Natural Family Planning refers to several methods used to plan or prevent pregnancy. These methods use body temperature, cervical secretions, and other physical signs to determine if a woman is fertile or not. Participants abstain from intercourse during fertile days to prevent pregnancy.
I’m not completely opposed to natural methods of birth control, and for some couples it may be useful, so I wouldn’t rule it out a priori. I just don’t see it as a feasible method to anchor a national program around. I say this for the obvious reasons: There are easier and more reliable methods – and women know this. The bishops have been conducting this campaign since 2002, and it appears that they’re wasting their time – Catholic women aren’t using it. In a study released in 2011 by the Guttmacher Institute, only 2% of Catholic women who were “sexually active women who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant” used natural methods, and 68% of that data set used “highly effective methods.” (Please note that this data set does not include “all Catholic women,” only a portion of them described as “sexually active . . .” above. See here for clarification.)
The Catholic church supports natural methods primarily because of its bizarre and twisted views on contraception. The conference of bishops doesn’t consider Natural Family Planning contraception, which is an absurd distinction. It’s birth control. The bishops can call it cold tofu if it will help them sleep at night, but I’m a bit more difficult to fool. Hey fellas: It’s contraception.
One natural method of birth control, called the Creighton Model Ovulation Method, was found by Marquette University to be 98% effective in avoiding pregnancy. You can download the study here. This model uses the presence or absence of cervical mucus to determine fertility. If you read the study, you’ll discover some problems. For instance, here is the regimen the study participants followed:
All of the 242 couples were taught the Creighton model of natural family planning. The model includes an introductory session, follow-up teaching sessions, evaluations, and a rigorous teacher training program. . . The introductory session is a 1-hour slide program that explains the anatomy and physiology behind the method and the technical aspects of charting one’s dynamics of use. At the introductory session, any couple interested in pursuing the Creighton model ovulation method makes an appointment with one of the teachers for a follow-up session. … The 242 couples who entered the program were given a user manual, a fertility chart, fertility monitoring stamps, and an appointment to meet with a natural family planning practitioner for a follow-up session in 2 weeks. They began to chart their fertility signs the next day and were asked to read the user manual. The Creighton model requires a minimum of eight follow-up sessions in a 1-year period. The first four are every 2 weeks, the fifth is 1 month later, and the remainder are every 3 months. Each session lasts approximately 1 hour. Standardization of the sessions is accomplished through the use of a 26-page follow-up charting form, a picture dictionary of terminology and observations, a user manual, and a case management book for the natural family planning practitioner.
Charts? Stamps? Manuals? What a hassle. Think of the massive amounts of energy, time and resources required to get the majority of sexually active Catholics, much less the majority of sexually active Americans, on this program. If we spent half the amount of above effort educating people worldwide on more easy-to-use contraception, we’d be far better off. Keep in mind that natural methods don’t provide protection against sexually transmitted diseases. Compare the above method to the comparative ease of condom-use or simply taking a pill every day. No wonder only 2% of sexually active Catholic women use it – it’s a royal pain. (Ironically, if you’re trying to become pregnant, the results from this study weren’t bad – the rates reached almost 25% for couples desiring pregnancy.)
The study doesn’t reflect real-world conditions, either (as opposed to a university setting). The group of 242 couples were enrolled in Marquette University’s Nursing Center’s Natural Family Planning program. Marquette is a Catholic university, and the majority of the female partners in the study were Roman Catholic (80.2%). There is no discussion of cost for the educators or the participants, but this site lists the costs of natural methods at $100-$250.
The Institute for Reproductive Health provides a more sober statistic for natural methods. It lists “Perfect Use” success at 2-5%, and “Typical Use” at 20%. Planned Parenthood lists the efficacy of these methods at upwards of 25%. “Perfect Use” is a high standard to meet for couples with busy schedules, low incomes or poor education, and an unintended pregnancy is a high price to pay. We can’t all enroll in university programs with such intense supervision.
While I have no problem with educating the public about all forms of contraception, including natural methods, I think the bishops are being a bit naive and unrealistic. It appears that Catholic women already know this, but we all know how well the bishops listen to them.