Anti-ScienceParentingScience

Skepchick’s Guide to the Uterus – When you Assume

Today let’s take a look at free birth control. I don’t mean free like free-from-the-clinic free or covered-by-insurance free, I mean $0 cost to you or anyone else. Unless, of course, it fails, then you’re talking about a few hundred dollars now or a couple hundred thousand or so for college tuition later. But it’s free now, and that’s what’s important.

The Catholic Church condones a single method of birth control, and that is “Natural Family Planning”, which is their jazzed-up-for-marketing name for the rhythm method.

Also in this edition, I will be talking about the absolute worst way to avoid pregnancy, complete with an example of the kind of real-life dumb ass that would rely on such a method.

What is the Rhythm Method?

The rhythm method is a family planning strategy (I am going to refrain from calling it “birth control”) that relies on the timing of a woman’s cycle to determine what days are safe to have sex if you don’t want to get all knocked up. For purists, the plan is simply to count days – when the woman gets her period, that’s day 1. The next week and a half or so are “safe days”. The next week or so are “baby days” and then the rest of the cycle is free and clear!

However, it should be noted that the method has been updated with new tips and tricks based on what people who want to get pregnant do. So, since couples who are trying to get pregnant do things like have sex during ovulation, and determine this using body temp and cervical mucous, people who are trying not to get pregnant simply don’t have sex during those fertile times, using the same indicators.

How effective is the rhythm method?

There is an old joke:

Q. What do you call couples who use the rhythm method?

A. Parents

It’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of natural family planning when “used properly”. I’ve read that it has a 1-9% failure rate. Which is not very helpful. You’ll either get pregnant 1 in 100 times or about 1 in 10 times if you properly monitor everything every month.

Typical use, however, works about 75% of the time.

Even when you use NFP perfectly, every month, your body may not cooperate, which would be fine if there was a way to know ahead of time that your ovaries will feel wonky next month. Alas, you cannot. And you may not know your cycle was off until your period is late. It could be late because your cycle is just behind schedule… or because Surprise! You’re experiencing the Miracle of Life!

Also, before this method can even be used, a couple must chart the woman’s cycle for at least 2 months. During those two months, the couple must not use any hormonal birth control and must remain abstinent or use an alternative method of birth control. And even after those first two months are charted, it’s important to remember if either of those two months were off-months, you may soon be expecting.

Really? 75% effective and you’re calling them ‘parents’? Come on.

75% of the time you won’t get pregnant using NFP.

vs

70% of the time you won’t get pregnant if you’re actually trying to get pregnant.

I think part of the issue is the fallacious assumption that if x causes pregnancy, then -x causes not-pregnancy. The problem is our bodies are far more nuanced than that, and not that obedient. Unfortunately, unless you trick your body or physically barricade your cervix, your body thinks it’s job is to make little skeptics*… and that’s what it’s going to try to do.

*your body actually doesn’t care whether you make skeptics or not, as long as you make more people

So what’s the verdict?

If you’re indifferent to having babies, if you have a very mild desire to avoid pregnancy or if you actually have a driving urge to reproduce, this method is for you. I think it’s naive to call this “birth control”, since it’s just as effective as the “too hot and bothered to bother” birth control method, and just slightly more effective than actively trying to conceive.

I actually take issue with it being called “family planning” natural or otherwise. Since it’s marketed as a natural form of birth control, people actually rely on it as such. They’re very much not planning a family. An honest person would call this “tricking people into having babies they don’t want by calling it birth control”. Fortunately, pretty much everyone outside the Catholic Church call it such.

Pros

  • Free
  • Condoned by the Catholic Church
  • No side effects from drugs
  • No allergies

Cons

  • 2 months of abstinence or non-hormonal alternative birth control
  • Condoned by the Catholic Church
  • Cannot be combined with other forms of birth control
  • Side effects may include pregnancy

Wait, if that’s not the worst birth control method, what is?

If you’re like me, you’ve been ignoring the warnings that “these things happen” and going about your life without a care. You’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, it took me like three years of trying to have even one baby. No worries!”

So you don’t use birth control.

You don’t use emergency contraception.

You smugly tell your fellow Skepchicks that you don’t use any birth control because you don’t need it. Then you volunteer to write a series of posts on birth control options.

