What’s in a Name? "Natural Family Planning" versus "Fertility Awareness Method"

by Kathleen Quiring on January 14, 2010

If you’ve been reading my blog or engaging in real-life conversation with me in the last couple of months, you know that I’ve been reading, thinking, writing, and even starting to practice Natural Family Planning (NFP). You know that I came across the idea when I came across Engaged Marriage, and after having Dustin tell me more about it, I began writing about it myself.

If you didn’t know that, well, now you do. (And if you don’t know what NFP is, I recommend clicking on the link above where Dustin explains it to me).

I have been learning SO MUCH about the subject, thanks largely to the NFP-loving community who has shared all kinds of wisdom with me in the comments to my posts. I also recently purchased Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and almost had an explosion in my brain from all the learning.

Just a few short months ago, I was a complete dummy on the subject, and now I have become slightly less dumb!

A complication began to arise, however, because Weschler calls it Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), whereas Dustin and all the other cool Catholics I talked to call it Natural Family Planning (NFP). I started using both terms interchangeably, particularly in this post, and it started to get confusing.

They are not quite the same thing although they share the same basic principles.

So I’m going to do you a favour. I’m going to outline the (very simple) differences between FAM and NFP (for those of you who don’t already know), and tell you which term I’m planning to settle on for good, and explain why I’m settling on it.

Here goes.

Similarities: Both NFP and FAM are examples of sympto-thermo methods of birth control. This means that both are methods of controlling your fertility through awareness of the female reproductive cycle. They both rely on observing cervical fluid and taking your basal body temperature, and tracking both of them on a chart, to help you determine when to have sex (depending on what you’re aiming for). Both can be used either to achieve or avoid pregnancy.

Difference: FAM allows the option of using a barrier (i.e. a condom) during the fertile phase to prevent pregnancy, whereas those who practice NFP choose to abstain during fertile periods if they don’t want to get pregnant.

I guess this means there is a slight difference in the viewpoints underpinning the two methods: NFP-users usually believe that all forms of contraception are morally wrong, whereas FAM-users do not. FAM-users thus permit their occasional use.

But FAM-users agree with NFP-users that contraception is problematic for a variety of reasons, including its negative effects on health, the environment, and sexual enjoyment, not to mention its political implications, and should at least be minimized if not completely rejected.

I’m currently on the fence about whether or not I think all contraception use is morally wrong. Brian Killian’s remarkable blog is having a strong influence on my perspective, and I encourage you to check it out.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of this blog, I have decided to stick with the term “Fertility Awareness Method” when discussing the subject.

Here’s why:

  • I like the emphasis on “awareness.” This term highlights the fact that all it takes to control your reproduction is an attentiveness to what’s going on in your body. You just need to open your eyes to the natural processes already happening in your body and you can begin to take control.

One of the problems I have with contraceptives is that they rob us of this power by encouraging us to be ignorant. Contraception disempowers us. Fertility awareness empowers us. Yay for awareness.

  • I like that FAM does not have religious connections. NFP is commonly associated with religious people. This is unfair but true. Many of FAM’s proponents, on the other hand, are completely secular (including Toni Weschler, as far as I can see).

Now, as you all know, I am a deeply spiritual person. I do not try to hide my religiosity. But FAM can benefit everyone, not just religious people, and I don’t want to ostracize non-religious people. By using a non-religious term, I hope to emphasize what we have in common (a concern for the wellbeing of human beings and the planet) and a de-emphasize what we do not share (a belief in God). If we are open-minded I think we can all agree that there are benefits to FAM.

  • I like that FAM provides more options, and can include NFP. FAM only teaches that you can use barriers during fertile phases if you want to; you don’t have to. Weschler actually discourages it because it’s less reliable. So you can use plain ol’ abstinence during these periods if you prefer. It’s up to you.
  • I’d rather see people use occasional contraceptives, just during fertile phases, than reject FAM altogether in favour of the Pill. I understand that for some people, the 10-or-so-day period of abstinence each month may seem like too much of a stretch. I wouldn’t want someone to reject FAM out-of-hand just because of this. I would rather see couples choose FAM and use the occasional condom than completely reject the whole shebang. Maybe once they try FAM this way for a while and grow to appreciate it, they will more willingly consider the all-natural method.

So there you have it. From now on, I’m going with “Fertility Awareness Method.” I’ve even added it to the Category title “Sex and Fertility Awareness” (in the column on the right). But I am still unspeakably grateful to the NFP community for introducing me to such a wonderful system for controlling my fertility, and wholeheartedly support NFP.

You guys are the bomb!

Which term do you prefer, or which one do you use? Why? Which sounds more appealing to you?

