Reversing the Almost-Silence on Family Planning in Faith-Based Communities

With an increasing number of studies, international and otherwise taking an in-depth look at the impact of societal attitudes and religious values on family planning, it’s not surprising to learn that more and more faiths are coming under fire for what they do or don’t do to help young women be proactive about family planning, sex and more.Could our faith be failing us in the area of family planning?

Some say yes.

Just a couple days ago I caught an episode of HARDtalk from the BBC World, an interview with Stephen Sackur and the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle. I was astonished at Cardinal Tagle’s response when questioned about the disparity between the majority of the populations’ feelings on the social matter and the churches position.

“This is not the first time,” Cardinal Tagle explained, “their feelings don’t always coincide with the teachers [of the church].

I wasn’t surprised to hear the line about views not being in alignment—rather I was shocked, uncomfortably shocked by the response to the deeper question.

Over 2 million people are being added to the population every year and right now the highest religious leader’s answer to the question of family planning is that the government should focus on teaching parents how to be responsible. Cardinal Tagle’s response to the question of the church’s role in family planning was to teach the families natural family planning (NFP), a method, which according to research released by the Office of Population Affairs fails up to 25% of the time.

I guess I didn’t hear him answer that question of how the church was going to go about educating parents or how to deal with 25% fail rate of NFP.

Population growth in the developing world is an international issue without question, and while religious leadership in one of the biggest faith groups in the world suggests family planning shouldn’t be legislated, there are many other opinions on the matter from equally influencial faith-based organizations.

Some say that faith based organizations (FBOs) are doing a great job at spearheading family planning efforts internationally, citing the interventions that many faith-based organizations are taking to educate communities in the developing world on sexually transmitted diseases, family planning, and pre-natal care, among other health-related issues.

According to the 2013 edition of the Guttmacher Policy Review,

“Many faith-based organizations have had a long tradition of involvement in international development, and in global health in particular. The United Methodist Church, Islamic Relief and Christian Health Associations in Africa, among numerous others, consider family planning to be central to their missions to support women, children and families, and integral to their efforts to promote global health.”

What may be most notable is the following line in which the Guttmacher Review points out that:

“In addition to the innumerable health benefits, investing in family planning yields many social and economic benefits, by enabling women to determine the timing and spacing of their pregnancies. It means increasing the ability of girls and women to attend and finish school, improve their economic security, better allocate limited resources to their children and families, and contribute to their communities.”

Sure, family planning is an international issue, but with the global effort working to reduce unintended pregnancies through education and resource allocation, is there a reason we in the US should be concerned about this issue? I think yes. For while our FBOs are out there organizing enormous efforts to get materials into the hands of citizens of developing nations, there are still pockets of our society here, right down your street, where girls are being raised in homes where family planning is rarely if ever discussed.

How many of our older teens and young women in faith-based communities know and understand these statistics about unintended pregnancies?

In 2015, statistics on the impact of unplanned pregnancies on the economic well-being of young women reflect that currently, about half (51%) of the 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States each year (3.4 million) are unintended. (Guttmacher Institute 2015 Fact Sheet.)

Consider the major disadvantages that women experience as a result of unintended pregnancies outlined within this research piece:

  • In 2008, there were 54 unintended pregnancies for every 1,000 women aged 15–44. In other words, about 5% of reproductive-age women have an unintended pregnancy each year.
  • By age 45, more than half of all American women will have experienced an unintended pregnancy, and three in 10 will have had an abortion.
  • The U.S. unintended pregnancy rate is significantly higher than the rate in many other developed countries.
  • At least 36% of pregnancies in every U.S. state are unintended. In 28 states and the District of Columbia, more than half of pregnancies are unintended.
  • Rates of unintended pregnancy are generally highest in the South and Southwest, and in densely-populated states.
  • Most American families want two children. To achieve this, the average woman spends about five years pregnant, postpartum or trying to become pregnant, and three decades—more than three-quarters of her reproductive life—trying to avoid an unintended pregnancy.
  • Most individuals and couples want to plan the timing and spacing of their childbearing and to avoid unintended pregnancies, for a range of social and economic reasons. In addition, unintended pregnancy has a public health impact: Births resulting from unintended or closely spaced pregnancies are associated with adverse maternal and child health outcomes, such as delayed prenatal care, premature birth and negative physical and mental health effects for children.
  • For these reasons, reducing the unintended pregnancy rate is a national public health goal. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’Healthy People 2020 campaign aims to reduce unintended pregnancy by 10%, from 49% of pregnancies to 44% of pregnancies, over the next 10 years.

