Catholic Contraception? Get the App

Two Catholic colleges, Georgetown University and Marquette University, have been helping to create apps for natural family planning.

January 24, 2020
 
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Georgetown University

Natural family planning has been having a bit of a moment.

Natural Cycles, a family planning app approved by the European Union as contraception, has been alternatively held up as both a savior and a scam. Research has rated the app 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, better than both condoms and the pill. The company raised $30 million in funding in 2017. But when a Stockholm hospital reported that nearly 6 percent of women seeking abortions there were using the app as their primary form of birth control, the company struggled with the resulting PR crisis.

Natural family planning methods, also called fertility awareness methods, involve tracking a woman’s fertile cycle and -- to prevent pregnancy -- abstaining from sex on days of high fertility (the process can be reversed for those trying to achieve pregnancy).

Both Marquette and Georgetown Universities have been, on a smaller scale, carving out their own part of that app space. The two Jesuit colleges have been involved in developing their own family planning methods, devices and phone apps. Roman Catholicism, like some other religions, eschews all other methods of birth control.

At Marquette, the Institute for Natural Family Planning created the Marquette Model in 1998. The method requires a woman to track her hormone levels with a urine monitor (it looks similar to a pregnancy test) and gives the option to input additional data, like body temperature and cervical mucus levels.

The institute now does research on the model’s efficacy and potential side effects and has also developed an app for couples. The Marquette Fertility app was launched in 2017 for both Apple and Android devices, though it will soon be taken down for redevelopment.

Georgetown's Institute for Reproductive Health has been involved in the development of iCycleBeads, another fertility awareness app. Staff at the institute developed both the Standard Days Method and the CycleBeads device that the app is based on. The Standard Days Method involves abstaining from sex on days eight through 19 of a woman’s cycle, and the CycleBeads, a ring of colored beads with a movable rubber marker, are a device to help keep track of those days. Georgetown owns the patent on the beads, which it has licensed to Cycle Technologies, the creator of the app.

Georgetown also developed the TwoDay Method, now being used in Cycle Technologies’ 2Day family planning app.

The institute now has been conducting research on the efficacy of the apps and other Cycle Technologies products. It also has highlighted work to bring related technology to India and other countries with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The institute did not respond to requests for comment.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that the Marquette Method has a failure rate of 11 to 14 percent with typical use, factoring in human error. Georgetown’s Standard Days Method has a 8 to 25 percent failure rate, and its TwoDay Method has a 14 percent failure rate. For comparison, birth control pills fail about 9 percent of the time, and condoms 13 percent. The most effective forms of birth control are hormonal implants, sterilization and abstinence.

Though neither university appears to be officially encouraging natural family planning by students, both have strict regulations regarding most other contraception.

At Georgetown, all businesses on main campus property are prohibited from selling condoms. Doctors at the student health center cannot prescribe hormonal birth control except for a medical reason, such as migraines or cramps. When the pill is prescribed, it is not sold at the Georgetown Medical Center pharmacy.

H*yas for Choice, the university’s pro-choice group, has been unrecognized by the administration since 1992. (In the 14 months the university did fund the group, a petition was created and sent to Pope John Paul II, with over 1,500 signatories asking that the Vatican revoke the university’s Catholic status.)

Marquette Medical Clinic will similarly not dispense condoms or prescribe birth control for nonmedical reasons.

Richard Fehring, director of the institute at Marquette, said natural family planning has been unjustly mocked and maligned by people who haven’t recognized that the model has moved far beyond the rhythm method to become much more effective.

“Natural family planning will maybe get a little paragraph in a textbook,” he said. “It’s sort of laughed upon.”

Fehring emphasized that while some women may be motivated by religion to use the methods, many are simply concerned about the pill and associated health risks.

“They don’t want to use artificial things to put into their bodies,” he said.

While the scientific consensus is that the majority of women do not experience adverse effects on hormonal birth control, google “going off the pill” and you’ll find a litany of articles from women who report that long-term contraceptive use gave them depression, decreased libido or a different personality. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, has classified birth control pills as carcinogenic.

While some other apps suggest the user employ condoms on her high-fertility days, the Marquette Fertility app, in line with Catholic teaching, suggests abstaining from intercourse on during those days.

“It is healthy for couples to integrate and learn to live with their fertility,” Fehring said. “For couples who are on natural family planning, the act of intercourse remains new and exciting because of that periodic abstaining.”

The Marquette institute also educates health professionals on how to help patients who want to use the method. Natural family planning often is helped by the guidance of a medical professional, because the process tends to require more commitment and discipline on the part of the patient than other methods.

While Catholicism may not be a part of every woman's decision to use natural family planning, the Church, Fehring said, is definitely supportive.

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