Is Fertility Awareness a natural alternative to the Pill?

Is Fertility Awareness a natural alternative to the Pill?

Is Fertility Awareness a natural alternative to the Pill?

A packet of birth control pills is shown in this 2010 photo. (Credit: Nancy Wiechec/CNS.)

Catholic feminist Anna Keating says that beginning to see one’s fertility and biology, not as an enemy to be eradicated, but as an indicator of health to be understood, is a huge shift. Fertility Awareness gets people to think of themselves as fundamentally relational, and allows them to start thinking about what they want those relationships to look like.

[Editor’s note: Anna Keating is the author of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life and the Coordinator of Catholic Life at Colorado College. She also co-owns Keating Woodworks, a handmade furniture studio. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She recently spoke with Crux’s Charles Camosy about the Fertility Awareness Method.]

Camosy:  Many Crux readers will know you from your book and blog The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life, or from your speaking around the country, but now we find you teaching a Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) workshop at a very secular liberal arts school in Colorado Springs. Tell us a bit about how this happened?

Keating: I first got interested in Fertility Awareness after a bad experience with the Pill. I was 23 when I married and went on an oral contraceptive, a daily dose of synthetic hormones that would prevent me from ovulating or having a cycle (although I had little idea exactly how it worked at the time). The consultation with my physician took less than a minute.

I experienced side effects, the worst of which were daily chronic migraines. I went off the Pill at 26, to try and conceive, and my migraines and the other side effects went away. My happiness, motivation, and ability to write returned.  

On the Pill, I saw a number of doctors about my migraines and other health issues, including a neurologist, all of whom could find nothing wrong with me.  The doctors continued to prescribe more medications to combat what turned out to be the side effects of the birth control. This, even though the side effects of hormonal birth control are well known and feminists in the 70s fought to have them included on the packaging.

In speaking with friends and family and in working with college students, I noticed that a lot of them were also having health issues that might be connected with their birth control. Several Of my immediate family members had life-threatening blood clots (DVTS) as a result of the Nuva Ring or hormone replacement therapy.

Pharmaceutical companies have paid out 100s of millions of dollars in liability lawsuits to women who have been harmed, some of whom have died from their products. Long acting contraceptive methods like IUDS release 25% more hormones.

Contraception solves some problems, but it doesn’t solve every problem. Even with free hormonal contraception there are still a million abortions in the U.S. every year, so I think body literacy should be part of the conversation.

Recently, I proposed a workshop on the spirituality of menstruation, and fertility awareness as an embodied spiritual practice, as in, “You might think this is crazy, but what if we taught them how to track their cycles?” I didn’t know if students in a very progressive, secular, or interfaith setting would be interested in learning FAM, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

After I taught a workshop at the “Coming Together” conference, a Women’s Studies major from Yale asked me, “How come I’ve never been taught how my cycle works?” I said, “That’s a really good question.”

Fertility Awareness methods are free, green and effective but doctors don’t teach them. It’s a fee for service model in the U.S. and education is not a billable service. By contrast, hormonal contraception is a $22 billion a year industry in the U.S.

As I mentioned earlier, this generation eats seasonally, they recycle, they want to reduce their impact. They get that less is sometimes more. Also, they don’t have trouble accessing artificial birth control. It couldn’t be more ubiquitous.

Maybe the Pill is not as much of a sacred cow for them as it was for Boomers. They’re more open to questioning Big Pharma and its impact on their health, relationships, and the environment, especially when the information is presented in a non-judgmental way.

Some of these young women have never experienced having a cycle. They know what’s it’s like to have been given an implant as a child without informed consent. Or they’re celibate but curious about how the method works and how their bodies work.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals found in plastics and the Pill pollute the water. They sterilize fish populations, making them intersex, and impact boys. 90% of sperm in young males are malformed because synthetic estrogens in the water can’t be filtered out.

And FAM is more accessible and varied in tone than it used to be, there are apps, for goodness sake.

But many know you as a progressive, feminist Catholic. Isn’t skepticism about contraception and advocacy of FAM conservative and anti-feminist?

