I read in the news today about a report released a few days ago by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The headline that emerged in numerous articles as a result of this report was that the use of the rhythm method to prevent pregnancy by teenagers rose from 11% in 2002 to 17% in 2010. This is quite a jump. The report was made to investigate why the teen pregnancy rate has risen markedly in recent years. In fact, the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country in the world and one of the highest teen abortion rates. So, I have decided it is time to tackle the issue of the rhythm method.
So, what is the rhythm method? If there is such a great leap of teenagers responding that they have used it, it is pretty important for young women (you, the reader!) to understand what it is. In general terms, the rhythm method is a means of birth control by which the female avoids sexual contact during the supposed window of fertility based on a calendric monitoring of her menstrual cycles. In other words, if a young woman has a consistent 28 day menstrual cycle, she can estimate the days she will be fertile by following the “rhythm” of her menstrual cycle. Here is an example of what a menstrual calendar would look like (with menstruating days in red and fertile days in green):
With perfect use, meaning that a young woman meticulously keeps track of her period without fail and strictly avoid sex on possibly fertile days, pregnancy still happens 9% of the time. If you wanted to avoid pregnancy, would you really want to take a 1 in 10 chance? But, keep in mind that virtually all forms of birth control are not used perfectly. So, with typical use (a slip up here and there), the rhythm method results in pregnancy 25% of the time. That is 1 in 4! So, needless to say that the rhythm method is not a terribly effective means of preventing pregnancy. Other factors make the rhythm method less reliable, especially for young women. In particular, a woman’s period does not become regular (and therefore predictable) for quite some time after the first period, called menarche. Hormones are in flux during adolescence and early adulthood, so the monthly time of fertility is particularly unpredictable for young women. Other times in a woman’s life when the rhythm method is especially ineffective include just after giving birth (as hormones are again in flux), after discontinuing the use of a oral contraceptive (“the pill,” which manipulates hormones), and around the time of menopause when, yet again, hormones are in flux. Hormones can be affected by a variety of factors including stress and emotions. So, the rhythm method can never be 100% effective.
The rhythm method has generally been rejected as a useful means of birth control [page 375] (except, notably, by the Catholic Church) in the past few decades, so it is eyebrow raising that teenagers are suddenly reporting a significantly increased use of it. The rhythm method was first proposed in the early twentieth century. Before this time, the function of ovulation as the key to fertility was not yet understood. When science could finally understand these processes, it was determined that in the normal menstrual cycle a woman ovulates once occurring about 14 days before the beginning of the next period. When this was discovered, gynecologists promoted it to patients as a means to help promote pregnancy. Some years later, in 1930, a Catholic physician in the Netherlands began to promote this as a means to help avoid pregnancy. Catholic organizations in Europe and America also began to advocate this means of birth control throughout the 1930s. By the 1960s, the popularity of the rhythm method as a means of birth control had begun to wane, especially with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960.
Avoiding pregnancy is generally the point of using the rhythm method, but it extremely important to point out that the rhythm method in no way stops the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (and neither do birth control pills). Condoms are the safest and most effective way to avoid spreading or getting a disease during sex. Abstaining from sex altogether is the only 100% effective method of avoiding both disease and pregnancy. So, if you are a young woman considering using the rhythm method, please keep all of this in mind. If you have any comments or questions, I’d be glad to hear from you!