What do you think, experts? Have I dealt with the similarities and differences accurately?

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christina January 14, 2010 at 11:24 am

Kathy,
I’m so glad you posted this information. I was getting so confused with the FAM and NFP refrences and not knowing what was what. I haven’t read the book you suggested yet, so this helps a whole lot! Once I get everything under control and back on track, Dave and I definitely want to look more deeply into FAM.

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2 PepperReed January 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Thanks for a very informative article! I don’t have a preference for either term, but it’s good to understand what you mean by the one you use.

I will say that I do chafe at the assumption that you must abstain during a fertile period, as if the only ‘acceptable’ form of lovemaking is intercourse/condom use. Just because you can’t have intercourse, doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy each other.

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3 Andrea February 10, 2012 at 1:53 pm

“Just because you can’t have intercourse, doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy each other.”

Exactly!! Thanks for saying that. (Or perhaps, as religious folks, we’re only allowed to have sex that has the potential for baby-making? lol)

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4 Dustin | Engaged Marriage January 14, 2010 at 5:06 pm

The student has become the teacher! :)

You’ve done a wonderful job outlining this issue, Kathleen. In my mind, the primary difference between NFP and FAM is the motivation behind its use. As you know, I am morally opposed to contraception and embrace the idea of prayerful, periodic abstinence as a major asset to our marriage.

It may be cheesy, but I’m totally proud of you and all of the knowledge you’ve gained (and are now sharing) about your sexuality and how it impacts your marriage.

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5 Hailey January 14, 2010 at 8:16 pm

I technically use NFP, but I too am in favor of the name FAM. I do not use NFP for religious reasons (although I am Christian) and I think a lot of people automatically associate NFP with “the Rhythm Method,” which it is NOT. I feel that, as Taking Charge of Your Fertility states, if a birth control method is going to fail, it is going to fail when you are fertile. And then you could very likely get pregnant. And that would be just my luck. So I stick with NFP because it gives me more confidence while TTA (trying to avoid pregnancy).

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6 Michelle January 14, 2010 at 9:50 pm

I like both for different reasons.

Natural Family Planning- Because that’s what you’re DOING regardless of if you are trying to conceive or trying to avoid. Planning your family. Just like everyone else, only doing it without artificial means that could potentially be abortifacient.

Fertility Awareness Method- Because I think it’s less threatening, and more likely to appeal to society at large. It can serve as a “bridge” to a more “NFP” usage and mentality (opting out of using barriers, truly experiencing free, total, faithful, fruitful love with their spouse).

Since I hang around Catholics, we call it NFP. If you are interested in other methods besides sympto-thermal, I use the Creighton Model(www.creightonmodel.com) which is mucus-only, and I think it’s much simpler. Plus the stickers are fun. Well sometimes ;)

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7 Sarah January 14, 2010 at 11:48 pm

I find this post/issue very interesting, but I’m just going to play devil’s advocate for a minute. While you say FAM is empowering because it allows for a woman to monitor/control her fertility, there are females out there who would argue that the Pill is empowering because it means one less thing to worry about — especially if that female works full-time, has four children, and is responsible for all the cooking/cleaning/etc. I’m not particularly comfortable with the environmental repercussions associated with the Pill, but it’s certainly convenient.

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8 Kathleen Quiring April 1, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Thanks for playing devil’s advocate, Sarah. We always need one of those!

I admit I still need to learn and think a lot more about the relative empowerment/disempowerment of the different kinds of birth control. I want to explore it further in another post, actually. I agree that it’s not cut-and-dry. The Pill definitely can make life simpler in some respects.

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9 Dayna January 15, 2010 at 12:42 am

I find this all very fascinating, and you’ve definitely given me new things to think about when it comes to birth control.

I’d be interested to know how Ben feels about FAM and NFP, and what the husband role is/can be in all this. In other words, what’s the male perspective?

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10 Kathleen Quiring April 1, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Good question, Dayna! We’ve talked about it, of course, but it would probably be good for me to sit him down and ask him to express his views thoroughly. Maybe we can co-write a post answering this question!

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11 Molly W January 15, 2010 at 1:54 am

I prefer the term FAM as I don’t use it in strictly religious frame of mind, I too am hesitant about whether or not we really know the effects of prescription birth-controls and am hesitant of anything that changes my bodies natural rhythms. Prescription Birth-control has not been around as long as we think it has and I think there is still more to learn about it.

I was surprised at how in control I began to feel once I start FAM/NFP, I feel like I understand my body so much better and wish more women were exposed to it as an option.

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12 Brian Killian January 15, 2010 at 10:45 am

The terms are interchangeable, NFP just emphasizes the planning/natural aspect while FA emphasizes the knowledge/understanding/empowerment aspect.

