- Catholic News Agency - Friday, March 6, 2015

Read the headlines of major news outlets and one might think women’s fertility is an unknowable force understandable only by some inscrutable form of divination.

Women may think they must use pills, implants or a physical barrier to keep their fertility in check, while those facing difficulties attaining pregnancy may think they must hand over thousands of dollars for artificial reproductive technologies. Or so conventional wisdom says.

However, the science behind fertility awareness shows that women can know what their bodies do and make decisions based on that information – and now, a Colorado app developer and a New York City filmmaker are among those doing their best to bring this knowledge to popular attention.

Dr. Victoria Jennings, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University Medical Center, told CNA there are a number of “myths and rumors” that persist about fertility-awareness methods (FAM).

“The reality is that natural methods or fertility-awareness-based methods of family planning can be extremely effective,” she said, explaining that “there are several fertility-awareness methods” with differing protocols.

Many natural methods do not require a woman’s cycle to be regular in order to work, she said, with most methods relying on awareness of a woman’s day-to day fertility signs. Scientific studies, including ones published in 2007 and in 2009 have shown these methods to be highly effective, comparable to many of the most effective means of artificial contraceptives for postponing pregnancy.

These methods are “all based on a woman’s ability to observe the changes that occur in her body over her menstrual cycle,” said Dr. Jennings. The changes “are triggered by her hormones” and include variations in body temperature, cervical mucus and physical changes in the cervix.

“The symptothermal method specifically relies on changes both in temperature and in secretions” while other methods instead track variations in secretions or temperature or hormone monitoring.

The Catholic Church teaches that while spouses are called to discern whether they are to expand their family at a given time, it is immoral to use contraceptive pills, implants, barrier methods or have incomplete intercourse.

Instead, the church teaches that couples wishing to delay pregnancy at a given time are called toward periodic abstinence during the wife’s fertile window. This is known as natural family planning (NFP).

Couples using NFP use the woman’s observations about her fertility for health knowledge or to help make choices about family planning. To avoid pregnancy, couples practicing fertility awareness avoid intercourse on days in which the woman observes fertile symptoms. To achieve a pregnancy, they do the reverse.

This idea of more natural forms of family planning appeals to couples across the globe.

“The primary reason that people give around the world is because it doesn’t have any side effects, it doesn’t affect my fertility or my health,” Dr. Jennings said.

Others use FAM because they “find it empowering” to understand their bodies, she said. Monitoring fertility signs can help to alert women to cycle irregularities that “need to be checked out by a provider,” including those that may flag health problems or difficulty conceiving.

Some app developers from Colorado are trying to dispel the continuing misunderstandings surrounding FAM and educate the public on how people’s bodies work.

“One of the huge problems is that there is a lot of misinformation about FAM out there and not only that but this misinformation is coming from very prominent websites and trusted sources that people generally really trust for unbiased, accurate information,” said Lauren Risberg, customer support and content lead for Kindara, an iOS app offering charting tools and support for recording a woman’s fertility symptoms and temperature.

Recently, Kindara has released a “Fertility Awareness Report Card,” grading health websites and reproductive-health educators such as Wikipedia, WebMD, Planned Parenthood and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the accuracy of information they provide on fertility-awareness-based methods.

“Over the past couple of decades, fertility awareness has been studied a lot. We know scientifically, based on evidence now, that it does work, and it works very well if you use it correctly. I feel that these websites that people trust have an obligation to look at that and update their information to reflect the most recent scientific evidence on the method,” Ms. Risberg told CNA.

She explained that Kindara did not set out to “attack” these websites, but felt there was a strong need to correct medical misinformation.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the women who are using these resources for information,” she said. “These women have the right to know the truth behind all the options that are available to them.”

Ms. Risberg also argued for the need to educate the public more broadly about the existence of fertility awareness, and pointed out that technology can help play a role in making these methods more accessible.

“In our culture generally there’s this idea that we can’t really trust our own bodies, or that we shouldn’t, or that we need to medicate things away” and thus “a lot of women don’t really know this is an option for them,” she said.

However, “you don’t need to take a pill to control your fertility,” she said. “You just learn how your body works and adjust your behavior.”

In addition to simply keeping track of a woman’s fertility symptoms, fertility apps can help “make fertility awareness much more accessible to people, much more convenient,” Ms. Risberg said. “Anything that starts to break down those barriers of thinking fertility awareness is a big deal or is difficult helps men and women be more open to it.”

Cassondra Moriarty, a New York City filmmaker and director of the recent short film, “Miscontraceptions,” told CNA she hopes her film can help educate, empower and expose women to the existence of fertility-awareness methods.

After learning about fertility awareness more than three years ago from her husband, Ms. Moriarty felt compelled to help educate others about these methods.

In interviewing women and their knowledge of these methods, she said, one of the biggest challenges “is that you can easily get misinformation about it.”

Also, she pointed out in the film, many women just don’t know fertility- awareness-based options are even available. She hopes to “make more women aware of this option” by making a film for film festivals and screenings.

Ms. Moriarty also hopes that her film will let women “walk away and feel empowered.”

This need for education and empowerment “has a long way to go,” even within the Catholic Church, said Ms. Moriarty, who is herself Catholic.

“Even in the church, there’s so many people who don’t know about NFP,” she said, explaining that in addition to being a morally acceptable way of spacing pregnancies, she felt that fertility-awareness knowledge helps couples be “more in tune, in regards to being more open to life.”

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