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NewsTribune photo/Alicia LeGrand Andrea Schaefer and her husband Nick hold their two sons Jeremiah (left), 22 months, and Elijah, 9 months. The Schaefers said they planned to use NFP in their marriage from the beginning and used it to plan their sons’ births due to health and medical reasons. Andrea is now pregnant with their third child.
Though considered a religious method, health professionals and instructors of the Natural Family Planning methods encourage women to look into the health benefits of using NFP in their lives. Amy Dyke, an instructor of the NFP Sympto-Thermal Method (STM) for the Archdiocese of Peoria with her husband Craig, said many grandparents would laugh at women saying they were using NFP because they knew it as the Rhythm Method. The Rhythm Method was developed in the 1930s as the Catholic Church’s response for avoiding pregnancy instead of using contraceptives. The method was based on women having a 28-day cycle with ovulation occurring in the middle of that cycle. “Very few women truly have a 28-day cycle,” said Diane Dunniway, a nurse practitioner and medical consultant of women’s health at Saint Francis FerilityCare Center in Peoria. Dyke said the effectiveness rate was 76 percent and NFP got a bad rap as not being technologically sound or trustworthy. When Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical titled Humane Vitae in 1968 asking men of science to come up with a way to use more natural methods instead of contraceptives to control family planning, the NFP method began to change and grow in several ways. Dunniway teaches the Creighton Model (CrM) to her patients. It tracks changes in color, consistency and amount of cervical mucus through the woman’s cycle to determine whether she is fertile. It focuses on reproductive and gynecologic health, and uses medical evaluations and treatments to fix abnormalities and infertility. Dyke teaches STM which also looks at mucus and uses two other signs, temperature and the cervix, to tell when a woman is fertile. At the time of ovulation, the woman’s body temperature should rise and the cervix should go from being hard to soft. Dyke said these extra signs can reassure a woman that she ovulated. Dunniway and Dyke said the new NFP methods are more in line with modern understandings of how a woman’s reproductive system works and can go along with irregular cycles. “The great thing is you are dealing with the cycle as it is happening,” Dyke said. The changes also increased its effectiveness ratings to equal other forms of contraception. A secular study done in Germany in 2007 showed that the STM method had a 99.6-percent effectiveness rate for couples looking to avoid pregnancy. The CrM method showed a 99.5-percent method effectiveness rate in a study of 18,000 couples from five sites in Omaha, St, Louis, Wichita, Houston and Milwaukee. Both Dyke and Dunniway said they have seen women who had unexpected pregnancies while using NFP but most women were within the first few months of learning the methods. Dunniway said they ask women to restrain from genital contact in the first month of learning the program and if a couple decides to use a fertile day for sexual intercourse they “abandon” the method. “We teach the method and the research behind it, but we never dictate how people should use it,” Dunniway said. Dunniway said, like taking the pill or other contraceptive methods, the effectiveness will lower if the users are not diligent in daily practice of the method. She encourages her patients to examine their mucus every time they go to the restroom. “Once it becomes habit, it’s just part of their normal hygiene and it only takes a few seconds more during the day,” said Dunniway about practicing the NFP methods daily. She also said she can see health benefits for women who chose to use NFP over contraceptives. Dunniway said a contraceptive, such as the pill, dumps false hormones into the body like increased levels of estrogen and the sex hormone binding globulin which attaches to testosterone and lowers a woman’s libido. Dunniway also said she would treat patients on contraceptives with side effects, including blood clots, unusual bleeding, gall bladder issues, liver issues, mood changes and weight gain. “I was looking at all the problems and I thought ‘I was doing women’s health?’” Dunniway said about looking over her patient’s medical charts. Dunniway said she made the switch to teach CrM to her patients and stop prescribing birth control. She said oftentimes the pill is used as a “Band-Aid” to cover up health issues women are struggling with, such as cysts and heavy periods ,without actually fixing the true problem. Then, when a woman goes off the pill the problems can continue and infertility issues will remain. Dunniway said using NFP can allow a woman to look at her cycle and find clues in her charting that can help her deal with medical issues and infertility. She said she has used charts to help women who suffer from PMS, lower progesterone levels and other health issues. “If they would have known that 15 years ago, they would have had a better chance of getting rid of it and not living with it for so long,” said Dyke. Dyke said she not only sees religious women starting NFP but women who want to be healthy and not put a lot of chemicals and hormones into their bodies. Dunniway even has not sexually active young women who use CrM to fix health issues. Dunniway also said the method has a high rate of helping women who believe they are infertile achieve pregnancy with a 98-precent effectiveness rate of couples who want to get pregnant conceiving within six cycles. Andrea Schaefer and her husband Nick, from Ottawa, said she planned on using NFP in their marriage back when they were still engaged. They both wanted a big family and knew the side effects of using contraceptives. “God has his plan for me,” said Andrea. “I don’t want to interrupt that.” Nick bought Andrea an ovulation monitor before they were married. The monitor tests hormone levels to determine whether a woman is ovulating. The Schaefers then discuss whether they want to use her fertile time to conceive. “We don’t use any other form of contraceptives,” said Nick. “We have to be firm and use self-control.” They used the monitor to space out their three children, especially when doctors told Andrea she had to wait 18 months before becoming pregnant after a C-section she had for delivery of their first son. Nick said medical and financial reasons aren’t the only reasons they would wait to have children. The Schaefers also said they have become closer as a married couple from this experience. Dyke said improved communication between couples is another benefit of using NFP. The Family of Americas Foundation found a divorce rate of 3.6 percent among 505 users of NFP. She said she and her husband have improved communication skills from talking about when and why they should have kids which brings to light issues that might inhibit them due to reasons like financial issues or stress. “If you can get it right in the bedroom it can carry out to other aspects in the marriage,” said Dyke. Dyke also said practicing chastity in marriage can help the couple gain respect for each other and experience each other in different ways. She said the respect she gets from her husband helps her to become a better, wife, mother and person. “We see a lot of selfishness in the world and NFP teaches selfless love and to give of your self in a way that is different than what culture speaks,” said Dyke. Dyke said if a woman is interested in learning more about NFP, they should research the methods and find a doctor that is willing to work with them. The Diocese of Peoria’s website has more information about the different NFP methods, www.cdop.org, and the website onemoresoul.com has lists of classes and doctors who teach NFP methods with locations. “It’s empowering to say I know exactly what’s going on with my body right now,” said Dyke about using NFP in her daily life.