The Absence of Family Planning Conversations among Faith-Based Communities

In many of these homes, sex isn’t outright forbidden in discussion, but it’s often not a conversation that comes up naturally. Many parents in faith-based, faith-practicing households make a point to discuss the “birds and the bees” with their pre-teens, but they may not discuss the related and all-important topics of family planning and contraception. These families often teach their children abstinence and encourage their children to make “good choices,” but avoid outlining forms of contraception out of fear that their children will think that having sex might be okay as long as the unintended pregnancy is avoided.

But silence on family planning can lead to confusion, indecision, and conflict between partners when a couple does come into child-bearing discussions.

Today there is a segment of society over which an almost Victorian silence on the topic has left many young women in the dark on the topic, and the nature of sex as a taboo topic among some family units has only exacerbated the problem. Many of the women in this group identify themselves as Christian, although there are others from other faiths who would self-identify as “in the dark” as well.

What’s more, in some faith-practicing homes, where parents choose to homeschool and take complete control over the sex education and media consumption that their children receive, the lack of knowledge can be even more surprising, which countless bloggers discuss in their drive to paint a picture of the negatives of homeschooling. Again, at the risk of marginalizing all homeschooling families, there are many who take a pointed and scientific approach to educating their children and are careful to ensure that they do cover these details.

The problem is that families and faith-based institutions with more conservative values on sex and sex education often feel uncomfortable, unsupported or unsure of what to say, when to say it and how much to say to their teens and their youth and thus generate/perpetuate a ripple of ignorance or partial ignorance in the very young people they want to prepare for the “real world.”

While many of these young women slip through adolescence and through their twenties “unscathed” by the secular world, get married and have kids, they share that it isn’t not lost on them that they reach “adulthood” incredibly under-informed about family planning. The share that the work of having children requires a whole lot more than they realized it would and that there is Pandora’s box to face when things don’t go as they always thought.

My personal experience with family planning uncertainty and “almost-silence” resulted in us having four children in five years. While my husband and I don’t regret a single one of our children, now aged 4, 3, 2 and 9 months, we are extremely stretched. It wasn’t that we never talked about the rate at which children were appearing in our homes, but the convictions that had grown in me in those years of silence made it almost impossible for me to make a decision on the issue of birth control, let alone articulate it.  My husband, who respected me and would never have forced me into birth control let me think about what I wanted to do. Unfortunately (if I can say that), what I wanted to do was complicated by confusing arguments in my head that I couldn’t seem to filter.

In fact, it was in the midst of an argument with my husband about family planning (preventing a baby #5) that the realization that our faith communities might be an appropriate place for young people and newlyweds to learn the more difficult facts of life. Again, many churches and faith-based communities already offer pre-marital counseling, but encouraging couples to articulate their positions on these matters can be instrumental in identifying potential uncertainty and bringing silent convictions to light, In my own case, I realized that I had been unprepared for dealing with issues around family planning in my eagerness to just have a family and get started.

What’s more I see this reflected in a segment of more conservative religious families (the ones that focused on abstinence teaching), which in turn puts these young people at higher risk for economic hardship and marital distress than their peers in groups that are less religious or less conservative on the matter. Here in my mind is a great opportunity for faith-based institutions to come in and fill some of these gaps.

What was missing during all of my late 20’s and early 30’s was clear conviction on the subject. Instead, I was filled with fear and uncertainty on the matter. Did God want us controlling how many kids we had or didn’t have? If not, did he mean to add yet another burden to women by forcing us to take a pill, get an implant or some kind of device? Everyone had an opinion, but when it came down to it, I had no idea what my opinion was or should be. As a result I fell into what I call family planning paralysis—unable to make a decision in any direction.

A friend of mine, on the other hand, had a phenomenal five year plan and proceeded through the first several years of marriage without a second thought about her choice to forestall having babies. When they did switch on the baby making, the baby didn’t happen…for quite some time. And when she did get pregnant, she miscarried. While her choice to wait on having babies I’m sure had nothing to do with the miscarriage, the complete shock and grief and pain that she experienced as a result nearly paralyzed her when it came to trying again.

She did persist and she did get pregnant and carry the baby to term and deliver a beautiful baby boy a year after the miscarriage.

When I asked her who she went to first, she told me, flatly–the doctor, something which I unpack a little later in this article.

Then still another friend told me how her upbringing in a church-going home was positive in many respects but around the subject of sex, the message was clear. It was dirty until you were married and maybe even then it might still be.

