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  • Writer's pictureKaroline Heldt, CFCP

History of Contraception and Natural Family Planning

On this cold rainy spring Tuesday (at least if you’re reading this in real time in mid-Michigan), I have a little history lesson for you. I know, I know, history… YAWN. But knowing where we’ve come from can give a lot of perspective on where we find ourselves now. So grab a hot coffee or warm tea and settle in for a 4 minute “History of Contraception and Natural Family Planning”.

A History of Contraception:

Contraceptive methods have been around, basically, since the fall of men. There’s mention of contraception all the way back in the Old Testament. Genesis 38 talks about Onan being struck dead for using the withdrawal method. Contraception has only evolved since the Old Testament. However, for most of history, there wasn’t a wide cultural acceptance of contraception, specifically amongst Christians. As a matter of fact, as recently as the late 1800’s, there were even laws in the United States criminalizing the use of contraceptives and abortifacients. There was a strong stigma that contraceptives were only used by prostitutes or people having affairs. They were not widely used in marriages or by young people. Ultimately these types of laws were considered unconstitutional but the point is that it really wasn’t until the last few decades that society at large has started to view sex without procreation, commitment or consequence as essential to human happiness - a view that although widely held is wildly misleading.

In terms of Christianity’s history with contraception, from 0AD until 1929 there was uniform agreement that any artificial means of regulating births were immoral. However, in the year 1930 at the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church of England became the first Christian body to give sanction to the use of artificial forms of contraception. It gave very limited approval for the use of contraception only within marriage and only for very grave reasons. But it established a precedent that there were situations where contraceptive use was morally licit. In a short time this led to wide and almost complete acceptance of contraceptive use among Christians. The Catholic Church was and has been the primary exception to this rule, categorically condemning contraceptive use under any and all circumstances. The Church has maintained the position that contraceptive use is bad for women, bad for families and bad for society. (See the Catholic encyclical Humane Vitae for more on this.)

The pill is and has been from its very beginning anti-woman. In the 1950’s, Margaret Sanger teamed up with controversial researchers Drs Pincus and Rock to develop a hormonal form of birth control. It was tested in unethical clinical trials on impoverished women in Puerto Rico. In the clinical trials, women reported severe side effects and 3 women died. Their deaths were never investigated and the pill was merely reformulated to reduce the chance of death. The other side effects reported by the women were dismissed as being unreliably reported or acceptable to obtain the benefits of the pill. The pill for men has also been researched but the side effects of depression, libido changes and acne (all less severe than the symptoms reported by women) were considered totally unacceptable by researchers. To date there is no hormonal birth control available for men. The first hormonal birth control pill for women was approved by the FDA in 1960.

Present day, 99% of women aged 15-44 who have ever had sex have used some form of contraception. 60% of women of reproductive age are currently contracepting. These statistics don’t discriminate when it comes to Christians or non-Christians. In one study on the pill it was noted that large numbers of Christians reject moral teachings against contraceptive use and that people in general see contraceptives as essential to happiness. We’ve become a society where, for many people, our way of life is unthinkable without the availability of the pill.

For more on this fascinating history and the statistics noted above, please see Dr. Janet Smith’s presentation “Contraception, Why Not?”. It’s available as a free digital download.

A History of NFP:

Attempts at understanding fertility, infertility and family planning have been discovered as far back as 1900 BC in ancient Egyptian manuscripts. But truly feasible attempts at natural fertility regulation have evolved about as quickly as scientists have been able to develop our modern day understanding of human fertility. The calendar method first came into practice in 1930. We in the NFP world sometimes refer to this as “our grandma’s NFP”. It was based on a very rudimentary understanding of a woman’s cycles and not all that reliable since its success depends on perfectly regular ovulatory events. They had the basic idea that certain days of a woman’s cycle were fertile (that is, she was able to conceive a child) and others were infertile (where she could not conceive). The method overall was only only about 70% effective, but women still used it because it was better than what they had before which was nothing.

The sympto-thermal method, in its early stages, came into practice in the 1950’s. At this point, scientists were beginning to be able to identify other changes or symptoms that happened with a woman’s body during the course of one cycle besides just the menstrual bleeding and then use these symptoms to identify days of fertility vs infertility. Dr. Billings further refined and advanced this idea with the Billings Method in the 1960s. And finally in 1980 Dr Hilgers introduced the Creighton Model – the most researched and scientifically advanced medical model of NFP available today. Also in the 1980’s, a secular international organization called the Institute for Reproductive Health was started at Georgetown University. The goal of this organization is to provide education and access for women and couples worldwide, specifically in developing and third world countries about Fertility Awareness Methods that they can use for family planning.

In 1985, Dr Hilgers opened the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Nebraska to continue to study fertility regulation in a way that fully respects life. From the studies done at this Institute, under the standardization provided by the Creighton Model of NFP, came the new women’s health science of NaPro Technology which we talk about in several other blog posts.

Your history

We all have a different past and experience with NFP and contraception. History can be messy, complicated and painful. No matter where you’ve been, it’s never too late to change where you’re going. Please reach out to one of our practitioners today. We would love to help you take the next step forward in your story.

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