NFP helps women with fertility issues
By Deborah Gyapong
An Ottawa family doctor says more research and education on natural family planning (NFP) is needed so its health benefits can be enjoyed by more Canadians.
"Most of the time we are preaching to the choir, to orthodox Catholics, who by and large are very supportive," said Dr. Rene Leiva. "One of the ways to make NFP more acceptable is to make it better, through NFP research."
Leiva has been incorporating NFP into his family practice for almost 10 years. While it's hard to estimate how many other physicians in Canada also promote the methods, he estimates it is fewer than 100.
Many more physicians would offer NFP if there were more education concerning the health benefits and reliability of natural methods, Leiva said. And more research is needed to help NFP practitioners deal with the hard cases doctors encounter.
"I'm not going to sugar coat NFP," said Leiva. "It requires self-control. However, many couples turn this aspect as a source of growth in their relationship"
But the benefits of NFP are not only spiritual, but physical, akin to the benefits of changing one's diet, exercising and losing weight to improve one's cholesterol numbers as opposed to taking a drug, he said. "It may be simpler just to take a pill. However many realize soon there is a healthy way. NFP cooperates with the natural rhythms of the human body" he said.
While Leiva said some patients seek him out because he promotes NFP, most people, even within Catholic circles "don't believe in NFP," which is sometimes referred to as "Vatican roulette."
"This is why we have to promote it both by research and education, because doctors and people in general don't believe that NFP is effective," he said. "Our intention has always been the medical well-being of our patients."
Leiva trained in the Creighton method and Naprotechnology, but given the limited numbers of NFP-only doctors in his area, he also supports women who use other NFP approaches such as sympto-thermal methods (taking one's basal temperature and monitoring cervical mucus to chart one's periods of fertility); methods that examine the differing qualities of cervical mucus; and those using electronic urinary monitors.
"It's not the old rhythm method!" he said. He refers women who wish to use NFP to a trained Creighton practitioner who instructs her on how to understand and chart her fertility cycle.
But NFP has proved beneficial not only in helping couples plan pregnancies, but also in helping women with fertility issues such as those who have polycystic ovarian syndrome or pre-menstrual syndrome, among other problems, Leiva said. The method can reveal underlying hormonal imbalances and other problems that can then be treated.
Couples who follow the method carefully and abstain from sexual activity during the fertile part of the woman's cycle can successfully prevent pregnancies, with a rate similar to that of the birth control pill. However, there are some hard cases Leiva and other NFP doctors have encountered, and that's why research is needed to make the methods even better.
In general, examples of hard cases may include women who may not have a typical mucus pattern or where the woman desiring to use NFP speaks neither English nor French and the doctor can't find a practitioner to help her, he said. There are ways to help in these cases but more research is needed.
"We need practical help for those researchers who are trying to advance NFP and we need groups or even Catholic organizations which could support research projects financially," he said.
There has been not much government support for what the secular world calls "fertility awareness methods," Leiva said. "So it would be great to see some groups or organizations step up to help."
Occasionally, some women have had "serious difficulty" with all the various methods and might benefit from additional "aids" such as tracking urinary markers, he said. That is one area where research could benefit. "Basically, we don't forget that group of women who need that particular help."
"Once in a while, I do get stories of couples who have serious reasons to postpone a pregnancy and have been abstaining for a long time because the woman doesn't feel confident, so we try to help them address the issue so they don't feel they are abandoned," he said. He then points out to Pope Paul VI who said in his letter Human Vitae ,'...Moreover, they (doctors) should regard it as an essential part of their skill to make themselves fully proficient in this difficult field of medical knowledge. For then, when married couples ask for their advice, they may be in a position to give them right counsel and to point them in the proper direction. Married couples have a right to expect this much from them...'