As you may or may not have heard, this week is NFP Awareness Week! Since everything seems to have an “Awareness Week” these days (Seriously? And I don’t even know what this is but it sounds hilarious – good thing they have a week!) its only fitting that Natural Family Planning would also have its own week… Oh yeah, that and the fact that there are so many misunderstandings about what NFP is, its effectiveness, and just in general how it can be uncomfortable to talk about it since “family planning” is a personal subject filled with many opinions and theological discussions. That’s a recipe asking for “Please, let’s just avoid this and not about it, shall we?” Based on all this, NFP is definitely a good candidate for something “in need” of an awareness week! So naturally I decided to write a post on here about it and answer some simple FAQ about NFP (at least a few to get us started).
What is natural family planning?
Most simply stated, natural family planning or NFP is a method of monitoring a woman’s fertility for the sake of postponing or achieving pregnancy by observing naturally occurring signs and symptoms. Nothing artificial is done to alter the cycle in any way so this method is 100% natural.
How does that work?
Unlike a man (who is fertile 100% of the time) a woman has cyclical fertility. NFP seeks to isolate the fertility of the couple by incorporating knowledge about fertile conditions of a woman’s body, lifetime of a woman’s ovum (egg), and taking into account sperm life. “Yes, we learned all that stuff in 4th grade.” Awesome! But what they didn’t tell you was that the fluctuations in hormones (yes, those same ones that bring about our “monthly gift” and those lovely mood swings) also cause secondary effects which can be outwardly observed and charted.
The chart below gives a brief overview of the different hormones being produced in a woman’s body over the course of a month. Ovulation, occurring around day 14 on average, is preceded by increasing estrogen, which depresses the body temperature. Once ovulation has occurred, the ruptured follicle left behind (the corpus luteum) produces progesterone, which increases the body temperature.
[Forgive the charts, I’m a scientist :) ]
Sympto-thermal methods of NFP seek to identify the occurrence of ovulation by charting a significant rise in basal body temperature to determine when the fertile time is over. Changes in other symptoms (such as cervical mucus) occur as a result of these fluctuating hormones and can also be charted to help identify fertile/infertile times. At home ovulation predictor kits measure LH (luteinizing hormone) which is the hormone that directly triggers ovulation.
If you didn’t follow all that, it doesn’t really matter. The great thing about NFP is that you don’t need to know how it works in order to use it. Just know that some nuns couldn’t have made all this up and that its based on science :)
Ok, so is this all the same as the rhythm method?
No, no, and no. That’s the whole point of this post! Rhythm method was a good “try” at figuring out the fertile and infertile times of a woman’s cycle, but let’s face it, the science 80+ years ago was not as advanced as it is now. In fact, 100 years ago scientists were just figuring out what these things called hormones do and tell us so the studies just hadn’t been done until more recently (Starting in 1950’s). [Interestingly enough, the only reason the Pill got onto the market so fast was because of copious amounts of research money from an angry, rich lady scared of her crazy husband’s genes, some mad scientists, a woman with a vendetta for the Church, and some immoral testing on some poor Puerto Ricans!] The rhythm method is based on counting days according to an “average” woman, i.e. ovulation at day 14. The problem of using this method in practice is that unless the woman always has textbook cycles, which no woman has no matter how regular you think you are, so the method will “fail”.
NFP is clearly different in that it treats each woman the same depending on her own signs and observations, so it can be effective for women with irregular and inconsistent cycles.
How effective is NFP at avoiding pregnancy?
This is what most people’s concern is since, let’s face it, we’re in the culture of controlling and regulating births. Also, unfortunately many slanderous sources have sought to destroy the credibility of this method to possibly advance their own agendas. As with any method to control birth, its important to distinguish between method failure and typical use failure and to make sure you are comparing the same type of “failure rate” when comparing methods in the first place.
