Has Natural Birth Control Been Proved Impossible?
When I read the headline yesterday, I was confounded. "Women May Ovulate More Than Once a Month," reported the international news service Reuters. The article explained that a new scientific study found most women ovulate two or three times, so it's impossible to predict ovulation, and this is why natural birth control doesn't work. Another news story even told the well-worn joke, "What do you call people who use natural family planning? Parents!"
I reacted as if someone told me two and two is five; it just didn't add up. I have used natural birth control successfully for nearly six years, and have seen clear signs of a single ovulation month after month. I teach natural birth control, and have looked at many women's charts, all of which report clear signs of fertility that my clients use to achieve or avoid pregnancy. I also recently published a comprehensive book about all birth control methods, Birth Control for Christians: Making Wise Choices. The multiple ovulation theory would contradict much of what I had written and researched.
Natural birth control has been important to Roman Catholics for decades, and is becoming increasingly popular among Protestants. Natural birth control involves monitoring a woman's cervical fluid and temperature, looking for the body's natural signals of fertility. Natural family planning users avoid all contraception, abstaining during fertile times to avoid pregnancy (this is the Catholic approach). Fertility awareness users may use condoms or diaphragms during fertile times (this approach is more often used by Protestants). Both approaches boast effectiveness rates ranging from 85 percent 99 percent—a big range, but effectiveness is highly dependent upon the couple using the method correctly and consistently. Couples who use natural birth control face naïve questions, jokes, and disbelief from their friends and family, and this new study seemed to add fuel to the fire.
As a professor, I require solid research from my students. I followed my own advice and hunted down the original research article, published in the July 2003 issue of Fertility and Sterility. The news stories I read simply got the story wrong. This study proposes a new model for understanding human ovulation. It is groundbreaking, fascinating, and important for women's health. It does not, however, say women ovulate more than once per cycle, nor does it draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of natural birth control.
More like mammals after all
Experts have long believed that human females ovulate differently than other mammals. Cows, pigs, and horses for example, have nearly constant ovarian functioning, some of which leads to ovulation. Scientists call this a "wave" pattern, that is, eggs are constantly maturing and dissolving, until one egg finally ovulates. Perhaps due to our distaste for comparing women to cows or pigs, humans were thought to be different. Women, it was believed, produced a small number of immature eggs only at the beginning of a menstrual cycle. One egg develops more successfully than the others, and it ovulates. In both of these models, estrogen and follicle stimulating hormone influence the development of eggs, and a third hormone, luteinizing hormone, surges and forces ovulation.
This new research may alter our understanding of this basic process by revealing that women, like other large mammals, ovulate in "waves." The Canadian research team, made up of two human reproduction researchers and the veterinarian who conducted cow ovulation studies in the 1980s, used results from 50 women in their study. The women agreed to allow researchers to watch the daily development of their eggs by using ultrasound technology.