BY CRISTINA ODONE
NATURAL FAMILY planning has been hailed as an effective, "ecological, feminist, economic," means of birth control in an article published in the latest edition of The Lancet, one of the world's premier medical journals. In a two-page article entitled "Natural Family Planning (NFP) in the 1990s", Drs Robert Ryder and Hubert Campbell revealed this week that studies carried out in the past five years showed the NFP pregnancy rates to be comparable to pregnancy rates for artificial contraceptive methods in well-motivated couples 1.7 to 10.6 pregnancies for every 100 women.
"Those strongly motivated to avoid pregnancy will have extremely low pregnancy rates (approaching zero in a huge study amongst the poor and illiterate in the slums of Calcutta)", Dr Ryder, a Catholic, concluded. Such results compared favourably with more popular means of contraceptives such as the pill, the cap, or condom, according to the doctors: "Pregnancy rates for artificial contraceptive methods may be considerably higher than this in less wellmotivated couples". Church-approved natural family planning, dismissed by critics as the "Vatican Roulette", relies on identifying ovulation the woman's fertile time by observing the physical changes in temperature, cervical mucus, and position of the cervix. Because the method focuses on the woman's period of fertility, NFP can also help those women who want to achieve pregnancy. In their article, Drs Ryder and Campbell pointed out that although critics of the method have argued that NFP was ineffective in countries where education standards were poor, a World Health Organisation study carried out in 1975-9 showed that "irrespective of cultural, educational, or economic background, over 95 per cent of fertile women can, and are willing to, recognise the mucus signs of fertility." The Lancet article also praises the NFP as profamily, pointing out that "the requirement for men and women to co-operate is a strength of NFP... the mutual discipline of NFP can foster marital harmony and enhance the relationship". It is also, according to the doctors, a pro-feminist method: "since women are potentially fertile for no more than six to eight days in the cycle, these easily recognised symptoms empower women through the knowledge they impart regarding their state of fertility." Dr Elizabeth Clubb, Medical Director of the Natural Family Planning Service, said that in the runup to the United Nations conference on women in Beijing, The Lancet support of the NFP would contribute to the "re-evaluation of a method that for too long has been attacked as antiwomen." Dr Clubb told the Catholic Herald that the 33 references given in the article "will have helped the credibility of the NFP in medical circles."
To date, according to Drs Ryder and Campbell, the medical establishment including earlier works in The Lancet had been "dismissive" of NFP.
Liz Hunt, medical correspondent for the Independent told the Catholic Herald that "the publication of this article is a sign of the growing interest in NFP following unresolved scares about the pill and dissatisfaction with alternative methods such as IUDs and hormonal implants." The article has been welcomed by the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC) as "extremely valuable in dispelling the myths" surrounding NFP. Mary Corbett, Chief Executive of the CMAC , told the Catholic Herald that "we have to recog nise that we have to undertake a massive attitudinal education with regards to the NFP. There is a whole generation that switched off some time ago about NFP to the detriment, I would argue, of women."
Ms Corbett said The Lancet article went "a long way to prove that NFP is a creditable alternative."
She went on to say that NFP, which depended on a couple's knowledge of the reproductive process, assisted men and women to "make the moral decision of controlling their body," and in this way was key in "the total context of the development of the person."