Imagine the following scenario. For over a year a girl has had chronic knee pain that she just can’t ignore anymore. So she goes to her doctor and tells him the pain is often a level 9, and that it is unrelated to an injury. The doctor does a brief exam, then tells her that he can’t see a definite cause but that some people just have pain. He then hands her a script for some pain meds and tells her that will fix it.
No one would stand for that, right? No! You wouldn’t accept pain as normal. You’d demand a referral to a specialist along with tests to determine the cause. You’d demand to know all the options, and the risks and benefits of them so you could make an informed decision.
Now imagine another scenario. A teenage girl has been experiencing debilitating cramps with irregular bleeding for over a year. She goes to her doctor, telling her the pain is often a level 9. The doctor does a brief exam, but cannot determine a definite cause for the pain. Instead, she tells the girl that some women just have pain and hands you scripts for pain meds and the pill, telling her that will fix it.
As you may have guessed, I was the girl in both scenarios above. Only my orthopaedist didn’t just give me pain meds, but did further testing to see the root of the problem and worked to fix it. My gynaecologist, though, really did just put me on the pill after ruling out ovarian cysts, with no further investigation to determine the cause of my pain or irregular bleeding. Never was I given a chance to make a risk/benefit analysis (I was not even told of the risks!). Never was I told that there were other options for treatment. Just “take this and you’ll feel better.”
I know from speaking with others that my situation is hardly unique. So how has such a thing come to be so common? In recent years I’ve come to think the problem is a feminist one. To show how, I need to back up a little more.
From what I can tell, my experience with sex ed throughout elementary, middle, and high school is fairly typical. While some basic information was given, I would later learn that much of it was inaccurate and/or lacking. At the end of it, we knew basic anatomy, but were still ignorant in how, exactly, our bodies worked, let alone what could be learned by keeping track of one’s cycle. How does that help or empower women?
When I went to the doctor, I’d mentioned that I sometimes noticed another discharge (I didn’t know about the mucus). Instead of educating me on this, my doctor dismissed it by simply saying, “Oh, that’s normal,” with no further explanation. I was kept in the dark about my own body. Others, too, have had doctors dismiss their basic questions about their bodies, effectively patting us on our heads and telling us not to worry. Empowering? Try infantilising.
It wasn’t until I was going through marriage prep that I actually started thinking about all this. That was when I first truly encountered Natural Family Planning (NFP). I didn’t immediately take to it (understatement). It was completely foreign to me, and what little I’d heard about it before hadn’t inspired confidence. I had to work through my preconceptions about NFP being the rhythm method (it isn’t). I also had to work through the realization that maybe my doctor was wrong and the pill wasn’t my only option, while I was also dealing with my fears of experiencing the crazy cycles and pain again.
The more I looked, though, the more questions I had. I’d never had an actual explanation for the pain and bleeding, so how was it being fixed? Was it actually fixed? I knew it wasn’t, that it was just suppressed. So, with a bit of nervousness, I told my doctor I wouldn’t take the pill any longer and demanded a non-hormonal alternative. I wasn’t told there even were alternatives until I demanded it – far from being empowered by being on the pill, I felt I’d been treated like a child. I then contacted a Billings Ovulation Method instructor and started charting.
I won’t lie – charting wasn’t easy at first. That amount of time on the pill does a number on the cervix (another thing I'd not been told about the pill), so interpreting mucus is difficult at first. At the same time, it opened my eyes! That discharge I’d asked my doctor about as a teenager – suddenly it made sense! That mid-cycle bleeding? It didn’t catch me by surprise anymore! Even though my cycles weren’t regular, I wasn’t surprised by bleeding because the charting told me when to expect it. I could find definite patterns. I felt like I’d never known my own body before then. I truly felt empowered!
I could even see potential health issues from my chart, like when I had low progesterone, or the fact that my signs pointed towards possible endometriosis. Doctors who utilise charts are likelier to listen to these symptoms and treat the underlying problem.
I also felt angry that the information had been withheld, and that others were not being told. There weren’t many NFP instructors in my area, so I decided to become a Billings instructor; There still aren't enough instructors, or doctors who understand the information NFP can give, but it's improving.
Many still say that the pill is needed as a feminist issue, that it will help women even the playing field. I disagree. How is it good to keep women in the dark about their own bodies? How is it good to make us change how our very bodies are meant to work? How is it good to make us risk blood clots, high cholesterol (a side effect I had from the pill at one point), even cancer, instead of treating the actual issues? There certainly are times when hormonal treatments are needed, but a good doctor will determine which hormones, in what amounts are needed instead of the one-size-fits-all “solution” of the pill. In part because of the fix-all use of the pill, few doctors even know how to effectively treat endometriosis, for example, even though it is a common problem.
So far from being just a Catholic thing, NFP is truly a feminist need and should be more widespread. I’m just glad the Church, in Her wisdom, does promote it so that I was able to hear about it.
While I use and teach Billings, there are many modern methods of NFP, all of which are good. If you’re interested in learning more, explore the links below:
Mucus Only Methods
Billings Ovulation Method
Creighton Model (Creighton focuses on treating reproductive health issues, but can be used by all women)