Because sex was bad outside of marriage, it was wrong to speak about it, that is, unless you were married. For this reason, it was also wrong to speak about anything related to sex.  For her, she had thought the image or feeling of sex and everything around being dirty would melt away once she got married, but instead she was profoundly disappointed.

She found it difficult to enjoy married life, let alone to approach subjects like family planning and contraception, an entirely other ballpark. Needless to say, the challenge this introduced to her marriage added significant stress for both her and her husband, and is still an area she and her husband are working on.

What, if anything, can families and faith communities do during these critically important late teen and young adult years? What, if anything, can faith communities do now to help educate young women on the matter. Giving an official stance, whether its abstinence for teens or NFP for married couples doesn’t seem to be enough for many young people, especially these emerging from homes where their faith is informing the dispensing of sex-related information. What they need to understand are the complex issues that come about once you do start to have a family.  Perhaps the question is when to do this. 

These issues, tough as they are, led me to conduct my own informal study of women ages 21-40. I asked them questions about the role that faith played in their adolescence, when they got married, how many children they had planned to have, whether and what birth control they used and the number of unintended pregnancies they had had.

To see the full results from the survey click here.

How important a role did your faith play in your family as a teenager?

faith

For the women I surveyed, the majority reported that faith played a very important role in determining their attitudes and beliefs about family planning. For the same women, some of the values-in-common they held included:

Number of planned children

For couples, how many kids did you plan on having when you discussed it with your significant other?

number children

I also asked about the mother-daughter relationship and the daughter’s comfort initiating conversations about family planning and sex with their mother.

What I found was that most of them weren’t comfortable initiating conversations or talking with their mothers about sex, let alone family planning, during those critical teenage years.

This reinforced my hypothesis that young women in Christian homes or in homes where faith played a critical role were less comfortable speaking with their mothers about sex-related topics. What was surprising, was that many of those same women hadn’t become significantly more comfortable in the 10-20 years that had passed since those early teenage years when it came to the topic.

Comfort Level talking to your mother or female caregiver about sex, intimacy, birth control as a teen and as an adult (now).

informal study

It’s not that faith-based organizations don’t talk about these issues—they do. In fact, Christianity Today and many other popular Christian publications dedicate an entire section to these issues. Sharon Hodie Miller wrote an article in CT on the blessings of unintended pregnancies and offered that women who sought to control their bodies were connected to an illusion of power that they have over their bodies. Their illusion was that somehow women can control not having kids with contraception and then can turn around and control when they are ready to begin by stopping contraceptive methods.

She explains,

“Of course we women are not machines, nor did God design us to be. He created us to be warm-blooded, full-hearted human beings. Yes, we will always experience the repercussions of the Fall, and Genesis 3:16 makes explicit the pain and uncertainty we will face. Yes, many women will have unplanned pregnancies; others will struggle to get pregnant at all. And yes, delaying pregnancy carries risks that our culture must not overlook.”

Many of these women report that they wouldn’t change a thing if given another chance to do life again. After all, once you know life with your children, how could you not choose that life again?

At the same time, when women give advice to young women about the timing of having children, family planning and economic stability, one pattern becomes clear.

My question is whether or not young women are aware they need the advice, and if they are seeking this advice before they start their families. Are they finding women in their churches or faith-based organizations if they don’t feel comfortable talking about it in their homes?

How should we respond to the reports that young women feel that many times they were unprepared for the physical stress, the marital stress, psychological stress and financial stress they bore when having a child in their first year of marriage and beyond?

One message organized by the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good offers this advice:

“If a couple can add to their family at a pace and at a size that they can manage, it also allows greater, more consistent, and less stressed attention of parents to each of their children, and increases the likelihood that children will receive the emotional, relational, and financial resources necessary to thrive in their own adult lives. Such decisions carefully undertaken are an expression of moral responsibility and care.”

Are we missing a critical segment of society in family planning education—a generation of families whose careful faith-based methodologies informed their philosophy on sex education, family planning and more?

Are we sending bursts of young women out into life under-informed about the impact of child-bearing, child-rearing and family planning and what it will have on their lives? And are we doing so because we somehow think women will just learn it since it is part of the design of women to well, have children?

Are we sending our young girls into marriages under-educated about the values of family planning, intimacy, couples communication and more as a result of long-held taboos about the topic? Are these taboos purely culturally based (from Puritan times)? Are they more pronounced among faith-based groups? If so, are there some groups really more likely to provide less family planning and sex education? Or is it a mix of many other factors, which may not be able to be teased out to the fullest in one piece such as this?

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