Fertility awareness as birth control
|B.C. type||Fertility tracking|
|First use||1950s (mucus) |
Ancient (ad hoc)
|Failure rates (first year)|
|User reminders||Dependent upon strict user adherence to methodology|
|Advantages and Disadvantages|
|Benefits||no side effects, can aid pregnancy achievement|
Fertility awareness (FA) refers to a set of practices used to determine the fertile and infertile phases of a woman's menstrual cycle. Fertility awareness methods may be used to avoid pregnancy, to achieve pregnancy, or as a way to monitor gynecological health.
Symptoms-based methods involve tracking one or more of the three primary fertility signs - basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and cervical position. Systems relying exclusively on cervical mucus include the Billings Ovulation Method, the Creighton Model, and the Two-Day Method. Symptothermal methods combine observations of BBT, cervical mucus, and sometimes cervical position. Calendar-based methods rely only on a history of cycle lengths. While the World Health Organization classifies both symptoms-based and calendar-based methods as "fertility awareness", some teachers of symptoms-based methods do not consider calendar-based methods to be fertility awareness.
Systems of fertility awareness may be referred to as fertility awareness-based methods (FAB methods); the term Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) refers specifically to the system taught by Toni Weschler. The term natural family planning" (NFP) is sometimes used to refer to any use of FA methods. However, NFP specifically refers to practices that are approved by the Roman Catholic Church: breastfeeding infertility, and periodic abstinence during fertile times. A method of FA may be used by NFP users to identify these fertile times.
Women who are breastfeeding a child and wish to avoid pregnancy may be able to practice the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM). LAM is distinct from fertility awareness, but because it also does not involve devices or chemicals, it is often presented alongside FA as a method of natural birth control.
It is not known exactly when it was first discovered that women have predictable periods of fertility and infertility. St. Augustine wrote about periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy in the year 388 (the Manichaeans attempted to use this method to remain childfree, and Augustine condemned their use of periodic abstinence). One book states that periodic abstinence was recommended "by a few secular thinkers since the mid-nineteenth century," but the dominant force in the twentieth century development of observational methods was the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1905 Theodoor Hendrik Van de Velde, a Dutch gynecologist, showed that women only ovulate once per menstrual cycle. In the 1920s, Kyusaku Ogino, a Japanese gynecologist, and Hermann Knaus, from Austria, independently discovered that ovulation occurs about fourteen days before the next menstrual period. Ogino used his discovery to develop a formula for use in aiding infertile women time intercourse to achieve pregnancy. In 1930, John Smulders, Roman Catholic physician from the Netherlands, used this discovery to create a method for avoiding pregnancy. Smulders published his work with the Dutch Roman Catholic medical association, and this was the first formalized system for periodic abstinence - the Rhythm Method.
Early Catholic doctrine considered complete sexual abstinence to be the most holy state for humans, with marriage allowed only for those without the fortitude required by an abstinent life. Into the early twentieth century, it was believed by some Catholics that the only licit reason for sexual intercourse was an attempt to create children. At the time, there was no official church position on any non-procreative purposes of intercourse. Internal rulings of the Catholic Church in 1853 and 1880 stated for the first time that periodic abstinence was a moral way to avoid pregnancy. The first public document addressing this issue, however, was the December 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii by Pope Pius XI, which declared that there was no moral stain associated with having marital intercourse at times when "new life cannot be brought forth." Although this referred primarily to conditions such as current pregnancy and menopause, another internal ruling in 1932, and the majority of Catholic theologians also interpreted it to allow moral use—for couples with "upright motives"—of the newly created Rhythm Method.
In the 1930s, Rev. Wilhelm Hillebrand, a Catholic priest in Germany, developed a system for avoiding pregnancy based on basal body temperature. This temperature method was found to be more effective at helping women avoid pregnancy than the Rhythm Method. Over the next few decades, both systems became widely used among Catholic women. The 1932 ruling approving periodic abstinence in some circumstances was made public in 1945, and two speeches delivered by Pope Pius XII in 1951 gave the highest form of recognition to the Catholic Church's approval of these systems for couples who needed to avoid pregnancy. In the early 1950s, Dr. John Billings discovered the relationship between cervical mucus and fertility while working for the Melbourne Catholic Family Welfare Bureau. Dr. Billings and several other physicians studied this sign for a number of years, and by the late 1960s had performed clinical trials and begun to set up teaching centers around the world. While the Billings initially taught both the temperature and mucus signs, they encountered problems in teaching the temperature sign to largely illiterate populations in developing countries. In the 1970s they modified the method to rely on only mucus. The international organization founded by Dr. Billings is now known as the World Organization Ovulation Method Billings (WOOMB).
