The Truth You Need to Know About the CDC's Effectiveness Rates for Fertility Awareness Methods

And why we are petitioning to change them.
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And why we are petitioning to change them.

The birth control debate has certainly been a hot topic since election season and the new healthcare bill in Congress. But while people are arguing over coverage of hormonal birth control and IUDs, there's another women's health conversation that isn't getting as many headlines: natural fertility.

Women's natural fertility cycles indicate so much about women's health, which is why we inform women about fertility awareness-based methods (FABMs). FABMs are inexpensive, green, and are as effective as hormonal contraceptives with correct use. In addition to helping users achieve or avoid pregnancy, using an FABM can provide clues to identify and treat a number of other underlying health issues that are otherwise masked by hormonal birth control.

So why don't more doctor's talk about FABMs?

The answer, in part, is that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) cites a failure rate of 24 pregnancies per 100 women for women using FABMs to avoid pregnancy. But that stat is misleading. Dr. Marguerite Duane, a board certified family physician and Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University, is co-founder and Executive Team Leader of FACTS – the Fertility Appreciation Collaborative to Teach the Science.

Dr. Duane explains, “The data comes from a retrospective survey based on patient recall, a flawed methodology, plus 86% of the respondents reported using variations of the calendar rhythm method, [which is not a modern FABM] which explains why the failure rate they report is so high.”

The calendar rhythm method is based simply on keeping track of one's menstrual cycle days for at least 6 months before estimating the fertile period; modern FABMs, on the other hand, are symptoms-based, meaning they rely on physical markers like cervical fluid and body temperature.

What the CDC isn't telling us

In the last sixty years, there has been great progress in developing more accurate FABMs. Modern FABMs observe daily biomarkers like basal body temperature, the absence or presence and quality of cervical mucus, and hormone levels to determine the length of a woman’s monthly cycle, and the length of each phase.

Backed by plentiful research, these evidence-based methods include the Billings Ovulation Method, Creighton Model, Sympto-Thermal, Sympto-Hormonal, and Standard Days Methods. With correct use, studies show FABM effectiveness rates range from 95.2% to 99.6%. Dr. Duane says, “Even with typical use, the effectiveness rates of FABMs are comparable to most commonly used forms of birth control, with unintended pregnancy ranging from 2-14%.”

How this affects women's health

Only 6% of medical professionals are aware of FABMs' true efficacy rates, which means an unfortunately small percentage of women have access to this information at their doctor’s office.

Yet the more women learn about the overprescription of the Pill or about the adverse effects of hormonal birth control, the more they are looking for other options. Up to 60 percent of surveyed women report that they're interested in learning more from their doctors about non-hormonal, non-barrier, and nonsurgical methods of birth control.

Dr. Duane says, “FABMs are the only methods that don’t interfere with the natural cycle, the woman’s body or the act of intercourse. . . . Women who learn FABMs have a better understanding of their body and their fertility. Many more women would use FABMs if it wasn’t for this lack of information.”

What you can do to change it

You can sign a petition launched by FACTS and Natural Womanhood, asking the CDC to revise its information. These two organizations are not the only ones to recognize the importance of updating the CDC's quoted statistics. The World Health Organization also recognizes FABMs as the only methods of family planning with no medical side effects. Moreover, a year ago, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) asked the Department of Health and Human Services to change the effectiveness rates they report, but no change has yet been made. In the AAFP’s words, “Family physicians need accurate data to share with patients who are making family planning decisions.” Dr. Duane reports that members of Congress are concerned about this issue. Raising a collective voice through at least 100,000 signatures will encourage their response.

Access the petition here, and then share it with the women—and men—in your life. We can’t make informed decisions if we don’t have all the information. For ourselves, for our sisters, for our friends, and for our daughters, there is no better time to appeal for the truth than right now.

Photo Credit: Erynn Christine Photography