, 1859). But right now, this idea is not being implemented when the rubber hits the road. The low rate of NFP use not a technical problem stemming from lack of discipline or limited knowledge of the benefits of this method. It’s a complex and variable decision made in particular settings with particular cultural constraints. Programs with generalized, simplified understandings of NFP won’t work.
I believe that God understands how much culture plays into our decisions to follow Him. It’s why Jesus came in the flesh, in a particular time and place and cultural context, to deliver the Word in a way that people of his time would understand. And it is a Christian’s job to do the same thing – to preach the Gospel in a way that people in each cultural context (family, church, diocese, country, etc.) can understand and respond to.
This is why I think my anthropology skills could contribute to the Church’s desire to increase the use of fertility awareness and natural family planning. Anthropological studies would allow us to develop NFP programs that decrease the scope of the curriculum so that they can be unique to each geographical areas.
For example, how would the curriculum be taught in my own Lexington, Kentucky? Los Angeles, California? New York, New York? Or what would happen to the curriculum if it was taught in Latin America, where cultural norms around reproduction and fertility are different than they are in the United States?
Just something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately…