An ordinary calendar and a bracelet-like chain of brown and white beads hardly seem like cutting-edge technology in fighting poverty.
But these simple tools that help a woman track her fertility cycle as part of natural family planning — white beads for days pregnancy is more likely and brown for less likely — are part of the antipoverty work done by Catholic Relief Services in places such as East Timor and Burundi.
Why would a relief and development agency make natural family planning part of its work?
Because as a Catholic organization, we see the sacredness and dignity of the human person as a foundational principle of our fight against global poverty. Natural family planning offers women in the developing world a way to space births that respects life. More time between pregnancies helps prevent mothers from dying during labor and improves the chances that babies will be born healthy and thrive.
Recently, Pope Francis led the Church in commemorating Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). Therefore, it is fitting to reflect on how we as Catholics embody the Gospel of Life.
The Gospel of Life is a thread that runs through the breadth of work CRS does, respecting and protecting human life from conception until natural death. Living the Gospel of Life means protecting all human life, including fighting such threats to life as poverty, hunger and war. Pope Francis has called the Church to be a vigilant Church, so that, gazing upon the crucified Christ, it may not forget the many brothers and sisters who are left at the mercy of violence. Also, the Church need not forget those who find themselves in economically precarious situations, above all for the unemployed, the elderly, migrants, the homeless, prisoners and those who experience marginalization.
This is why CRS represents the U.S. Catholic community in addressing poverty and suffering around the world, including by offering natural family planning and other programs that strengthen marriages and families. One example is a program called Faithful House, a faith-based, skills-building curriculum that aims to strengthen the family through enhanced couple communication. The curriculum is currently used in 11 countries.
In the past five years, CRS has supported at least 16 projects around the world that have integrated natural family planning into larger health programs, including those that focus on maternal and child health. Modern natural family planning involves medically sound, scientifically proven methods that are based on the day-to-day observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle. These methods take advantage of the changes associated with ovulation, treating each cycle as unique.
Studies have shown that natural family planning is 97 to 99 percent effective when practiced by couples who understand the method guidelines and are clear about their family planning intentions — that is, whether they want to achieve or avoid pregnancy. Others, who are unclear about their family planning intention (i.e., spacing or limiting pregnancy) or are less motivated, are less likely to consistently follow the method’s guidelines and have a lower effectiveness rate of 80-90 percent.
As CRS celebrates its 70th anniversary and looks ahead to decades of service, we want to make sure that we and Church health institutions throughout the developing world continue to have the space and the funding to implement these evidence-based programs that promote the Gospel of Life.
Carolyn Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.