Then one day, you realize it’s been a while since your last period.

Next thing you know, you’re due to have your second baby this December.

That is, if you’re like me.

Insisting to yourself that you won’t get pregnant is the least intelligent way to prevent pregnancy.

Trust me, I tried it… and now I’m pregnant.

ETA: It seems many of you are confused as to whether I’m happy or in a blind rage about this. Mr. Elyse and I consider this to be very good, albeit unexpected, news.

Elyse

Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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88 Comments

  1. The only form of birth control that works is keeping the trouser monkey in the pants. But we’re all human (most of us) right? There must be something psychological about our sub-conscience wanting us to reproduce, mostly for us men. If there wasn’t, we’d all have had vasectomies.

  2. Hey, you’ve just convinced me to finally go get an IUD.

    I’ll admit it – my guy and I have full-on vaginal intercourse while I am on my period. When I am not, we go for some of the alternative methods of getting our rocks off (mutual masturbation, oral, anal)

    I was on depo for 5 years but quit because I wasn’t fond of osteoporosis. I’ve been thinking about getting an IUD for awhile.

  3. The only times I’ve not used birth control, the result was a “little skeptic”. Both times where planned, intentional and almost immediately successful in producing a pregnancy (i.e. within weeks). I can only imagine what would’ve happened if we’d used the rhythm method.

  4. I have to admit – now that my own munchkin is almost ready to head off to preschool, I find myself glancing more than usual at adorable newborns. Fortunately, I can live vicariously through you now and skip the morning sickness. ;) Seriously, though, here’s to a new skeptic-in-training!

  5. Mazel tov, Elyse! I mean, if it’s what you want! Moosie will get a sibling to instruct in the ways of Mario Kart! Zoe will get a new puppy to look after and mooch cookies from!

    Happiness all around (apart from the physically backbreaking and emotionally draining work it is to raise children)!

  6. Yeah, I know a couple who use the rhythm method. They have sprog #3 on the way. #2 was the only planned one.

    Congratulations again for having another little skeptic/bartender-in-training on the way.

  7. Congrats & sympathies in appropriate measures as determined by Elyse:) Ah… the world needs smart people to breed more, so thank you to your contribution to the gene pool.

    Goofiness aside, great post. If I’d ever gotten ’round to starting my Sex Positive Blog, I’d be so pimping this post.

  8. Ditto on the congrats – if it’s what you want, of course.

    I married a Catholic, and in order to get married in the church, you had to sit through a full weekend seminar on marriage. One of the days was pretty much dedicated to sex. It was funny – the first speaker came out and reassured us that it wasn’t going to be all about what we weren’t allowed to do. And then, it was six hours of exactly that.

    But that wasn’t the most ironic part of the day. About three hours were given to two speakers who were discussing the rhythm method – how to use it, why it was bad to use other birth control, etc. And both of them had had the method fail; at least one of them multiple times.

    Also, both lecturers were male, which amused me. I’m sure if you asked the women involved, they would have rather had a one-time IUD insertion than go through all the poking and prodding with fingers, thermometers, etc. only to end up getting pregnant anyway.

    Then again, the Catholic Church doesn’t seem to care much about what women want.

  9. Wow!

    Well, gratz E! I for one am looking forward to hearing about the newest baby skeptic.

    And I am also thinking even more about the IUD or something a bit more proven…. I hate condoms and have had the pill fail on me.

    Again though, hooray for the next little Skeplet.

  10. So exciting Mama! I hope it’s a squirrel! <3

    In other news please let the next segment be all about how a fabulous new advancement in birth control technology that involves a painless Laser Egg Zapper with easy to use game console-like controls. That’s real and not just something I dreamed right?

  11. Unplanned pregnancies make the Pope smile, I hope you’re happy.

    On a more serious note, congrats*! *provided congrats are called for, if not then I meant to say, “I have read your notification of pregnancy and the information is now stored in my brain for easy access in the future.”

  12. Sheesh you guys, I doubt that she would have bothered to tell us if she wasn’t okay with the news… “By the way, I’m pregnant and bitter about it…”

    So, again, Gratz!

    Unplanned doesn’t always mean unwanted.

  13. @Outsider: “The only form of birth control that works is keeping the trouser monkey in the pants.”

