Natural Family Planning in a Planned Parenthood World
A little while ago I was talking with a woman who teaches sex education in a public high school. Intrigued by what was being taught in teenage health classes and being a strong supporter of New Feminism, I asked if they spent much time teaching about the natural signs of female fertility and how to understand true women’s health. She quickly and rather sharply responded that yes, they DO spend time on this and that they actually give all the students, male and female, bracelets that help them understand and remember a typical woman’s menstrual cycle.
My initial response was “That’s great! I’m so glad they’re including this information for our youth at such an early age. That knowledge will really help them out later when they are trying to avoid or achieve pregnancy.” After all, knowing what a menstrual cycle typically looks like is great information for young people just learning about the natural rhythms and functions of the body, right?
I didn’t really think too much more about it at the time and it slipped from my memory. Until this last week when I was going through an old storage closet full of education materials at a health office I am interning at. I came across a box of “sex education” materials with a large Planned Parenthood sticker on the top. I presume that it has been used in outreach and education to teens as the graphics were very youth oriented. My curiosity goaded me to take a peek and see what passed as “education” on the very special act of sexual intimacy.
I saw the expected variety of condoms, but was honestly thrown a little aback by the emergency pregnancy tests, diaphragms, IUDs, patches, and spermicides. I was a little dismayed, but not really all that surprised that these things were being passed around health classes for teens to handle and become accustomed to. Instead of explaining that these items were all unneccessary adjuncts to a natural process, and that with a little self-control and communication these items can be completely obsolete, these things are now passed around as the “essentials” of sex education. These items that were outlawed less than a hundred years ago in our nation are now treated so casually and as a fundamental part of every teens sex education. But the biggest shock was yet to come…..
There at the bottom of the box was a brightly colored little ring of beads. At first is almost looked like a rosary. Perplexed, I picked it up and was shocked to see that it was a ring of CycleBeads. For those of you who have never heard of CycleBeads, they are a simple bracelet of colored beads meant to imitate the average menstrual cycle of a very regular woman. I had previously heard of them being used in third world countries to teach women about their bodies and used as a way to help them avoid pregnancy. These are the very beads that I now suspect the above mentioned health teacher was referring to when she proudly stated that YES, they were indeed teaching young women about the naturally occurring signs of their fertility. But here is where the problem with CycleBeads comes in.
As an educational tool to physically display the average menstrual cycle, I think CycleBeads can be helpful. But as a way to teach young women about their bodies’ naturally occurring signs of fertility, they are useless. As a method of family planning, they are really nothing more than the old Rhythm Method from the 1950s. Try as they may to dispute this fact, there is really no difference in how a woman is supposed to use these beads to avoid a pregnancy. Their purported success is based solely on a calculation of “standard days” of fertility, based on the belief that 80% of women have “standard cycles” of 28-32 days. They have named their method of family planning, The Standard Days Method. I had not realized prior to looking at their website that theyactually claim to be a method of family planning, or rather “natural birth control”, which should be a red flag for anyone promoting the counter approach of Natural Family Planning. There is a huge difference in ideology between ”natural birth control” and “Natural Family Planning”, but I digress. (I’ll save that for another post.)
The CycleBeads website says that using the beads is 95% effective for women who meet the criteria, but I am highly suspicious of these statistics and would like to see the actual studies asserting these findings. I am suspicious for many reasons but the primary reason being that this very elementary method does not take into account any variability in a woman’s cycle. Most of us know that a stressful month or an illness can throw off our fertility by several days. Sometimes for more than two or three weeks. CycleBeads as a method of family planning does not, and cannot take these fluctuations into account. It does not even try to track the naturally occurring signs of fertility. Without further knowledge of cervical mucus patterns, or temperature shifts, or softening of the cervix, a woman using CycleBeads is going to be completely at the mercy of the calendar and chance in whether or not she becomes pregnant. There is absolutely no actual education for women about how their body is working, except that it SHOULD follow this arbitrary schedule of beads that has been given to them with assurance of accuracy. Women are not taught to understand and respect the fluctuations of their individual bodies, but rather that they should fit into a norm established by researchers.
What in the world was Planned Parenthood doing giving out CycleBeads to teens? Why was this educational tool included in a box of contraceptives? Was it being touted as another method of birth control? Were teens being taught that this is what Natural Family Planning is all about? After looking on the Planned Parenthood website, I was shocked to find the beads actually for sale on their site as an alternative method of birth control. I was equally as shocked to see a recent addition to the CycleBeads page selling Planned Parenthood’s exclusive brand of Proper Atire condoms. There is a partnership between CycleBeads and Planned Parenthood that has nothing to do with actual sex education, rather the support of a business plan reaping its benefits from our ignorance.
CycleBeads were not being used for education, but for birth control. Why would Planned Parenthood choose THIS method of natural birth control and not a method that encourages women to look at their own bodies’ signs of fertility? Why not promote Creighton, or Billings, or Sympto-Thermal family planning methods? Methods with sound scientific research and very high rates of success? Why not choose a method that empowers women and teaches them to trust and honor and know their bodies?
I have my own theory about this and it has little to do with raising up a generation of young empowered women.
I suspect that Planned Parenthood has chosen to include the least effective and certainly least supported method of “natural birth control”, because it ends up causing many young women to fail in their attempt to use it, thus making them dependent upon the “solutions” offered at their clinics (Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in our country). Cyclebeads as a method of family planning will lead a young woman to believe that there must be something wrong with her body when she accidentally becomes pregnant while perfectly using this method. And that WILL happen the first time she experiences an exceptionally stressful or unusual month. She will never again trust that her body will not betray her and will choose a much more drastic method of family planning and take on the associated risks of that method. She will never know that there are methods of natural family planning that are just as effective as the contraceptives and pills she is using, but without any of the risks, because she has written off the possibility of natural methods working. I suspect that Planned Parenthood knows this.
I suspect that they chose the only method they could find that had some endorsement from religious groups so that the young woman raised in a faith-filled home would not shy away from THIS method of birth control. They found a “natural” method so that they could stand up to the criticisms of outside groups saying they were not providing alternatives to contraceptives. They found a method that is very simple and can be used all around the world, in countries traditionally opposed to contraception and abortion so that women, who evidentally are not smart enough to be taught real Natural Family Planning, would come in their doors for their CycleBeads. Planned Parenthood, in partnership with Cyclebeads is NOT the educational tool that I first applauded at my local high school. It is a continuation of the same old approach to women’s health and our fertility; we are not being given all the information that is available because we simply must not be able to know our crazy, broken bodies. Planned Parenthood doesn’t think women are capable of managing their fertility.
I had mistakenly thought that CycleBeads could be a good thing to give to our youth to help them learn about fertility and develop respect for women’s bodies. But given without the rest of the available statistics and facts about women’s fertility, they are simply setting up our youth for failure and dependence on groups like Planned Parenthood to get them out of their reproductive “messes”.
Why else would Planned Parenthood promote CycleBeads in the “sex education” curriculums of our high schools?