Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, SJ, D.D – Arcbishop of Cagayan de Oro
The controversy over the Reproductive Health Bill has lately been reduced to a zero-sum proposition where concerned citizens are simply asked to say either “Yes” or “No”. On their part, the Catholic Bishops in their Pastoral Letter of 30 January 2011 have rejected the RH Bill, pointing out various objections – e.g., the non-consideration of moral principles, a contraceptive mentality that includes the adoption of abortifacients, compulsory sex education that infringes on the rights of parents, and the use of public funds for population management methods that go against the moral conscience of faith communities.
On the other hand, the CBCP letter also articulates what the bishops stand for – in particular, that we are pro-life, and for the “responsible and natural regularization of births through Natural Family Planning.”
It is in this light that here in the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro we can review and strengthen our All-Natural Family Planning program as a positive and proactive alternative to the RH Bill. In our program, All-NFP has three connotations: (1) We are including all modern scientific NFP methods; (2) We are reaching out to all parishes and chapel communities; and (3) We are promoting NFP all the way, without back-up contraceptives.
Since the start of our All-NFP program in the latter half of 2006, we have already recorded more than 3,500 couple-acceptors. Ninety percent of our 58 parishes and chaplaincies have conducted orientation seminars followed by trainings of more than 2,000 NFP volunteer counselors. These counselors have their homes in nearly 500 chapel (or barangay) communities where they provide information and follow-up on all NFP methods to resident households. As of December 2010, these counselors have given more than 1,500 chapel-level orientations for roughly 22,000 couples.
Moreover, over the past two years the provincial governments of Misamis Oriental and Camiguin as well as the city of Cagayan de Oro have started their own NFP programs. They have asked us for assistance in the services of our NFP trainors and in sharing our training manuals, which include values formation. In this regard, we have not hesitated to assist these LGUs in the promotion of NFP, particularly since they have issued executive orders and set aside their own budgets for the promotion solely of NFP. In their report for 2010, the NFP trainors of the Provincial Government of Misamis Oriental conducted 345 barangay classes in the 24 municipalities of the province. In Cagayan de Oro, the city government has trained 721 NFP service providers in 62 barangays.
We view this relationship of assisting local government units as engagement, not collaboration – since we keep the church’s NFP program separate and not dependent on the LGU’s program. Nonetheless, with the widespread promotion of NFP by both church and local governments, we can truly say that the whole area of the archdiocese has virtually become “NFP territory.”
The LGUs in their Responsible Parenting Movement-Natural Family Planning program have taken cognizance of our six-step approach in implementation. These are: (1) parish orientation of key leaders; (2) training of NFP counselors; (3) chapel community orientation; (4) counseling of individual couples; (5) monitoring and tabulation; and (6) ongoing values formation. The LGUs have focused on the orientation of municipal and barangay heads followed by the training of Barangay Health Workers. These BHWs in turn help in conducting classes on NFP in their localities.
Going beyond the step-wise implementation of NFP in order to reach out to the more remote areas, what is of greater significance for us is the over-all acceptance by LGUs of our four pastoral guidelines and core values in promoting natural family planning. It is good to keep these parameters in mind since these are the points for dialogue with proponents of the RH Bill in its present form or with some future modifications.
Our first core value which we consider a first and non-negotiable principle is that we are Pro-Life. We uphold the dignity of human life from the moment of conception. We condemn abortion which is also proscribed by the Philippine Constitution. We consider All-NFP as a proactive program that helps prevent the tragedy of unwanted pregnancies and resort to abortion. All-NFP also provides an alternative to contraceptive methods that may be considered as abortifacients.
Our second core value is the exercise of Responsible Parenthood as the goal of our All-NFP program. Instead of “reproductive health,” church documents prefer the term “procreation” to stress the parents’ exalted role in giving birth to another person, body and soul, i.e., “transmitting by procreation the divine image from person to person.” (Familiaris Consortio, 28).
The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines convened by the Catholic Bishops in 1991 explicitates the meaning of responsible parenthood, synonymous with responsible procreation:
Christian parents must exercise responsible parenthood. While nurturing a generous attitude towards bringing new human life into the world, they should strive to beget only those children whom they can raise up in a truly human and Christian way.Towards this end, they need to plan their families according to the moral norms taught by the Church (PCP II, 583).
If responsible parenthood is the goal for Christian couples, Natural Family Planning is the means considered consistent with the moral norms taught by the Church. This then is our third core value. But why NFP? The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the nature of NFP and its rationale:
Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them,and favor the education of an authentic freedom (CCC, 2370).
From our pastoral experience in Cagayan de Oro (and earlier in Ipil Prelature), family life workers report various reasons why couples are attracted to NFP:
- Normal intercourse is preserved without any artificial barriers.
- NFP is morally acceptable to people of all religions and cultures. The twofold unitive and procreative ends of marriage are not separated.
- NFP can be used to avoid or to achieve pregnancy.
- There are no inherent health risks in NFP methods, unlike the use of contraceptives.
- NFP is pro-poor. No costs are involved once the method has been learned. Couples do not need to go to health centers, donor agencies, or drugstores. Unlike contraceptives, NFP is not for profit.
