Is It Ever Immoral Not to Practice NFP?

As science progresses, particularly ethical medical practices such as NaPro technology, the question arises whether it would ever be morally wrong not to practice NFP when one has a legitimate reason for such practice. For example, if you know that your baby’s life or your own would be put in danger by a pregnancy, is there a moral imperative to practice NFP so as to not unnecessarily risk losing a life?

First, we can affirm that all of us have a general duty to preserve and protect our lives using morally good means (In the case at hand, contraception and abortion are morally prohibited). This duty may be overridden in certain cases, but, because the good of human life is of inestimable value, we have a strict obligation to respect our own life and the lives of others. As Jesus taught, we are to love others as we love ourselves (see Mk 12:31).

couple-168191_640Second, risk is, however, a simple fact of life. We can choose – either wisely or foolishly – to take on more or less of it, of course, but a certain amount of risk remains an inescapable reality for all of us. Accepting certain levels of risk for one’s own self that go beyond the normal day-to-day kind we encounter can indeed be morally acceptable – e.g., if one’s job involves such risk (One thinks of police and fire fighters). But one must also factor in one’s other responsibilities, such as the need to care for young children, that might limit one’s engaging in certain types of otherwise morally good activities that one enjoys – e.g., extreme sports – or even jobs that involve higher-than-average levels of risk. That is especially the case when one does not necessarily need the high-risk job to support oneself or one’s family.

But accepting, for no good reason, high levels of risk for others – say, one’s (unborn) child – who have no way of giving informed consent to such risky activity, is morally wrong. This is particularly true when there is no actual benefit (good) for the person(s) who is exposed to the extra risk, for example, in the case of a pregnant mom who knowingly drives without a seatbelt or who drinks alcohol during her pregnancy or volunteers her healthy child for a risky medical experiment. Thus, I think one has a moral responsibility to avoid this kind of non-beneficial (and largely preventable!) risk to human life, but only when it exceeds the usual level of risk that all reasonable persons are willing to accept for themselves or for others in going about their daily activities, lest ordinary living itself become nearly impossible. The Golden Rule (see Mt 7:12) is a sound moral standard for determining whether or not one is acting fairly towards others when accepting certain kinds of risk for oneself or for other persons.

Married couples who have a reasonably founded fear that the child they procreate and/or the mother herself might be placed in grave danger on account of a pregnancy clearly have a morally sound reason to practice NFP. I would argue further that they often have a moral obligation to do so as well – though it is not an absolute one given all the variables. This is clearly the case when such couples already have other children to care for. A mother, then, has a legitimate reason not to risk getting pregnant if there is a significantly higher-than-average chance her life might be put in danger by doing so.

The same is true if doctors inform a couple that a pregnancy would place the child herself in danger of death or serious disability.

This moral analysis can be extended, I believe, to include couples who are, for one reason or another, truly unable at present to adequately care for a possible pregnancy/baby. One thinks of couples in professions that call for extremely long and demanding hours, or couples whose work requires them to travel extensively, or who have one or another significant disabling factor of some kind to suggest that using NFP would be morally required or at least strongly suggested. The latter could include couples faced with an extreme financial hardship, a grave physical or psychological illness, a genetic or trans-communicable disease (e.g., HIV/AIDS), or some serious vocational commitment (e.g., caring for a sick parent) that would strongly counsel the use of NFP or even total abstinence for the time being – at least until circumstances became more favorable to having children.

Some might argue that couples who find themselves in these situations need not practice NFP, that is, they could engage in marital intercourse without using the method, and thus risk a pregnancy by appealing to the “principle of double effect” (PDE): Hence, according to the PDE, one is engaging in a good act (marital intercourse) that has both a good effect (i.e., realizing the unitive good and possibly the procreative good) and a bad effect (i.e., the possible risk to the health and/or life of the mother and/or child). But one intends only the good and not the bad – accepting it as a side-effect – and the evil is not the means to the good (And these are in fact great goods one intends!).

Although I am sympathetic to this argument, I still think it best for couples to choose those acts that will minimize, as much as possible, their exposure to avoidable risks – especially ones that pose serious dangers to the goods of health, bodily integrity, and life. NFP can assist couples to do precisely that. One might come to a different moral judgment if, for example, both spouses were infected with the HIV virus and also past their child-bearing years, or even if there were conflicting, yet credible opinions among their doctors as to the nature and possibility of the risk involved to the mother and/or child should she get pregnant.

Having said all of this, we can see that the virtue of prudence is needed to help one determine what level of risk is simply too high to accept without committing a sinful act. If a woman’s OB-GYN tells her that she has a 20% of dying in childbirth, that means there is an 80% chance that she will not (Those are fairly good odds. Of course, the doctors are not always right about these percentages!). Or the doctor informs the woman she has a 50-50 chance of having a problem pregnancy, and thus the couple judges, rightly in my view, that it is best to practice NFP (Or maybe the figure is 60-40 or 70-30). Faced with this same information, however, a different set of couples with different vocational responsibilities and challenges will come to different judgments of conscience on this. If the risk is very small (e.g., 5%-15%), then couples might rightly think that the risk is acceptable for them. Some couples may also have resources that other couples do not have that enable them to accept more risk.

So, in the end, while I would argue that practicing NFP is at times a duty, that is, when it would be unreasonable to accept the risk, prudence and conscience are always “in play” for the kind of moral discernment necessary in such contingent situations, which by definition, involve change (e.g., AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was years ago due to antiviral drugs). These “problem pregnancy” situations are made more challenging by the fact that couples must first gather the medical facts before they can apply the moral principles to their specific case. These steps are all part of what is called proper conscience formation. They include praying for the wisdom to accept and do God’s will.

I hope that this brief article helps couples to form their consciences well or that it at least gives them some “food for thought” if they are faced with a difficult moral decision such as this one. I have given merely my own perspective on the issue – there being no official Church teaching on the matter – and so it is not to be taken in any way as infallible!

In striving to make objectively good moral decisions, these words from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes should be kept in mind – words that remind us of the kind of theological vision we should have as Christians in approaching this moral issue or any moral issue: “All should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men” (no. 51).

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
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  • Lisa Cooper

    What if a married woman who has no children is told by her doctor that a pregnancy will almost certainly lead to her death? What if this was a condition that was not expected to improve?

    • Mark Latkovic

      Here too, Lisa, is another situation that would call for either total abstinence or the practice of NFP during her child-bearing years. But I would also have her get a second opinion, especially from a pro-life and/or Catholic physician (if her own doc is not such).