July 23, 2019

An Assist from Science

I am fortunate to be on a monthly radio show for WSFI Catholic radio (FM 88.5) called The Deacons’ Roundtable. A few months ago we were privileged to have on our radio show Professor Janet Smith of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. Dr. Smith was talking to us on the anniversary of Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.

With any conversation on Humanae Vitae, the topic of contraception comes up along with a discussion on natural family planning. I smile every time I hear “natural family planning” (NFP) because it reminds me of my jovial Franciscan moral theology teacher that I had during my last part of deacon formation. Fr. Bernard reminded us that the concept is not new and that farmers use it all the time to know when to bring the bull into the area with female cows. Now I don’t know if my wife would appreciate that allegory, but its truth and simplicity has always appealed to me. Prepping for our show and reading some of Dr. Smith’s literature, I studied her points on contraception. What occurred to me was the fundamental foundation regarding contraception. That is, people fear unwanted pregnancies. The masses desire an effective way to plan for it. To me, this “fear” greatly resides with natural family planning through the perception that it is not as effective as unnatural means. This made me ponder further, “Why can’t science fix this uncertainty issue and make natural family planning the best way to go?”

This is where the irony strikes.

A short time after our interview with Dr. Smith, I couldn’t sleep and was up watching TV early one morning. As I was half watching whatever bad television show was on, a commercial caught my attention. The product was called “The Clearblue Fertility Monitor.” This product is a simple at-home test to identify days in which a woman has the most chance of conceiving. The monitor tracks two hormones, estrogen and luteinizing hormone (LH) in order to determine peak fertility periods in a woman’s cycle.

The product advertises itself as the “Advanced Digital Ovulation Test Identifies Your 4 Best Days to Get Pregnant.” It is a simple urine test which is said to be more accurate than using Basal Body Temperature testing (BBT) and calendar method. It reportedly can be used by women with irregular periods. As with natural family planning, the key to maximizing or minimizing the chances of getting pregnant is to know when the female is fertile. Pregnancy is most likely from intercourse on days of the menstrual cycle leading up to the day of ovulation.

“Wow!” I thought. I awoke from my haze and realized that science does have the answer and convenience needed to entice young couples to embrace natural family planning. If a woman can effectively chart her fertility, NFP becomes as effective as artificial birth control. This was groundbreaking to me. I quickly contacted the manufacturer of the Clearblue Fertility Monitor to ask them if they were aware of this missing market segment for them. I explained to them that I was a Catholic deacon and interested in following up on this products’ opportunity to help with natural family planning.

Their reply came a day or two later. The representative said that “simply abstaining from sex on these days is not sufficient to avoid pregnancy. Although not the most fertile days, there may be days prior to the High Fertility days when a woman may still become pregnant.” I laughed to myself when I read this. I thought “and yes, the Creator of the universe is not thwarted by latex either when He intends conception.” I guess to cover any liability, I was also made aware that the instructions for use of the Clearblue Fertility Monitor state that it cannot be used for contraceptive purposes.

Perhaps it cannot. However, it does show that we are extremely close to having a reliable scientific control to aid in natural family planning. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using available technology to enhance the goals of Humanae Vitae. Pope St. Paul VI correctly envisioned how our society would proceed with the sexualization of secular culture. It is time to return to the principles of Humanae Vitae. We have to stand up in respecting life and cherishing womanhood, not simply exploit it for personal pleasure. So many people today get caught up in science versus religion. It is much better to focus on science and religion. Truth is never mutually exclusive. 

I’m excited that we have the Clear Blue Fertility monitor. Now all we need is for science to enhance this technology as a tool for natural family planning. As a scientist, I know I would much rather rely on hormone testing, perhaps coupled with a temperature sensor or whatever else is needed to measure fertility, than the calendar. 

We have the technology. We have the customer base. Now let’s demand the product.

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster

REVEREND DR. GREGORY WEBSTER is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate by Francis Cardinal George in May 2014 and is assigned to St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek, Illinois. Deacon Greg holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Northern Illinois University, M.A. in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary and an M.A. in Bioethics and Health Policy from Loyola University of Chicago. Deacon Greg and his wife have been married more than twenty-five years and are blessed with three beautiful daughters and two pretty cool terriers.

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1 comment
  • Deacon Greg says “…We have to stand up in respecting life and cherishing womanhood, not simply exploit it for personal pleasure. ”

    An argument can be made that NFP is often practiced with the idea (desire?) to experience the ‘personal pleasure’ without the fear of suffering its’ God-intended consequences. This has been referred to in the past as the ‘contraceptive mentality’. It is that which motivates many couples – all too often Catholic couples – to use the methods developed by science commonly referred to as ‘the pill’.

    To enhance the effectiveness of NFP through ‘science’ may only serve to solidify that sentiment to the detriment of the practitioners.

Written by Deacon Gregory Webster