Natural family planning can be as effective as hormonal methods (i.e., as high as 99% effective). However, don’t take my word for it, do your own research. Seriously, read the papers, don’t just take random quotes from un-cited sources. As an experimental scientist, I know firsthand that statistics can be messed with like crazy, so its best to look at multiple sources, and not just one.
Here is a good resource list to start with for looking up the hundreds of papers studying this topic (in case you thought this was a new thing!)
So why would I want to bother taking my temperature and observing this thing called “cervical mucus” if I could just ignore this whole issue until I want to have kids?
Oh geez, I think the best way to answer this question is to ask which type of reasons would you like? The social reasons, health reasons, marital reasons, spiritual reasons? You name it! This could probably be an entire post in itself (or three, as my buddy Elizabeth bravely did!), but let’s just keep the reasons simple at this point.
- It’s healthy! – In an age of people being concerned about eating organic, avoiding nano-particles in our sunscreen, and BPA in our baby bottles, why would we NOT pay attention to what synthetic hormones we’re pumping into our bodies every day? Especially when there are good alternatives out there?
- NFP can also help you have children – Infertility is unfortunately a lot more common than we think. Oftentimes our fertility is ignored for so many years through hormonal contraception before we are concerned with having children that we can ignore the signs our body tries to tell us about our relative fertility. NFP doubles as a way to track changes in your health that may lead you to identify waning fertility as well as overall changes health long before you plan on having kids, making it true family planning. It also (obviously) identifies the best time of the month to try for children.
- Female Empowerment – There’s something to be said for respecting the way our womanly bodies were designed and having our men respect the way were made also, instead of just trying to be men. It’s easier to respect yourself and what it means to be a woman when you don’t treat yourself like you have a disease. Also, the education of women is touted to be the quickest way to advance society. Why does this suddenly not apply when we’re talking about educating women about their own bodies?
- Social – NFP teaches a value for the marital embrace that respects both of its natural consequences – babies and bonding. Distorting sex for the purposes of glorifying one aspect over another becomes a lot harder for a couple who embraces the true meaning and we’ve all heard the stories about how porn*graphy is ruining marriages. Also, you have knowledge that you’re doing your little part change the mentality that creates the need for abortions. [*note, I am by no means accusing you of causing abortions, but just providing the connection between contraception and abortions that many people are not aware of.]
- Improved martial relationship – With NFP a couple is almost forced to talk about their procreative purposes once a month when fertile time occurs, in order to mutually decide whether or not they are seeking a pregnancy. Couple practicing NFP have a very low divorce rate compared to that of the average American, we’re talking 4% vs. 40%. I’m not touting NFP as the reason those couples are together, but it does light the path to a tighter bond with your spouse than contraception.
- Cost – NFP is cheap. Its virtually free, once you cover the cost of the instruction manual and maybe a thermometer. You can’t beat that.
Since we’re getting long here, I’ll only allow myself to ask one more question :)
If NFP is so great, how can I learn about it? Will my doctor teach me?
If you want to learn NFP, chances are you will have to go to a Church related group to get classes. An important part of NFP is obtaining proper instruction that frankly takes time that your average 2 min. visit with your family doctor can’t account for. Learning from a Church doesn’t make the method any less effective. Certified teachers (such as yours truly!) have to pass rigorous tests in order to teach the methods that many studies (see bibliography above) have been performed on. Did I mention we volunteer to teach? Yes, we just want to share this knowledge with others. It makes you realize that there’s no reason a doctor supported by the large pharmaceutical industry would teach you a free method that doesn’t require you to be on a pill for something that’s not a disease for the rest of you life.
If you think I’m spouting conspiracy theories here, just think about how much money is made off the millions of women in America on oral contraception during one year.
Now multiply that by the rest of the years in their life.
That’s a lot of money. And the best part is that those women aren’t even sick.
Ok, that’s enough for now. Hopefully I helped spread “NFP Awareness”. If you have further questions, let me know!