But, as Kathleen pointed out, there are pretty big moral and philosophical differences between those that use these methods. When you dig deeper, it boils down to different views of what sex is and its nature, role, purpose, etc. in your relationship.

It will be interesting Kathleen, to see the posts that come from your trying to decide which side of the fence to come down on regarding the moral status of contraception!

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13 Suzanne January 15, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Kathy, thank you so much for discussing this! I have been desperately looking for an alternitive for the pill. I gave up, as they all seemed to have side effects until reading all of the info you’ve posted. I’ve also been reseaching it online, and Brent and I are actively looking to start in the next few months! Hurray for giving the pill the boot! Oh and to answer your question, I also prefer the FAM version. I believe God intend sex to be free in marriage without restrictions or perameters. Although I do like the idea of the “honeymoon” phase that Dustin mentioned… I just wouldn’t want it to be enforced monthly. Thanks again, for all of your insight!

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14 That Married Couple January 15, 2010 at 5:03 pm

I think you’ve done a great job here explaining the difference, and it is really helpful to the other NFP/FAM newbies. I also like the emphasis on awareness, though I fall solidly in the NFP camp. I also wanted to second the fact that there are many types of NFP, including mucus-only methods in addition to sympto-thermal. (I would imagine FAM wouldn’t employ those, since barrier methods can interfere with those signs?)

Religious reasons aside, I guess I have two concerns with FAM as opposed to NFP. First, I wonder what it’s effectiveness rate is? (Perhaps the book says? I never got around to reading it.) As you know, barrier methods are less effective overall, let alone during a woman’s fertile time. I would hate for someone to start using FAM, get pregnant because the condom failed (not because the awareness failed), and give it up completely.

My second concern is that FAM seems to allow couples to retain more of a contraceptive mentality. Have you read anything about this yet? It’s really interesting (and this comment is already going to be long enough, so I’ll leave an extended discussion for another day, or shoot me an email about it). I’m not saying that we’re completely free of the contraceptive mentality yet (it’s a hard thing to shake), but I’m certainly trying. Every month that you have to abstain, the idea is to take a good hard look at why you’re abstaining. If you have really good reasons not to have a child, then it’s not so hard to sacrifice for those 8-10 days. If your reason is not as serious, then you are more likely to resent this period, and perhaps use a barrier method.

In an ideal world, spouses would be completely open to life (no contraception, no FAM, no NFP) as the default. NFP would just be used if you have just/grave/serious reasons (an in-group debate rages about how good your reasons need to be, but that’s really between the spouses and God). It’s tough to get this point, though!

That brings me to Suzanne’s comment that “God intended sex to be free in marriage without restrictions or parameters” – of course he did! He loves when we make love with our spouse! We’re the ones who think we need to restrict it by using contraception.

Anyway, I do think it’s important to distinguish which you mean, and am glad you’re doing so. I’m sorry to leave such a long comment – it’s just so interesting! Thanks for bringing this subject up – I really appreciate having to think all this through and reading everyone else’s thoughts on the discussion!

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15 Kathleen Quiring April 1, 2010 at 10:11 pm

You make so many great points here, “That Married Couple”! Thank you!

TCOYF doesn’t give an exact effectiveness rate for using barrier methods during fertile phases, but the author makes it clear that it’s riskier than just abstaining during those phases.

I definitely see what you mean about FAM letting you retain a contraceptive mentality, which is a big deal. Thanks for mentioning it. I still feel that FAM (with barriers) might be a good “gateway” to NFP, though, so I think it’s still valuable for that reason. Thanks for all your terrific thoughts!

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16 stephanie February 8, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I am Catholic and have practiced natural family planning for the last 8 years. But I use the charts from Taking Charge of Your Fertility because I think the information is just laid out better, and easier to understand I would think for a beginner. You can learn so much more from the book and you just ignore the part about using a barrier method if that is your belief. We personally choose abstinence and obviously the opposite of abstinence when pregnancy is desired! Years ago when I read the natural family planning information I had trouble understanding it, esp. how to do the cervical check. I went to the bookstore looking for more resources, found Taking Charge of Your Fertility and it’s one of the most worn out books on my shelf! I plan to use it to teach my daughter one day and add in the principles about the value of human life from our faith. The two methods are the same from what I can see. The book is so practical and full of information I just can’t say enough about it!

