I first heard the phrase “Rhythm Method” in a Religious Education class at my all-girls catholic high school. It was discussed alongside actual birth control methods like the pill and condoms, and I detected a tone of skepticism in the voice of my teacher. I have a vague memory of dropping the phrase at home one day and my dad going on a “it doesn’t work” rant, which ended, as I recall, with him threatening to demonstrate something involving a banana and a condom…
So off I pottered on with my life, knowing that the Rhythm Method, which involves using the dates of your previous cycle to forecast the fertile and infertile days of the next, was an unreliable load of rubbish.
Then something happened. I read an article by Holly Grigg-Spall that talked of Daysy and the Fertility Awareness Method. A year or so later the Natural Cycles phenomenon began. When I first heard about it my family and I agreed that it was the Rhythm Method in disguise, teched-up and glorified anew – it was a dangerous response to the sudden rejection of hormonal contraception that was going to end in a lot of unwanted pregnancies.
That is until I learnt how the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) was different from the Rhythm Method. While the Rhythm Method looks retrospectively at past cycle dates, FAM looks for markers of fertility within your current cycle. Tracking Basal Body Temperature (BBT) can flag up the temperature increase that occurs around ovulation. There are other markers too. Getting very familiar with your cervical fluid can be a huge indicator of fertility, testing your urine for luteinizing hormone (LH) even more so.
I remain very nervous about how FAM is being depicted as this completed project. “Here it is, go forth and only multiply if you want to,” has been the attitude. I think it is still early days and that FAM should be treated as a step in the right direction, not a finite solution to a huge problem. So far in my own experience with FAM I’ve found that I’m less likely to take my BBT reading at the correct time than I was to take the pill on time. It is still super at risk of human error. This is before you consider the fact it can take around six years for a menstrual cycle to get, well, cyclical after menarche and without considering health conditions that can morph FAM data.
Now a leaked memo from the White House suggests that as effective teen-pregnancy prevention programs (contraception) are being subsidised, abstinence based, sex risk and Fertility Awareness methods are being suggested as alternatives. I think that a big part of what the White House, and supporters of FAM within the Catholic Church, have got wrong, is that the sudden focus on FAM and the recent turn away from hormonal contraceptives is not because we are worried about our consciouses, souls or honour – it’s about wanting more. We want to choose when and if we do or do not have children and we want that choice to be free from the life-changing side-affects that often come with mainstream methods of hormonal birth control. FAM is still birth control. Those using it to avoid pregnancy are still looking for a contraceptive, they are simply asking for more. Having observed the changes in my own body when I was on and off of the pill(s), I am now acutely aware of how my body changes throughout my cycle. If that can stop me getting pregnant (if I could have sex, that is LOL) then of course I’m going to exploit that.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: knowledge of self is powerful.
This week I attended the opening of Period Piece at the Science Gallery in London. It’s on over the weekend too if you want to check it out, but it was a excellent platform for talking about why Femtech is changing things by using old ideas in new ways. Period Piece is a multi-media art piece that incorporates biometric data, like BBT, while touching upon political and religious events, like the papal ban on the pill in 1968.