    You don’t have to keep it in the pants. You just have to keep it out of the tang.


    And now that I know it’s safe…, Congrats E!

  14. @Elyse: I was wondering how long it would take other posters to begin suggesting skeptical, non-gendered names: Darwin, Randi, Sagan, etc. You thought the drink name contest was a tsunami of posts?

    I realize I haven’t said it yet, so: congrats on the little noodle!

  15. Congratulations Elyse! Good to hear that you are pleased with the unexpected news. It’s back to virgin Tang for a while.

    You will have to teach Moose how to extract his new sibling from the toilet when s/he gets stuck.

  16. @Gerg: “I was wondering how long it would take other posters to begin suggesting skeptical, non-gendered names”

    As I understand the biggest peeve of expecting parents is gratuitous name suggestions. My best friend threatened to homicide anyone who dared.

  17. @davew:

    It is kind of annoying. We didn’t tell anyone what we were naming Moose before he was born because we weren’t much interested in hearing “Oh, I was molested by a priest with that name.” or “There was a girl in my high school with that name. She totally gave everyone herpes.”

    But I’m not against having a little fun with it. Arribiata? Jebus? Gerg?

    Maybe we should have a contest!

  18. @SkepLit:
    Hey, I have a friend named Asif! Pronounced ah-siff. It’s an Arab name.

    Congratulations Elyse!
    Same thing happened to my sister – it took her a long time to get knocked up, then she got pregnant like three months after having the first.

    Something about thinking that breastfeeding was some kind of birth control (even though our father and aunt were born less than a year apart)..

    Maybe once your body does it once, it kinda “gets it”? I don’t know.

    OK, so my TMI: still pregnancy-free after four years of the pulling-out at the last minute method. What’s that “method” called (besides kinda risky)?

  19. Well, congrats on your “happy accident,” as I’ve heard it said. One more counteraction to the coming Idiocrasy!

    I’ve debated a number of different methods of birth control over the years, and have concluded that the most practical and reliable method, for me, is the birth control pill (coupled with condoms as necessary). I would prefer something I didn’t have to remember every single day, but I’m skeeved out by the idea of an IUD or the ring or the implant, and so I’ve been on the pill for, oh, sixteen years. (Holy crap!)

    Our current protection plan involves my husband having had a conventional vasectomy. For the sake of regulating my cycle and keeping my peace of mind, I remain on the pill -though recently, I’ve switched from the regular old-fashioned pill to the Seasonale-type pill. So far, so good.

    But if I were having children, I would name them after potatoes.

  20. @whitebird:

    Elexina is right, it’s called the “withdrawal method” or the “pulling out” method. It is pretty risky as sperm are released prior to ejaculation.

    As for infertility and surprise subsequent pregnancy – I’ve lost some weight, started exercising, eating better and generally taking better care of myself. Since one of the probable causes of my infertility was my weight, those are more likely the factors that led to a so-far-successful spontaneous pregnancy than my body just being a slow learner.

    There is a lot of misinformation and well-intended-but-really-shitty advice out there about infertility, causes and solutions. I could/should probably address this in SGUterus (not to be confused with The SGU) at some point.

    (This whole contraception info thing was actually just supposed to be one post, but it turns out that there is way too much information out there to cram it all in.)

  21. Okay, so the real question is, did you decide to write the articles before or after you actually got pregnant? (Assuming you can pinpoint that, I don’t have any of my own yet so I don’t know how that works.) Big congrats!!

    Also, where did the 70% and 75% stats come from? That’s really fascinating! The Wikipedia article on NFP (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_family_planning) confirms it with a number of studies with that wide range that you noted but… oh my god, is that really a picture of cervical mucus?

  22. @Nicole:

    70% was from this site http://www.drspock.com/article/0,1510,5245,00.html

    75% came from a whole bunch of googling. I finally decided that these sites’ stats seemed to sum up what I was seeing: http://www.pamf.org/teen/sex/birthcontrol/rhythmmethod.html and http://kidshealth.org/teen/sexual_health/contraception/contraception_rhythm.html

    (I really like the kidshealth website for info BTW)

    Catholic sites, however, will tell you that it’s very effective.

