‘The Lord commands us to be fruitful and multiply’, the sacred words taken from the Book of Genesis which provide the foundation of the Catholic religion. However there is a stigma surrounding the Catholic Church’s beliefs on contraception with the illusion that all Catholics believe that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil and those who use it are sinners. Women today are ploughed with the societal norm that contraception is a staple of feminism and the key to feminine health, despite the unpleasant side effects on the body and mind.
Pippa Bonner from the Catholic Women’s Ordination which campaign for female rights within the Church said: ‘Non-Catholics can’t understand why we hold these views and we are often criticised for supposedly taking away a key feature of Women’s Rights. However ultimately we teach that women should take charge of their own bodies in order to protect themselves and do whatever makes them happy.’
Modern research into the Church and its stance on contraception provides a more unorthodox interpretation which contrasts the traditional portrayal of Catholicism. A 2008 study by The Tablet magazine of 1,500 Mass-goers in England and Wales found that 54.5% used the contraceptive pill and nearly 69% had or would consider using condoms.
Nina Azadeh from The Catholic Church for England and Wales states: ‘The Church recommends methods of self-observation and Natural Family Planning. Natural methods maintain the dignity of men and women whilst respecting the innate laws of the female body.’
Natural Family Planning involves a woman observing the various natural indicators of fertility on each day of her menstrual cycle such as body temperature and the length between periods. This will enable her to identify when she is fertile and likely to get pregnant.
The promotion of Natural Family Planning has recently gained increased recognition with more readily available online advice and the creation of the iOS and Android app ‘Natural Cycles’ which has been medically tested and is said to be just as effective as the contraceptive pill.
Nina Azadeh continues: ‘It is no accident that Natural Family Planning is called natural; it is ecological, holistic, healthy and an exercise in partnership.’ This sparks the question whether the ideology of the Catholic Church could be more useful to the female population and their relationships than society has led us to believe.
Whitney Belprez grew up as a casual Protestant and a regular user of the contraceptive pill since the age of fifteen: ‘I didn’t think of contraception any differently than what the predominant culture had taught. Being on some form of artificial contraception was the norm and my friends and family considered people who weren’t to be irresponsible.’
Whitney went on to meet the man who was to become her husband, a practicing Roman Catholic. She then made the decision in 2008 to convert to Catholicism and further explore the Church’s tenets, particularly in regards to contraception. She said: ‘I wanted to understand why the Church had these beliefs about contraception and I wanted to know more about Natural Family Planning but the lack of resources and the taboo nature of the topic meant I was simply directed to a brochure or the Diocese website.’
‘Despite knowledge on the Church’s teachings, the possibility of pregnancy was scary to both me and my husband as we were young and without steady jobs. Therefore we felt staying on the Pill was the only suitable option.’
After years of swallowing a pill which had accumulated an unnatural amount of oestrogen and progesterone inside her body, Whitney began to experience ovarian cysts, abnormal uterine bleeding and excessive pain which her doctor concluded could be an effect of contraception.
Research obtained by Family Planning Specialist Dr. David Delvin in 2016 found that 100 million women take the Pill worldwide making it the most popular form of contraception along with other methods such as the implant, IUD and the hormonal injection. The Pill is said to be 99% effective in preventing pregnancy. However Dr. Delvin found that the risk of blood clots (VTE) increased from 1 in 5,000 to 1 in 1,000 for women taking the Pill along with the endless list of more common side effects such as depression, migraines, weight gain, sore breasts, hair loss, low libido, irregular bleeding, and the rest.
The hormonal surge which is absorbed into the body when using artificial contraception is bound to have concerning effects on the female anatomy. Despite this girls are continually encouraged to put up with these problems and stresses without really knowing what harm contraception could be doing to their bodies.
Whitney decided to stop using artificial contraception in a bid to save her body. She said: ‘It was incredibly empowering, I had never felt healthier in my life. It was amazing to see how much the artificial hormones had interfered with my body and to finally be able to see that my body could do what it had been created to do.’
‘This was completely counter to the cultural message we hear which is that to take this drug to turn off a perfectly natural function of our body. For me coming off contraception was nothing but a positive experience.’
Whitney and her husband soon began to explore Natural Family Planning and in 2011 fell pregnant with their first child.
‘I am completely anti-contraception now, it is detrimental to women’s health and relationships. I would say our marriage has greatly improved since embracing NFP. There are so many women who are miserable taking contraception with its myriad of side effects, and having never heard of NFP or think it’s the ‘rhythm method’ and ineffective. I plan to teach all of my children NFP as teenagers and think that offering NFP classes for couples would be extremely beneficial.’
Many studies show NFP to be just as effective as artificial methods of contraception, both in preventing pregnancy and as an aid when couples are trying to conceive. A spokesperson for the Family Planning Association said: ‘There really is no preference on which method is better than another, it’s completely up to the individual to decide what works for them. The Natural Family Planning method does require the individual to be committed to ensure methods are used according to instructions to avoid unwanted pregnancy, but if done correctly it can be just as effective as artificial methods.’
In a bid to help women follow these instructions, the Natural Cycles app was launched in 2013 by Dr. Elina Berglund and her husband Dr. Raoul Scherwitzl. The app now has approximately 150,000 users worldwide and costs around £60 a year. The app works by the woman taking her temperature each morning and logging it into the app which then labels fertile days as red, when she should abstain from sex or use a condom, and infertile or ‘safe’ days are labelled green.
Harry Cymbler from the app’s PR team said: ‘The app was created to increase choice and freedom in regards to contraception. It will empower all women with knowledge about their body, menstrual cycle and fertility and therefore able to make their own conscious decisions.’
Harry continued: ‘We have had a large amount of attention from the religious press and the Catholic news agencies in particular. The app wasn’t created with a religious agenda but it has been interesting to see the different responses.’
Natural Cycles joins other fertility tracking apps such as Kindara, Ovia and Glow in what appears to be a revolutionary movement changing attitudes and increasing choice in regards to birth control once and for all. After decades of women being bombarded with the assumption that artificial contraception is an essential part of any sexually active adult’s life, the doors are opening for people who want to get away from the synthetic hormones and experiment with the steadily growing number of alternatives proven to be just as effective.
The increasing knowledge and resources associated with natural methods of birth control is an optimistic development for the Catholic Church in the hope that people will become more understanding of their views on sex and also to remind women that they should make their own decisions on what happens to their body and not feel pressured by the norms of society.