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17 Laura Wershler January 26, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Hi Kathleen,

As a sexual and reproductive health advocate who has written extensively about FAM and the differences between NFP and FAM, I can add that you did a very good job of explaining the major differences. I’ve framed NFP, FAM and other methods that teach women to observe, chart and intrepret their menstrual cycle events (eg. BOM- Billings Ovulation Method, Justisse, Creighton, etc) as different “brands” of natural birth control. For a clear and simple explanation of natural birth control methods (a phrase that serves well to refer to all the “brands”) your readers can link to:
http://sexualityandu.ca/adults/contraception-2-16.aspx
I co-wrote this information with Geraldine Matus, founder of the Justisse Method. Women can download the Justisse User’s Guide for free at http://www.justisse.ca. They will also find lots of information about fertility awareness and menstrual cycle charting.

One other note: The term Fertility Awareness also embraces the idea that learning to chart and understand our fertility and our menstrual cycles has more to offer women beyond help to achieve or prevent pregnancy. It provides keen insight into our reproductive and overall health and wellness.

And finally: If you are interested in exploring all things menstrual, be sure to check out re: cycling, the blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at http://menstruationresearch.org/blog/

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18 Kathleen Quiring January 26, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Thanks, Laura! Your expertise is much appreciated. Thanks for all your additional points — all extremely useful!

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19 MrsNic March 7, 2010 at 9:59 am

I’m a little late jumping into this conversation, but I just finished my first reading of Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I also have read The Art of Natural Family Planning. While I am Catholic, I am ready to throw the NFP book out the window, solely for the reason that I found it to be high-and-mighty. I also thought it seemed to try to “talk me into” the NFP program, wanting me to blindly follow it because it’s morally right. I found TCOYF much more accepting and instead of persuading, it simply explained. I don’t think it’s necessarily that I like one program better than the other, but I just get turned off when a system is touted at “the way” because of religious or moral reasons.

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20 Paige March 10, 2010 at 10:35 am

I am engaged to be married in 2 months, and my fiance and I are about to take a NFP class. I’m not really sold on the periodic abstinence thing, though, because the time of periodic abstinence is also the time when a woman has the highest sex drive. That certainly is the case for me; after ovulation my sex drive is pretty low. We intend to use a barrier method during fertile times.

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21 Vickie June 8, 2010 at 11:58 am

I was getting confussed by those terms too! Thanks for explaining. At the moment I am on the pill, but have recently been looking into NFP/FAM (I think I lean towards FAM though). I don’t necessarily think contraception is wrong, but from what I’m learning these methods can just be so much better. I’m looking forward to learning more and eventually using FAM, although I am worried about the transition off of the pill.

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22 Kathleen Quiring June 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Vickie — yes, the transition is the scariest part. A lot of women have crazy cycles when they just come off the Pill, so it’s especially hard to identify your fertile phases. If you’re already unfamiliar with the whole thing, crazy cycles can make you feel a little nuts! However, if you’re not against using other forms of birth control (i.e. condoms) until your cycles have settled down and you are more comfortable with reading your cycles, that might be a viable option.

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23 Jennifer October 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm

As a teenager, I had extremely unpredictable cycles, and didn’t know any better, thus I was on the pill from age 18-23 to regulate my cycles. I took a year “off” and even though I was not sexually active, I had only two cycles, and of those, I believe only one was an ovulatory cycle. So, I went back on the pill, thinking I needed it to be healthy and regulate my cycles. After another 5 (or so) years, I again decided I’d had enough of it and didn’t like the foreign chemicals in my body. I have now been off the pill for many years and essentially using FAM since my husband and I got married. I am in some ways “lucky” in that I experience “mittelschmerz” which is cramping at the time of ovulation, so I typically know about when I ovulated. (Helped to determine as close as you can get to a solid “due date” for my babies).

But back to transitioning off the pill… the first time I did it, it didn’t go so well for me, but the second time, I almost immediately stepped into 35-40 day cycles. I do chart based on the mittelschmerz and my period to try to “predict” for the next month (I don’t use bbt), but I typically vary from 4-6 week cycles. What I am saying is that it can be a challenge to go from that nice, predictable pill, but it is very doable, once you are aware of the signs.

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24 Patti January 19, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Enjoyed reading this blog. My husband and I have used FAM for our entire marriage of 30 years and are now heading into menopause. We used to teach NFP for Catholic marriage prep, even though we were not attending a Catholic Church. We are christians and believe that NFP has spiritual, health, and environmental implications, but wish it was taught outside the church so more people could learn about it. I am a Medical Technologist and an M.S. in Health Ed. I have tried to teach it in the medical community and have always been rejected because the church teaches it for free in most cases. More people would believe it if it were taught in a medical setting. We definitely noticed a huge spike in libido for the woman
during the fertile phase and have chosen not to abstain every month through that magical time. Withdrawal does work… though I know many religous people are against that.

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