  23. Congrats to you, Elyse! I hope you have very little morning sickness, and an easy pregnancy!

    I use an IUD – the Mirena, and am actually on my second one (they last 5 yrs) and I love it – no forgetting, no period, no worries! It takes a while for your body to get used to it,(spotting, cramps, not worse than a period though) but after 6 mos, it is really nice!
    I recommend it to anyone who has already had kids and doesn’t want any more for now. It is often covered by insurance, and you are fertile again as soon as it is removed.
    But yes, enjoy your freedom of not worrying about it right now, since you can’t get more pregnant!

  24. @Elyse: Do it! Create your own skeptical, transforming robot, time traveling gladiator army! All shall tremble and quake in the presence of there wrath. You know, except when they’re cute and cuddly babies.

  25. @Elexina: That is true – they prefer to give it to women who have already given birth, and not everyone loses their period. But you might! My GYN has given them to women who haven’t had kids, though, so you may be able to find a GYN who will work with you if you haven’t had children yet.

    I like the name Stormtrooper. My son names all of his stuffed animals that one!

  26. Congrats on the ‘happy accident’! And on the health improvements that likely helped it along! :)

    The other useful role for the fertility awareness method is as a great birth control accessory – if you know when you’re likely to be fertile, you know that’s when you might want to be extra careful to make sure you use the primary birth control properly, and maybe add in a backup method just in case.

  27. If you name him/her Asif, the middle name has to be Issamock. Yes, Asif Issamock would be just enough to make people say, “Wait, what?” I also would suggest Skepticus Maximus.

    Since planning to stay child-free seems to cause pregnancy, there must be a “Murphy’s-type Law” about it, with a corollary that would cover my nephew. He and his wife already had a beautiful little daughter, but decided to have “just one more, maybe a boy.” Naturally enough, they had triplet boys, just to teach them a lesson. Logan has the most incredible blue eyes, that I wish I knew how to post a picture on this.

    Speaking of triplets, has it occurred to you that, maybe…?

  28. @Reverend Kel:

    Speaking of shut the hell up!

    Actually, this news is breaking after confirmation of a healthy heartbeat… a SINGLE healthy heartbeat… on the ultrasound. I am chock full of one embryo, thank you!

    Skepticus Maximus might be a little weird since my first kid’s name is Maximus.

    I def think Jill and I need to conspire on this one.

  29. @Elyse
    “Speaking of shut the hell up!”

    Yeah, I get that a lot.

    Not that I’m trying to poke the (mama) bear, but my nephew’s wife also started out with what her doctor thought was one heartbeat. Then later “only” two. Just sayin’. But if it makes you feel better, you have my permission to e-smack me. I can take it.

    You know, you could pull a George Foreman, and name ALL your kids Maximus. Delineate via Maximus Prime, M. Secundus, M. Tertius, etc.

  30. @Elexina: Any doctor who won’t insert an IUD in a nulliparous woman is a moron. There is a teensy tiny increased risk of expulsion for nulliparous women, that’s it.

    And insertion experiences seem to range all over the board, no matter the previous childbearing (or lack thereof) of the woman. The one resounding bit of advice is to definitely get a novocaine shot/numbing cream for your cervix. Makes the whole experience much easier.

  31. @Eliza: I saw a squirrel! He was going like this *squirrel noise*
    @durnett:

    Senora dances Calypso
    Left to right is de tempo
    And when she gets the sensation
    She go up in the air, come down in slow motion

    -Harry Belafonte Jump in the Line

    Jackie is a punk
    Judy is a runt
    They both went down to Berlin, joined the Ice Capades
    And oh, I don’t know why
    Oh, I don’t know why
    Perhaps they’ll die.

    -The Ramones Judy is a Punk

    @Outsider:
    Been effective for me for the past 28 years. Granted it is a lot easier when you don’t date or interact with anyone on any kind of social level. Makes for a highly effective form of birth control.

  32. Elyse en famile,

    Unreserved congratulations!

    I have had a “scare” (not the right time or right circumstances) but not yet a happy event. Wish you all the best, stalwart skepchick!!

  33. Well, since it’s sort of floated over from ‘prevention of’ into actual ‘pregnancy’ I may as well ask.

    Where do the weird food cravings come from? Sure pickles, ice cream, salsa, and any number of weird foodstuffs may have some nutritional value; but why those rather than a normal balanced diet (boosted a bit because one is ‘eating for two’)?

