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It seems fitting to start off my Old Medicine series with my absolute favorite health topic: Natural Family Planning. I’ve written about this topic before and not only am I interested in how it has changed over time, but this is something that is incredibly important to recognize! Most people nowadays still view NFP the way it was commonly practiced 50 years ago. This is not the way it is now! But more importantly, even earlier than 50 years ago, the medical community recognized some of the same patterns that women track today. What happened?
Timeline of Natural Family Planning
1911: At this point, not much was know. Know Thyself acknowledged that they did not know how long sperm or egg could live. At the time, they were aware that there were times of fertility and infertility within a woman’s cycle, but their understanding was poor. Furthermore, there was no mention of monitoring fertility signs.
1928: By 1928, the temperature changes seen throughout the cycle were recognized and understood to relate to ovulation. Being the NFP geek that I am, I totally freaked out when I found examples of temperature charts in the back of Ideal Marriage. At this time they were still working to discover when ovulation occurs, and it’s good that they recognize that! However, they had made huge strides in recent years in understanding a women’s cycle. For example, they knew approximately when ovulation occurred, as well as that this could vary between women and the cycles of an individual woman. It is strange to think that knew this when in modern times many doctors just assume ovulation on day 14! While this assumption is for ease of practice rather than simple ignorance, it does speak volumes about modern medicine.
It should be noted that this book does not discuss any form of birth control, and rather emphasizes the importance of a lack of fear of pregnancy and children. However, it’s extensive information about the cycle represents that knowledge on how to use Natural Family Planning for conception was available.
1939: For Better Not for Worse is a fascinating book about the Lutheran perspective on marriage in the late 1930’s. What does it say about me that I agree with a lot of what they say (not specifically just about birth control)?
This book has an entire chapter entitled, “The Blight of Birth Control.” It expresses concern about declining birth rates and the moral problems of using artificial methods. At this point Margaret Sanger was already considered the champion of the birth control pill, so the discussion about the benefits versus dangers of birth control was just as important then as it is now. 35 pages of refuting pro-birth control arguments and discussing the physical danger of hormonal birth control later, the book suggests that if a young couple must avoid a child, they should talk to their doctor about working with the body’s natural periods of infertility.
While this book may have been a bit extreme for modern tastes, it still made some very good points against the use of artificial birth control from a health standpoint.
1950: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex must be my favorite of the old books due to its incredible detail of the reproductive systems. As an example, there are over 50 pages in their “Natural Birth Control” section, out of about 400 pages total. As seen in most older books I have, this section begins with a criticism of unnatural birth control. This time, there is no discussion of the morality of birth control, rather just a frank discussion of why other methods do not work or are physically and emotionally harmful. Interestingly, at the time there where laws in the United States that prohibited the authors from publishing a detailed discussion on certain methods, so the information is incomplete. A good summary of this section is given by Professor Sellheim, the President of the International Congress for Gynecology at the time:
“Everything that interferes with the natural course of sexual life, everything artificial, is injurious to health.”
This book not only discusses the female side of Natural Family Planning, but also the lifespan of sperm in various environments. These time frames are slightly shorter than what is accepted today, but still quite close. They also had a very good understanding of the female reproductive cycle.
Unfortunately, the Natural Family Planning method described in this book is the rhythm method. Unlike the Standard Days Method, which assumes all cycles across all women are the same, this method looks at the longest and shortest cycles an individual woman has had in the past 12 months. The danger of this method is if the current cycle is outside of that length or if your luteal phases are not of average length.
Today: There has been enormous amounts of research in the past 60 years on Natural Family Planning. While many medical schools do not even teach students about the mechanics of this method, there is still a wealth of knowledge available. Today Natural Family Planning is often looked down upon and many insist it is only effective for conceiving a pregnancy. This of course is completely not true. But there are still great communities who will provide thorough education and support, no matter what your reason for using this method is. The Creighton Model and Fertility Awareness Method are the two I am most familiar with.
Natural Family Planning still has a long ways to go in terms of press. I hope that as people begin to see how much damage artificial methods can cause to their body and the environment, they will begin seeking more natural methods. As you can see by today’s post, only time will tell.
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