Jan. 1, 2001 -- Nathan and Kathy Sendan begin each day with a
pen, paper, and digital thermometer. The El Sobrante, Calif., couple dutifully
record Kathy's basal body temperature before they even think of drinking their
morning coffee. Then they combine the temperature readings with other
physiological data to track Kathy's fertility cycle and, in effect, to time
Such is the routine for those who practice natural family
planning, a method that shuns hormones, condoms, and other artificial forms of
birth control. It is the only form of contraception given the stamp of approval
by the Catholic Church, but many proponents see a growing interest among
non-Catholics as well.
By Laura Beil
Christen Childs woke up on September 12, 2009, in the pitch dark of early morning with what she thought was a pulled muscle in her leg. She reached down to massage the cramp, trying to fathom how her left calf could be so achingly sore when she hadn't made it to the gym in weeks. This was a Saturday — by Monday, her leg was swollen and hot, and when she tried to stand, jolts of pain shot up to her spine. She consulted her brother-in-law, a doctor, and he told her to go to the ER immediately...
Joseph Stanford, MD, assistant professor of family and
preventive medicine at the University of Utah and former president of American
Academy of Natural Family Planning, estimates that as many as 40% of those now
practicing this technique are non-Catholics. Natural family planning
"offers an alternative where you don't have to mess up your physiology --
you're more in tune with your body, and there are no side effects,"
"It's not just a Catholic thing anymore," says Patrick
Homan, the western region field director for the Couple to Couple League, an
Ohio-based institute whose 1,351 teachers offer instruction on natural family
planning. "Our numbers have been going up for the last five to six
Indeed, the Sendans are not Catholic, but they chose natural
family planning because of dissatisfaction with the pill. "I liked the idea
of not putting chemicals in my body," says Kathy Sendan.
She recalls being "grumpy all the time" during the
three years she was taking oral contraceptives. She also had a more specific
health concern: "I have epilepsy, and the [antiseizure medication could]
have made the birth control pill less effective," she says.
Numbers Remain Small
To be sure, the number of people choosing natural family
planning still remains small. According to a 1995 survey conducted by the
National Center for Health Statistics, only 1.5% of women aged 15-44 reported
using periodic abstinence as a means of contraception. That trails the 17.3% of
women choosing the pill, the most popular form of reversible contraception.
Female sterilization was the most popular method at 17.8%, followed by the
condom at 13.1%. Advocates of natural family planning say their efforts are
hampered by the stigma of the "old" calendar rhythm method, which
relied on the expectation that ovulation occurs on Day 14 of a 28-day cycle,
and resulted in numerous "surprise" pregnancies.