Many opt for natural method of family planning

by Kristin Holtz

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In today’s environmentally conscious society, natural is the way to go — even when it comes to deciding the right time to have a baby.

More couples are turning to natural family planning as a way to achieve or postpone a pregnancy. Whether for religious, health or environmental reasons, these couples are shying away from contraceptives and having the family they always wanted.

“It just made sense,” said Juli Currie, a mother of seven from Chanhassen. “This fits with what we believe.”

Natural family planning has come a long way from the old rhythm model, which chanced conception on the calendar. Today’s methods incorporate scientific-backed research with impressive success rates.

Natural family planning is about understanding a woman’s hormonal balance, said Mary Beth Biese, a natural family planning instructor from Eden Prairie. Unlike men who are always fertile, women go through monthly cycles of fertility and non-fertility determining whether a woman is capable of conceiving.

Couples striving to get pregnant can monitor when the woman is most fertile to increase their odds of conceiving. It also works for couples avoiding pregnancy, since couples abstain from intercourse during highly fertile days.

“The main thing is we get to know our bodies and the husbands are aware of what we’re going through,” Biese said.

Biese, a certified Family of the Americas instructor, teaches the Billings Ovulation Method, which charts the texture and appearance of a woman’s mucus secretions over the course of several months to create a pattern of fertility.

For couples looking to have a child, it takes on average three cycles to conceive, according to Family of the Americas. When used to postpone a pregnancy, it has effectiveness rates of 98 to 99 percent.

“When you follow the guidelines, it’s very effective,” Currie said. “To actually do it [though], day in and day out, I have my moments.”

Currie and her husband Bill first learned the symptom-thermal method of natural family planning while attending a small Catholic college years ago. The symptom-thermal method requires a woman measure her temperature daily. The couple switched to the Billings method a decade ago.

“We found it to be simpler, easier to do,” Currie said. “Everyone is different in terms of their bodies and the science of their body and this just worked best for us.”

THE CHOICE

Dr. Frani Knowles, a family medical physician at New Ulm (Minn.) Medical Center, quit prescribing birth control two years ago. She now teaches the Creighton Model Fertility Care System of natural family planning.

Knowles patients choose natural family planning for a variety of reasons, she said. Some cannot take hormonal birth control because of medical issues, while others do not like the side effects.

Some couples have environmental concerns about the birth control pill, which not only travels through a woman’s body but into waterways, Knowles said. Experts have pointed to synthetic estrogen as the cause of reduced fertility in male fish.

Many cite religious reasons. For example, the Catholic Church is opposed to birth control.

The debate over the effectiveness and safety of birth control has raged for decades.

The effectiveness and convenience attracts many women to hormonal birth control, said Dr. Diana Gillman, an OB/GYN with Allina Medical Clinic and St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Shakopee. Hormonal birth control, including the pill or Depo-Provera injection, prevents a woman from ovulating and producing an egg for fertilization.

Contraception, however, can mask reproductive health issues, said Knowles. For example, doctors often prescribe hormonal birth control for young women dealing with painful menstrual cramping.

While it may alleviate the pain, it can also cover up a larger problem, like endometriosis, in which uterine lining spreads and causes scar tissue to build.

“The longer you cover something like that up, the longer scarring continues and increases the chances of those women becoming infertile,” Knowles said.

The suggestion that birth control causes infertility is absolutely false, said Gillman, noting that many women begin ovulating after missing just a few pills. Depo-Provera injections, however, require a much longer return rate. It can take up to 18 months after the last dose for women to ovulate again. Gillman does not suggest Depo-Provera as a short-term birth control method.

Some medical studies have also linked artificial hormones to higher incidence of breast cancer, Knowles said. A 2006 meta-analysis published by the Mayo Clinic found that oral contraceptives put women at significantly increased risk for premenopausal breast cancer, especially women who use them prior to having a child.

Gillman disagrees, saying there is no known link to breast cancer. Studies have also consistently shown that oral contraceptives reduce the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Gillman advocates the use of intrauterine devices, a small, T-shaped foreign body, which is placed in the uterus to prevent conception. IUDs, which are heavily used overseas, prevent fertilization by killing sperm and hardening the uterine lining, making it inhospitable for a fertilized egg to grow. They are reversible.

IUDs are easy and nearly foolproof, Gillman said. However, they are a hard sell in the United States thanks to the models of the 1970s, such as the Dalkon Shield, which led to a number of deaths from septic miscarriages.

BENEFITS

Knowles is a proponent of natural family planning because it works with a woman’s reproductive health instead of taking it over with artificial processes.

The Creighton Model combines ovulation tracking with medical tests, such as labs or ultrasounds, to identify and treat medical issues related to reproduction, explained Luci Gouin, a fertility care practitioner and nurse.

For example, “naprotracking,” as the model calls it, can identify whether a woman has a short post-peak phase usually indicating low levels of progesterone — a common cause of miscarriages, Gouin said.

After a miscarriage six years ago, Heidi Flanagan and her husband, John, figured something was wrong. They tried some fertility treatments that fit their pro-life beliefs; however, the treatments didn’t work and made Flanagan ill.

She began working with a nutritionist who diagnosed her as hypoglycemic. With her diet in control, the Flanagans, of West St. Paul, returned to a more natural method of conception and have three young ones — Owen, 4, Stephen, 2, and Joy, 10 months — to celebrate today.

“I think that natural family planning sells itself,” she said.
Knowles, too, has had great success with the Creighton method, saying 75 percent of her female patients with normal fertility achieve a pregnancy in the first cycle. Ninety-five percent are pregnant by the sixth cycle.

To avoid a pregnancy, couples must abstain from intercourse during a woman’s fertile cycle, usually five to seven days a month, Knowles said.

Currie and her husband used the method to space out her pregnancies, such as when she was a bridesmaid in her sister’s wedding.

Beyond achieving or postponing a pregnancy, natural family planning can also strengthen a couple’s marriage, Biese said, because it requires couples to communicate and be respectful of each other’s bodies.

In a November 2002 study, Family of the Americas Foundation found that couples who practice natural family planning have much lower divorce rates, attend church more often and share a more profound intimacy.

“It becomes more of an ‘us’ issue,” Currie said. “You do have to communicate and work together because it takes two to tango.”

“It’s the best thing for a marriage in terms of communication among spouses and empowering women to feel that every part of them is important, including their fertility,” Knowles said. “And that their spouse respects this fertility, as well as every part of them and does not want to shut that part down when it’s not convenient.”

Biese would like to see natural family planning integrated into mainstream medical practices, similar to breastfeeding.

In the 1970s, Biese was active in the La Leche League at a time when most doctors did not advocate breastfeeding and few mothers nursed their children.

Today, most physicians recommend breastfeeding for nutrition and many hospitals employ lactation consultants to assist new mothers.
“I hope medical professionals will see [natural family planning] is so much healthier for families,” she said.

With seven children, the Currie family might not seem like the best poster child for natural family planning. However, Currie said all of her pregnancies were planned in the sense that she and her husband were open to the possibility of having another child at the time.

For that, the Curries have the big family they always wanted — when it was best for them and God.

“Natural family planning beats them all. There’s no comparison,” Currie said.

Kristin Holtz is a staff writer for the Shakopee Valley News. She can be reached at kholtz@swpub.com.

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