  34. When I was expecting, one of my best friends suggested the name Judge Dredd, on the reasoning it could work for either a boy or a girl.

    @Lyc: I’m not really sure, but I think it has something to do with womankind deserving punishment for Eve eating the apple.

  35. I always felt weird when people congratulated us when my wife got pregnant. As if screwing like savage rabbits was the Boston marathon or something. Um…congrats anyway, I guess.

    [email protected]…”numbing cream for your cervix” is the best album name for a punkcore band I have ever heard.

  36. @Amanda: I suspected… For now I’m fine with the pill, I think, especially since I don’t need to prevent pregnancy I’d rather not insert foreign bodies into my, wait… Hmmm.
    ANYWAY, “Numb Cervix” would make a good bitch grrl band name, too…

    As for baby names, I’m one for vague and subtle themes. Your first baby is Moose, your second baby could be Playmaker or Prime Time (see, I’m going with a Dallas-Cowboy-nicknames-of-the-1990s theme). Or, of course, there’s always Elk.

  37. No, no– Moose and Squirrel! It’s going to have to be Squirrel!

    And to go with Maximus… (Not Maximillian?), what about Medius? Then you can reserve Minimus for the third one.

    Or Secundus…then Tertium…um….

    Sorry. Actually, What about:

    Aenesidemus — Founder of the Pyrrhonist school of Skepticism in ancient Greece.

    Carneades — A radical skeptic hailing from Cyrene, and the first fellow to point out the failurse of the metaphysicians.

    Sextus Empiricus-the Roman philosopher who developed skepticism even further, insisting on empiricism as a basis for asserting knowledge.

    just a few thoughts

  38. @Lyc:

    A lot of pregnancy symptoms are unexplained. Like morning sickness, for example. We can only assume that they were beneficial at some point (since barfing up everything you eat can be quite harmful to a developing fetus who needs nutrition).

    I think the go-to hypothesis is that, way back when we didn’t have grocery stores and drive-thrus, the cravings let women know that they were lacking X nutrient. It’s probably mutated a bit… or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a way to make sure we eat.

    I don’t know. I just know that, right now, eating pizza means the toilet will not have a lonely night.

  39. @truthwalker:

    I don’t think the “congrats” is “congrats! you guys figured out sex!”

    I think it’s “Congrats! You made a person, and that’s pretty goddamn cool.”

    It also is a nice distraction where you can think about how much you’re going to love your baby instead of thinking about the first 6 weeks of hell… I don’t know how anyone gets through those 6 weeks with another bugger running around.

  40. Congrats! :-)

    Another crappy form of birth control is the “I’m breastfeeding and my friend told me that means I won’t ovulate” method, which is the most common reason given for abortions here in Denmark. That method only seems to work for people who actually want to conceive but can’t manage to ovulate without weaning.

    FWIW, my husband and I used the “Fertility Awareness” method for years with 100% success, and conceived on the second try when we wanted to.

  41. @Elyse: I always thought morning sickness was your body trying to puke the little parisite up. It seems that the body treats pregnancy an awful lot like a disesase. Just one more reason I am happy to be a man.

    Congratulations. My vote is for Squirrel.

    I can just hear you puting on a bad russian accent and telling Mr. Elyse.

    “Go and bring me Moose and Squirrel.”

  42. Congrats Elyse!!

    As someone who’s sprog was born just 6 weeks ago, I feel compelled to add an additional note about the rhythm method….

    It really can work fairly well, but any benefits from rhythm are immediately removed by various types of alcohol, smoking, and Rennaisance Faires. Hence why I’m now a dad. ;)

  43. I’m away on vacation for a few weeks and miss out on this? But a big congrats to you and Mr Elyse!! :)

    I’m also expecting a little skeptic (first) in October. I agree with you that NFP is no form of birth control. But it did a pretty decent job in planning our pregancy. Things went smoothly and was pregnant on the first try.

  44. Just to annoy you with further naming advice, you could name after a quality you admire. Grace, Hope, and Joy are already common names. But why not name your kid something better like Wisdom, Intelligence, or Success?

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