The first organization to teach a symptothermal method was founded in 1971. John and Sheila Kippley, lay Catholics, joined with Dr. Konald Prem in teaching an observational method that relied on all three signs: temperature, mucus, and also cervical position. Their organization is now called Couple to Couple League International. The next decade saw the founding of other now-large Catholic organizations - Family of the Americas (1977), teaching the Billings method, and the Pope Paul VI Institute (1985), teaching a new mucus-only system called the Creighton Model.
Up until the 1980s, information about fertility awareness was only available from Catholic sources. The first secular teaching organization was the Fertility Awareness Center in New York, founded in 1981. Toni Weschler started teaching in 1982 and published the bestselling book Taking Charge of Your Fertility in 1995. Justisse was founded in 1987 in Edmonton, Canada. These secular organizations all teach symptothermal methods. Although the Catholic organizations are significantly larger than the secular fertility awareness movement, independent secular teachers have become increasingly common throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Development of fertility awareness methods is ongoing. In the late 1990s, the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University introduced two new methods. The Two-Day Method, a mucus-only system, and CycleBeads, a variant of the Rhythm Method, are designed to be both effective and very simple to teach, learn, and use.
Most menstrual cycles have several days at the beginning that are infertile (pre-ovulatory infertility), a period of fertility, and then several days just before the next menstruation that are infertile (post-ovulatory infertility). The first day of red bleeding is considered day one of the menstrual cycle. Different systems of fertility awareness calculate the fertile period in slightly different ways, using primary fertility signs, cycle history, or both.
The three primary fertility signs are basal body temperature (BBT), cervical mucus, and cervical position. A woman practicing symptoms-based fertility awareness may choose to observe one sign, two signs, or, all three.
Basal body temperature is a person’s temperature taken when they first wake up in the morning (or after their longest sleep period of the day). In women, ovulation will trigger a rise in BBT between 0.3 and 0.9 °C (0.5 and 1.6 °F) that lasts approximately until the next menstruation. This temperature shift may be used to determine the onset of post-ovulatory infertility.
The appearance of cervical mucus and vulvar sensation are generally described together as two ways of observing the same sign. Cervical mucus is produced by the cervix, which separates the uterus from the vaginal canal. Fertile cervical mucus promotes sperm life by decreasing the acidity of the vagina, and also helps guide sperm through the cervix and into the uterus. The production of fertile cervical mucus is caused by the same hormone (estrogen) that prepares a woman’s body for ovulation. By observing her cervical mucus, and paying attention to the sensation as it passes the vulva, a woman can detect when her body is gearing up for ovulation, and also when ovulation has passed. When ovulation occurs, estrogen production drops slightly and progesterone starts to rise. The rise in progesterone causes a distinct change in the quantity and quality of mucus observed at the vulva.
The cervix changes position in response to the same hormones that cause cervical mucus to be produced and to dry up. When a woman is in an infertile phase of her cycle, the cervix will be low in the vaginal canal; it will feel firm to the touch (like the tip of a person’s nose); and, the os – the opening in the cervix – will be relatively small, or ‘closed’. As a woman becomes more fertile, the cervix will rise higher in the vaginal canal; it will become softer to the touch (more like a person’s lips); and the os will become more open. After ovulation has occurred, the cervix will revert to its infertile position.
Calendar-based systems determine both pre-ovulatory and post-ovulatory infertility based on cycle history. When used to avoid pregnancy, these systems have higher perfect-use failure rates than symptoms-based systems, but are still comparable to barrier methods such as diaphragms and cervical caps.
Mucus- and temperature-based methods used to determine post-ovulatory infertility, when used to avoid conception, result in very low perfect-use pregnancy rates. However, mucus and temperature systems have certain limitations in determining pre-ovulatory infertility. A temperature record alone provides no guide to fertility or infertility before ovulation occurs. Determination of pre-ovulatory infertility may be done by observing the absence of fertile cervical mucus; however, this results in a higher failure rate than that seen in the period of post-ovulatory infertility. Relying only on mucus observation also means that unprotected sexual intercourse is not allowed during menstruation, since any mucus would be obscured.
Use of certain calendar rules to determine the length of the pre-ovulatory infertile phase allows unprotected intercourse during the first few days of the menstrual cycle, while maintaining a very low risk of pregnancy. With mucus-only methods, there is a possibility of incorrectly identifying mid-cycle or anovulatory bleeding as menstruation. Keeping a BBT chart enables accurate identification of menstruation, when pre-ovulatory calendar rules may be reliably applied. In temperature-only systems, a calendar rule may be relied on alone to determine pre-ovulatory infertility. In symptothermal systems, the calendar rule is cross-checked by mucus records: observation of fertile cervical mucus overrides any calendar-determined infertility.