If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be teaching FAM I wouldn’t have believed you! But what can you do? Follow the truth wherever it leads, and you will find yourself in what Augustine calls the “region of unlikeness.” I’m really stubborn and sometimes I back my way into appreciating a Catholic teaching.

If you’re passionate about women’s health and you lead with that you will be described as a progressive feminist, and that’s fine, but I don’t think caring about women’s health should be simply a left/ right issue. I think women’s health is a Catholic issue, because it’s a question of human flourishing.

But yes, I am a Whole Life feminist and I think the most pro-woman position is to teach young women (and men) how their bodies actually work. These are college students. They deserve to know.

Beginning to see one’s fertility and biology, not as an enemy to be eradicated, but as an indicator of health to be understood, is a huge shift. FAM gets people to think of themselves as fundamentally relational, and allows them to start thinking about what they want those relationships to look like. It’s also a rejection of the fertility as disease or disability framework.

Too often, the question of women’s flourishing gets pushed aside by both the right and the left, for the sake of expediency.

Why should we accept the womb-less male body as normative? Why should we have to become less biologically female (not having a fertility cycle, getting pregnant etc.) in order to have dreams? Why should we take a medication that reduces our desire?

There are unfortunately so many instances of attempting to medicalize and treat what is ultimately a natural function of women’s bodies. I gave birth without medication after taking birth classes, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

And yet, only 50 years ago, many women were drugged during childbirth so that they had no memory of labor or delivery, because it was thought to be too traumatic for them. The idea that women aren’t resilient, that we’re emotionally fragile, was a part of why doctors used twilight sleep during the 20th century.

No woman today would accept the birth experience of 50 years ago, where women were not educated about their options, so why would we accept a 50-year-old method of birth control with so many side effects to our bodies, our children’s fertility, and the natural world, that leaves us feeling that our fertility is a complete mystery.

Is it pro-woman to put teenagers on hormonal contraception that results in a 50% increase in breast cancer and an 80% increase in depression and anxiety?

Is it pro-woman to give girls hormones that change who they’re attracted to or that thin certain areas of their brains? I think it’s pro-woman to love and accept yourself.

Oh, that makes sense. We find the principle that the female body must be augmented to meet patriarchal demands in many other contexts as well.

I think that’s right. Both augmented and suppressed.

Straight cis-gendered girls were the test subjects for body dysmorphia, body modification, and the over-medicalization of childhood. We were doing what transgender people are doing now, in most cases encouraged by the preferences of straight conservative men.

Girls in the early 2000s were taught that what mattered was the outside of their body conforming to some kind of external patriarchal standard, not what was happening inside: emotionally, physically, or spiritually.

Straight cis-gendered girls were the first to be given artificial hormones to make them sterile, suppressing that which makes them biologically female, the first to see the body produced by cosmetic surgery as the ideal.

We grew up with the idea that the “real you” was the one produced by medical science. As more women modified their bodies to pass as the straight man’s ideal, (big breasts, no underarm hair etc.) a non-altered body started to look strange.

But I think the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. For example, I see more actresses today with non-augmented bodies than I did when I was growing up in the Baywatch era. And the number of non-religious people who are interested in natural cycling is huge.

How are you able to be so effective in making this case to a largely secular student bodyone that is hyper-skeptical of religion and especially Roman Catholicism?

I don’t know. Every student I’ve encountered has been open to dialogue. It helps to have a sense of humor and admit that you don’t have all the answers.

I’ve had to wrestle with these issues myself. But when I tell students who are skeptical about religion that their body is sacred and good and hard-wired for love and connection, they are receptive to that.

Do you have any recommended sources for those who would like to learn more about FAM?

I’ve come to appreciate a lot of Catholic teaching over the years from both Catholic and non-Catholic sources. Sometimes the Church teaches something I initially think is crazy that turns out to be prophetic.

I would recommend: “Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control” and “Natural Birth Control Made Simple”. Also, “Humane Vitae” and “Laudato Si.”

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