When 30-year-old Kristin Murphy started taking birth control pills, she experienced Jekyll-and-Hyde mood swings. One minute, she’d be snuggling with her husband; the next, she couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him. Her healthy sex drive also suffered. Nonetheless, she stuck with the Pill because she thought it was more reliable and easier to use than other methods of contraception. Murphy took four different kinds of pills in as many years, hoping to find the right match for her body.
Then Murphy stumbled upon the fertility-awareness method (FAM), an all-natural birth control option, on a women’s Internet message board. Today, she is one of a growing number of women who, for reasons more practical than religious, are going low-tech with contraception. Once the domain of Catholic women, natural birth control has been attracting a broader range of users like Murphy, who want to give their bodies a break from hormones, says Joseph Stanford, M.D., associate professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah and former president of the American Academy of Natural Family Planning. He estimates that 40 percent of women who follow natural contraceptive methods are actually non-Catholics.
FAM was developed to meet the needs of women who want a secular form of drug-free birth control. It relies on the daily monitoring of cervical fluid; morning temperatures; and, optionally, the position, texture, and openness of the cervix (which change as ovulation approaches). All these factors help a woman track her fertile times in order to avoid — or achieve — pregnancy.
“If a couple uses FAM for contraception correctly, they can expect to have a pregnancy rate somewhere between 1 and 5 percent,” Stanford says. The pregnancy rates of women who choose to have sex during their fertile periods, however, will be only as good as the birth control methods they use. Because FAM does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases, nonmonogamous women should rely on barrier contraception instead.
The difference between FAM and its Catholic counterpart, natural family planning (NFP), is philosophical. NFP requires its followers to abstain from sexual intercourse during the fertile period because Catholic doctrine forbids artificial contraception. FAM, on the other hand, lets individuals decide whether they will forgo sex or use another form of birth control on those days.
Women who use FAM have to check their fertility signs daily, because stress and illness can alter ovulation patterns. “This method is most effective in a motivated couple,” says Margaret Polaneczky, M.D., an associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Charting and learning to read fertility markers is “not as easy as popping a pill at first,” Murphy says, but after a few months, FAM becomes second nature and requires very little time.
The vigilant monitoring required by FAM and NFP sets these techniques apart from the rhythm method, the notoriously ineffective system of natural contraception based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. Fertility awareness is much more effective because it identifies a woman?s potential to conceive on a day-to-day basis, says Toni Weschler, M.P.H., author of Taking Charge of Your Fertility,a book that is credited with introducing this method outside the Catholic Church.
Beyond birth control, FAM teaches women to better understand their reproductive systems. “It’s worth looking into just to learn the basics about your body and what goes on through your monthly cycle,” Murphy says. “I felt like this is what I should have learned when I was 16.”
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