Calendar rules may set a standard number of days, specifying that (depending on a woman's past cycle lengths) the first three to six days of each menstrual cycle are considered infertile. Or, a calendar rule may require calculation, for example holding that the length of the pre-ovulatory infertile phase is equal to the length of a woman's shortest cycle minus twenty-one days. Rather than being tied to cycle length, a calendar rule may be determined from the cycle day on which a woman observes a thermal shift. One system has the length of the pre-ovulatory infertile phase equal to a woman's earliest historical day of temperature rise minus seven days.
Ovulation Predictor Kits (OPKs) can detect imminent ovulation from the concentration of lutenizing hormone (LH) in a woman’s urine. A positive OPK is usually followed by ovulation within 12-36 hours.
Saliva microscopes, when correctly used, can detect ferning structures in the saliva that precede ovulation. Ferning is usually detected beginning three days before ovulation, and continuing until ovulation has occurred. During this window, ferning structures occur in cervical mucus as well as saliva.
Fertility monitors are available under various brand names. These monitors use a combination of the calendar method, OPKs, and sometimes computerized interpretation of BBTs.
Fertility awareness has several aspects which may be seen as beneficial:
- There are no drug-related side effects to FA. There are no side effects at all, besides those that may occur from inserting fingers into the vagina for cervical observation (as some FA methods recommend).
- FA is free or very low-cost. Users may avail of a chart, calendar, basal thermometer, or software. The costs are extremely low when compared to other methods.
- FA can be used to monitor reproductive health. Changes in the cycle can alert the user to emerging gynecological problems. FA can also be used to aid in diagnosing known gynecological problems such as infertility.
- FA is versatile: it may be used to avoid pregnancy or to aid in conception.
- FA can be used by all women throughout their reproductive life, regardless of whether a woman is approaching menopause, is breastfeeding, or experiencing irregular cycles for other reasons.
- Use of FA can give insight to the workings of women's bodies, and may allow women to take greater control of their own fertility.
- When used as birth control, FA can be used with barrier contraception so that intercourse may continue through the fertile period. Unlike barrier use without FA, practicing FA can allow couples to use barrier contraception only when necessary.
- When used to avoid pregnancy, abstinence from sexual intercourse or use of a barrier method is required on fertile days. To reduce pregnancy risk to below 1% per year, an average of 13 days of abstinence or barriers are required each cycle. For women with very irregular cycles - such as those common during breastfeeding, perimenopause, or with hormonal diseases such as PCOS - abstinence or barriers may be required for months at a time. Many women and their partners may not have the motivation or discipline to abstain or use barriers for this length of time.
- Some symptoms-based forms of fertility awareness require observation or touching of cervical mucus, an activity with which some women are not comfortable. Some practitioners prefer to use the term "cervical fluid" to refer to cervical mucus, in an attempt to make the subject more palatable to these women.
- Some drugs, such as decongestants, can change cervical mucus. Women may not be able to rely on these the mucus sign while taking these drugs.
- Some symptoms-based methods require tracking of basal body temperatures. Because irregular sleep can interfere with the accuracy of basal body temperatures, shift workers and those with very young children, for example, might not be able to rely on those methods.
- Fertility awareness does not protect against sexually transmitted disease.
By restricting unprotected sexual intercourse to the infertile portion of the menstrual cycle, a woman and her partner can prevent pregnancy. During the fertile portion of the menstrual cycle, the couple may use barrier contraception or abstain from sexual intercourse.
The effectiveness of fertility awareness, as of most forms of contraception, can be assessed two ways. Perfect use or method effectiveness rates only include people who follow all observational rules, correctly identify the fertile phase, and refrain from unprotected intercourse on days identified as fertile. Actual use, or typical use effectiveness rates are of all women relying on fertility awareness to avoid pregnancy, including those who fail to meet the "perfect use" criteria. Rates are generally presented for the first year of use. Most commonly the Pearl Index is used to calculate effectiveness rates, but some studies use decrement tables.
The failure rate of fertility awareness varies widely depending on the system used to identify fertile days, the instructional method, and the population being studied. Some studies have found actual failure rates of 25% per year or higher. At least one study has found an actual failure rate of less than 1% per year, and several studies have found actual failure rates of 2-3% per year.
From Contraceptive Technology :
- Post-ovulation methods (i.e. abstaining from intercourse from menstruation until after ovulation) have a method failure rate of 1% per year.
