The Natural Family Planning Abortion?
moiv printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue May 30, 2006 at 06:22:26 PM EST
Down through the ages, women and men have used just about anything they could think of in their attempts to prevent pregnancy, from vaginal plugs of crocodile dung to the lowly lemon. And the crusaders of the religious right waging today's war on sex tell us that every one of them was wrong. According to them, the only method that's God-approved is Natural Family Planning, or NFP.

NFP is a more sophisticated version of what used to be called the "rhythm method" - which was based only on the date of a woman's last menstrual period, although the term is still used as colloquial shorthand for NFP - but the goal is the same: "abstinence from genital contact and sexual intercourse during the fertile phase of the cycle as the means to avoid pregnancy."  Even when couples use NFP conscientiously, the failure rate is estimated to be about 10%. But now, it looks as though something even more troubling about NFP could be what happens when it works.

New research indicates that the success of NFP depends on rigging the reproductive odds in favor of producing embryos that are unable to implant - you know, the same mechanism that the religious right condemns as "abortifacient" in its campaign against birth control pills, even though that postulated mode of action has never been demonstrated.

But if and when a blastocyst does fail to implant, well ... as Judie Brown is so fond of saying, "the woman's body rejects the tiny baby and he or she will die." And it now seems quite plausible that Brown and other "pro-life" luminaries are encouraging their faithful followers to let untold millions of their "tiny babies" die in obedience to God's law.

Over the last decade, Randy Alcorn of Eternal Perspective Ministries has made a cottage industry of his "discovery" that the birth control pills used by tens of millions of American women are nothing but an under-the-radar way to provoke an early abortion. The author of Sexual Purity, Women Under Stress and Dominion has won legions of fans in religious right organizations with his booklet Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions? An increasing number of hard-line Christian Fundamentalists agree with Alcorn, Judie Brown's American Life League and the Concerned Women for America that it certainly does.  

ALL's position on birth control pills has never been in doubt: "[the pill] can irritate the lining of the uterus so that if ... the woman does become pregnant, the tiny baby boy or girl will die before he or she can actually attach to the lining of the uterus. ... the woman's body rejects the tiny baby and he or she will die. This is called a chemical abortion."  When Russell Shorto interviewed CWA president Wendy Wright for his revealing New York Times piece, Contra-Contraception, Wright attempted to evade the question by telling him that "Concerned Women for America does not take a position regarding birth control," but a CWA brochure on contraception insists that "[the birth control pill hormone] progestin irritates the lining of the uterus--thus preventing implantation of the human embryo, resulting in a chemical abortion."  

So what's a woman to do?  An ever-growing number of fundamentalist religionists insist that her only moral recourse is Natural Family Planning.  From the Standards for Diocesan Natural Family Planning Ministry approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops:

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is an umbrella term for certain methods used to achieve and avoid pregnancies. These methods are based on observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman's menstrual cycle. Couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy abstain from intercourse and genital contact during the fertile phase of the woman's cycle. No drugs, devices, or surgical procedures are used to avoid pregnancy.

Now, Luc Bovens (London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Philosophy, Logic, and Scientific Method), writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, lets fly with a Holy Hand Grenade -- The rhythm method and embryonic death -- that makes rubble of the religious right's false sanctimony about contraception: "Even a policy of practising condom usage and having an abortion in case of failure would cause less embryonic deaths than the rhythm method."

Professor Bovens contends that a massive switch from birth control pills to NFP "would be effectively causing the deaths of millions of embryos."

Similarly, regular condom users, whose choice of contraception is deemed to be 95% effective in preventing pregnancy, would "cause less embryonic deaths than the rhythm method," he says.

"[T]he rhythm method may well be responsible for massive embryonic death, and the same logic that turned pro-lifers away from morning after pills, IUDs, and pill usage, should also make them nervous about the rhythm method."


At least one highly qualified expert in the field of reproductive medicine has gone on record as agreeing with Bovens that the mechanism of NFP is designed to create embryos doomed to death.

As many as 50% of conceptions may not survive long enough even to disrupt menstruation, Bovens says. It is reasonable to assume then, he adds, that embryos created from sperm that has been sitting for days within the female's reproductive tract before ovulation may be disadvantaged.

The situation is similar, he suggests, for eggs that have been waiting around for sperm to arrive. These are the only two likely scenarios where fertilisation might occur using the rhythm method, he points out.