- NFP is sustainable across generations. Mothers can readily pass on the practice of NFP to their daughters.
- NFP engenders sexual discipline for the spouses, mutual caring, and the development of self-control that is carried over in the upbringing of the children.
- NFP enhances communication between spouses and a wholesome family life. From comparative studies, NFP couples seldom or never end up in separation or divorce, or resort to abortion.
- NFP methods are effective and reliable, based on scientific studies.
- Modern simplified methods of NFP are much easier to learn and can be adopted by many more couples.
In our All-NFP program, we have included six modern scientific methods – i.e., the Basal Body Temperature, Billings Cervical Mucus, Sympto-Thermal, Lactational Amenorrhea, Standard Days, and TwoDay methods.
The most widely acceptable among these is the Standard Days Method. This is a simplified, standardized, calendar-based method of NFP developed over the past decade by Georgetown University through computer simulation and the science of statistical probability. Based on our periodic reports, SDM users range from one-half to two-thirds of all NFP adopters. In terms of efficacy rate, SDM has a slightly lower score compared to BBT or BOM, but this is more than offset by its much higher acceptability rate. Many couples have also learned to combine SDM with mucus observation as a double check.
Despite the allegation that SDM may be used with back-up contraceptives, the bishops in plenary assembly arrived at a consensus statement, first in 2003 and again in January 2009, stating that “SDM, provided it is not mixed with contraceptives, is a natural family planning method and is consistent with the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.” While acknowledging the individual bishop’s pastoral discernment to promote SDM or not, the consensus statement adds that “the bishop may not prohibit any couple in his diocese from using SDM as their method of natural family planning.”
In a personal audience with the Holy Father on 25 February 2011, I presented to him two publications, including the training manual, on our All-NFP program and briefly explained our inclusion of simplified methods such as SDM. Pope Benedict’s immediate response went to the heart of the matter: “Yes, simplified methods are good for simple people.”
Our fourth core value and pastoral guideline in All-NFP promotion is to enable couples to make an Informed and Morally Responsible Choice according to the dictates of a right conscience. The Church’s role in this regard is twofold:
(1) to help couples form a right conscience through values formation so that they are able to make a morally responsible choice; and
(2) to provide information on all scientifically-based NFP methods.
Information on all valid NFP methods becomes a pastoral imperative, particularly in the light of three felt needs among a growing number of couples today. First, they want to plan their families in terms of spacing births and determining family sizes. Secondly, they prefer natural family planning, provided they are given adequate information on fertility awareness and the various NFP methods. And thirdly, they also want to choose among NFP methods according to their own circumstances and preference.
It is not for us to choose beforehand what the “best NFP method” is for couples. Neither did Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “On the Regulation of Birth,” equate NFP with a particular method. On the contrary, it extended a general appeal to scientists: “It is particularly desirable that . . . medical science succeed in providing a sufficiently secure basis for a regulation of birth, founded on the observance of natural rhythms” (HV, 24). Pope John Paul II repeated this appeal to doctors, teachers, and couples “for a broader, more decisive and more systematic effort to make the natural methods of regulating fertility known, respected and applied” (FC, 35).
On the other hand, the role of government is also acknowledged in the Catechism of The Catholic Church:
The state has a responsibility for its citizens’ well-being. In this capacity it is legitimate for it to intervene to orient the demography of the population. This can be done by means of objective and respectful information, but certainly not by authoritarian, coercive measures. The state may not legitimately usurp the initiative of spouses, who have the primary responsibility for the procreation and education of their children. In this area, it is not authorized to employ means contrary to the moral law (CCC, 2372).
In this regard, reiterating what we have already said in our pastoral letter of 25 July 2008, we join our voices with other dioceses and church groups in rejecting legislative measures that would include subtle forms of coercion, infringe on the rights of parents, or allow the inclusion of family planning methods that may be considered abortifacient.
On the other hand, a church congress declaration, referring to NFP methods, points out a likely role for government with regard to NFP methods: “All couples have the right to know of them and to have access to them. Governments should offer resources for natural family planning services and research without imposing discriminatory conditions.”
On his part, Pope John Paul II has gone beyond the “anti-life” labeling and pointed out the distinction between contraception and abortion:
From the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage; the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment, “You shall not kill!” (Evangelium Vitae, 13).
In the final analysis, the most effective way of saying “No! to the RH Bill” is by saying “Yes! to All-NFP” and operationalizing this in all our parishes and chapel communities. If the RH Bill is shelved by Congress, it would still be incumbent for us in the local church to promote All-NFP to address the felt needs of couples, particularly among the urban and rural poor, for family planning. On the other hand, if the RH Bill is passed, all the more do we have to show a positive alternative to the practices of artificial means of birth control.
Meanwhile, in the archdiocese we are gratified to receive an increasing number of requests from other dioceses, civil society organizations, and government agencies for our All-NFP training seminars and manuals. We also commend our lay religious organizations like the Catholic Women’s League and Couples for Christ whose members have worked together with our volunteer resident counselors in promoting All-NFP throughout the archdiocese. There is wisdom and a note of urgency in a family life worker’s remark: “The more we promote natural family planning, the more contraceptives will die a natural death.”
(19 April 2011)