- The symptothermo method has a method failure rate of 2% per year.
- The cervical mucus-only methods have a method failure rate of 3% per year.
- Calendar rhythm has a method failure rate of 9% per year.
- The Standard Days Method has a method failure rate of 5% per year.
Several factors account for typical use effectiveness being lower than perfect use effectiveness:
- mistakes on the part of those providing instructions on how to use the method
- mistakes on the part of the user
- conscious user non-compliance with instructions.
For instance, someone avoiding pregnancy with fertility awareness might be given incorrect or incomplete information on the rule system she chooses, or misunderstand a rule and incorrectly identify the fertile phase, or simply have unprotected intercourse on a day she knows is potentially fertile.
The most common reason for the lower actual effectiveness is not mistakes on the part of instructors or users, but conscious user non-compliance, i.e., the couple knowing that the woman is likely to be fertile at the time, but engaging in sexual intercourse nonetheless. This is similar to failures of barrier methods, which are primarily caused by non-use of the method.
A study by Barrett and Marshall has shown that random acts of intercourse achieve a 24% pregnancy rate per cycle. That study also found that timed intercourse based on information from a BBT-only method of FA increased pregnancy rates to 31%-68%.
Because of high rates of very early miscarriage (25% of pregnancies are lost within the first six weeks since the woman's last menstrual period, or LMP), the methods used to detect pregnancy may lead to bias in conception rates. Less-sensitive methods will detect lower conception rates, because they miss the conceptions that resulted in early pregnancy loss. A Chinese study of couples practicing random intercourse to achieve pregnancy used very sensitive pregnancy tests to detect pregnancy. It found a 40% conception rate per cycle over the 12-month study period.
Regular menstrual cycles are sometimes taken as evidence that a woman is ovulating normally, and irregular cycles as evidence she is not. However, many women with irregular cycles do ovulate normally, and some with regular cycles are actually annovulatory or have a luteal phase defect. Records of basal body temperatures, especially, but also of cervical mucus and position, can be used to accurately determine if a woman is ovulating, and if the length of the post-ovulatory (luteal) phase of her menstrual cycle is sufficient to sustain a pregnancy.
Fertile cervical mucus is important in creating an environment that allows sperm to pass through the cervix and into the fallopian tubes where they wait for ovulation. Fertility charts can help diagnose hostile cervical mucus, a common cause of infertility. Guaifenesin can help to produce fertile cervical mucus.
Pregnancy testing and gestational age
Pregnancy tests are not accurate until 1-2 weeks after ovulation. Knowing an estimated date of ovulation can prevent a woman from getting false negative results due to testing too early. Also, 18 consecutive days of elevated temperatures means a woman is almost certainly pregnant.
Estimated ovulation dates from fertility charts are a more accurate method of estimating gestational age than the traditional pregnancy wheel or last menstrual period (LMP) method of tracking menstrual periods.
- Basal body temperature
- Billings ovulation method
- Creighton Model FertilityCare System
- Fertility monitor
- Natural family planning
- Toni Weschler
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- "On the Question of Natural Family Planning". cmri.org. Retrieved 2007-04-01. "Question: (1) Whether married couples may have intercourse during such sterile periods without committing mortal or venial sin? (2) Whether the confessor may suggest such a procedure either to the wife who detests the onanism of her husband but cannot correct him, or to either spouse who shrinks from having numerous children? Response: Married couples who use their marriage right in the aforesaid manner are not to be disturbed, and the confessor may suggest the opinion in question, cautiously, however, to those married people whom he has tried in vain by other means to dissuade from the detestable crime of onanism."
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Cooper, Phyllis G. (2006), "Female Infertility", Adult Health Advisor, retrieved 2007-06-08. "A woman who is not ovulating normally may have irregular or missed menstrual periods."
"Is Clomid Right For You?", JustMommies.com, 2007, retrieved 2007-06-08. "If you have an irregular cycle there is a good chance you are not ovulating normally."
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- Weschler (2002), pp.3-4,155-156, insert p.7
- Couple to Couple League - A Catholic organization with information on the Sympto-Thermal Method of Natural family planning.
- Fertility Awareness Center - A non-religious, non-profit, institution providing information to those women who want either contraception advice, or who wish to become pregnant. Based in New York City.
- Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University - An organization developing and promoting fertility awareness methods
- Justisse - An online educational resource. Lists FA teachers trained by Geraldine Matus, director of the Justisse Center. Based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
- Ovusoft - Information, software, message boards, and sample charts based on the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler
- Sister Zeus - A women's guide to synergistic fertility management.