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Natural family planning: a drug-free alternative

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Joe Stanford and his wife of two months were lunching together one day in 1984 when they arrived at a turning point. They were listening to a lecture on a birth-control method they'd never heard of before. This technique was drug-free, had no side effects or cost, and it allowed couples to either plan or prevent a pregnancy.

"We looked at each other and said, 'This is what we're going to do,' " remembers Joe Stanford, at the time a medical student at the University of Minnesota. Since then, he and his wife have been happy with their choice, though Stanford often hears from people who think this particular form of birth control is a joke.

The technique is called natural family planning, or NFP. Stanford, who joined the University of Utah's Department of Family and Preventive Medicine in 1993, is now a leading researcher on the subject, explaining the modern method to a world of skeptics. This summer he's presented his research on NFP's effectiveness to medical conferences from Minnesota to Milan.

The people who haven't seen Stanford's recent research often think he's talking about the rhythm method. So every discussion, he says, has to start with: "This is something entirely different."

While the rhythm method assumed every woman became fertile on the 14th day of her monthly cycle, NFP relies instead on each individual woman's physical signs of fertility. These signals can vary each month, but after a woman learns what to look for, she can know when she is or isn't fertile. Stanford refers his patients, both those who want to have a child and those who want to avoid pregnancy, to NFP classes taught by certified instructors. And he tells his medical colleagues at the U. about the method.

"They still make jokes about it," Stanford said. "But then they ask, 'What's that number again for the NFP teacher?' "

Colette Child has taught NFP for three years in Layton, and says she's also used to the jokes. She's taken to starting her classes with one: "What do you call people who use the rhythm method? Parents." Then she outlines the differences: Calendar rhythm is a relic of the 1930s. NFP was developed in the early '70s and has since been refined. She cites the results of Stanford's sweeping study of 1,876 NFP-using women in the United States, published in the June 1998 Journal of Reproductive Medicine. NFP was found to be 96 percent effective in preventing pregnancy.

For Child and her husband, NFP has been 100 percent failsafe. But some of the couples who come to her introductory class hesitate when they see she has six children. All were planned, she assures them. That's what this method is about: planning a family and spacing births. Child emphasizes that it takes a few months to learn and become confident with the NFP routine.

Many couples decide to try NFP after they've become dissatisfied with artificial birth-control methods, she added. "They're so fed up with what they're using that they say to me, 'I'm ready to try anything.' "

Still, some women worry that their husbands won't like the new practice. NFP does, after all, require a week or so of abstinence during the wife's fertile time, unless she wants to conceive. Child herself had been concerned that her husband Steve would be unhappy, that he wouldn't want to bother with keeping track of which days of the month she was fertile and which days she wasn't.

His reaction floored her. "He said, 'I really think this will help me be more aware of your feelings.' And this has really affected our marriage," said Child. "We're able to talk about everything and anything now. This method helps you be more respectful of each other and your fertility."

Along with learning a reliable means of birth control, women gain knowledge about their bodies, added Kathy Davis, a Brigham City-based NFP teacher.

"It's very liberating to understand your fertility, to be in control," she said. Davis' clients across northern Utah tell her they prefer relying on body awareness rather than on a pill or device.

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com