These embryos may then face a less-than-ideal uterine lining, he points out, since the uterus is not as receptive outside of the most fertile period.

Bovens calculates that, if the rhythm method is 90% effective, and if conceptions outside the fertile period are about twice as likely to fail as to survive, then "millions of rhythm method cycles per year globally depend for their success on massive embryonic death".
Roger Gosden, at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in New York, US, says: "It's quite plausible that more abnormal embryos are conceived at the limits of sperm - and especially egg - viability," he says, "and that these are more frequent in women practising rhythm contraception than those having unprotected intercourse at random stages of the menstrual cycle."

Is nothing sacred? Since even the cherished myth that women ovulate only once during a monthly cycle -- let alone at a reliably detectable time -- has been dashed on the rocks of hard science, it sounds as though it might behoove Judie Brown and others of her anti-contraception persuasion to get back to their roots. They might begin with the teachings of Pope John XXI. Judie could brush up on that 13th century pontiff in the May 26 issue of The Daily Catholic:

There are some unique things about John XXI. First of all, he was the first and only Portuguese Pope, having been born Pedro Juliani, son of a physician in Lisbon in 1215. He followed in the footsteps of many of his predecessors by attending the learned University of Paris where he, too, studied under Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Albert the Great, and Saint Bonaventure. Like his father he became a physicial (sic) and began teaching medicine at the University of Siena. Through acquaintances and the influence of his predecessor Hadrian V, he became the personal physician to Gregory X and stayed on in the Vatican after Gregory's death. Gregory ordained Pedro and promoted him to Archbishop of Braga and then Cardinal of Tusculum. He wrote innumerable books, including The Soul and two books on medicine The Eye (opthamalmology) and The Poor Man's Treasury which highlighted ways of curing various illnesses.
Long a man of the sciences, John dallied in astronomy as well as medicine and healing of souls, even having a special room built in the papal palace in Viterbo where he could view the stars at night. It was here where he died as the room, hastily built, collapsed on top of him in much the same manner as the frescoes fell on the poor unsuspecting Franciscan Friars at Assisi late last year. He died a six days later of internal injuries on May 20, 1277. It was a shock to the Christian world who felt so confident that a man of great health, relative young in age, and so knowlegable (sic) in the medical arts would live a long time.

Predictably enough, the Daily Catholic's reference to Thesaurus pauperum (more usually translated as The Treasury of the Poor) makes no mention of its great value to the poor, men and women alike, in preventing pregnancy and provoking the menses - an eternal euphemism for abortion. The book was indeed such a treasure that it was the subject of multilingual translations, three in Hebrew alone. John Riddle's exhaustively researched Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance details Peter of Spain's medical advice on contraception before he became John XXI..

The first advisory was to put a plaster of hemlock on the testicles before every coitus. Explicitly, then, the remedy was not to prevent intercourse but (implicitly) to reduce consequences. Among the remedies was to drink the juice of nymphea ... for forty days. Herbs prescribed were pepper, rue, chaste plant, calamint, and costus.

There is a large chapter on plants to provoke menstruation, where Peter quoted from Gilbert the Englishman, Macer, and Dioscorides. Before relating information, however, from the authorities, he chose to give his own list: cinnamon, cardamom, sweet flag, pennyroyal, mint, sage, and satiureia.

So according to the immensely learned Peter of Spain, you didn't need a birth control pill to perform what the religious right calls a "chemical abortion" - and he provided explicit instructions on exactly how to accomplish that. But despite the papal sanction of John XXI, today's holier-than-thou hordes continue their insistence on avoiding unwanted embryos in a more "natural" way.

We might have expected a cacophany of righteously indignant response from all the usual propaganda outlets of the Christianist movement, but so far, it's mighty quiet out there. Maybe they just hope the story will go away, because I swear, you can almost hear the crickets.

[Title graphic from Dittrick Medical History Center]

Of course, proponents of NFP also favor "ecological breastfeeding, God's own way of spacing babies."  Which prevents conception by raising progesterone levels, exactly like Plan B.

[Former FDA official Susan] Wood compares Plan B to breastfeeding, which also changes a woman's hormonal balance. "If you are breastfeeding, you are less likely to get pregnant," she says, and that's because you have this elevated progesterone level in your body, which is exactly what happens when you have Plan B emergency contraception."

But I don't think I've heard anyone on the religious right object to a "breastfeeding abortion."

by moiv on Tue May 30, 2006 at 07:18:10 PM EST

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