On the Pros and Cons of the Natural Cycles Period App

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A PERIOD-TRACKING STARTUP is poised to take over the intersection of women’s health and technology. Natural Cycles claims it can help women trash their hormonal birth control, or conceive, depending on their needs. Although a mobile app that offers that kind of flexibility is fantastic, and even feminist, there are some big problems with this woman-centric endeavor, and we need to talk about them.

I’ll back just about any new trend that gets women interacting and building familiarity with their bodies. I charted my cycles for years between hormonal contraceptives, and I’ve always found it strange that women who are trying to conceive, and those who are trying to avoid pregnancy, never seem to engage one another when it comes to fertility tracking. Natural Cycles could bring together those two communities, but I fear it might do so at the expense of reason.

Natural Cycles bills its product as “the safe, healthy and easy-to-use birth control” that is “free of hormones [and] side-effects.” While it’s true that the system doesn’t use hormones, the claim that cycles without hormonal birth control are “free of side-effects” is a laughable falsehood.

Thousands, if not millions, of women use hormonal contraceptives to alleviate debilitating cramps and other symptoms related to premenstrual dysphoric disorder, polycystic ovary syndrome, and endometriosis. That her medication also prevents pregnancy may be an added bonus, or an unfortunate side-effect, depending on a woman’s family planning goals.

Natural Cycles won’t let a medical condition get in the way of good marketing, however: “It can be especially important to track your fertility if you have endometriosis, PMS or PCOS. The information gathered by Natural Cycles may also be useful to share with your doctor.”

Natural Cycles co-founder Raoul Scherwitzl says, “One of the biggest problems in contraception is the lack of innovation.” That, too, is untrue. More than 50 years after the first birth control pill got FDA approval, we’ve reached the point of being able to safely eradicate periods for women and trans men who don’t want them. Hormonal contraceptives come in all shapes and sizes, with different pregnancy-preventing cocktails to accommodate women’s needs. We have our choice of long-acting, reversible contraceptives (LARCs): IUDs and implants that are more effective than sterilization at preventing pregnancy.

So what kind of birth control does Natural Cycles offer, anyway? The system tasks women with measuring their basal body temperatures (BBT) each morning and recording them within the mobile app. Natural Cycles monitors changes in BBT to estimate when a woman will ovulate. This method is increasingly popular with women who are trying to conceive, but — contrary to what Natural Cycles claims — it’s not an exact science, and leaves plenty of room for human error.

For women who would use the app to prevent pregnancy, the outlook is more grim. The Pill and other hormonal methods are more than 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. Because Natural Cycles and other BBT-monitoring systems can only detect ovulation after it occurs, predictions of when an egg will be released are more educated guess than science. On average, fertility awareness-based methods of contraception are only 76 percent effective, due to opportunities for human error and a reliance on guesswork.

Natural Cycles is selling a technologically advanced rhythm method. What’s more, the app claims to be based on clinical testing, and even tells women that its efficacy is similar to that of the Pill, in spite of the fact that “no study with a direct comparison [is currently] available.”

Look, I don’t believe that tracking cycles is a terrible thing to do, nor do I believe that only certain women should do it. But I cannot agree with a company or organization that demonizes hormonal birth control in order to profit from women’s ignorance. Yes, some contraceptives do have side-effects, but, for the majority of women, they are mild compared to the side-effects of pregnancy. You wouldn’t know that if you checked out several of the more popular “healthy living” websites, however.

Unreviewed and unsourced articles on Mercola, bodyecology.com, and similar websites offer all-caps warnings about the dangers of contraceptives that “contain SYNTHETIC hormones,” which Mercola claims “will invariably increase a woman’s risk of developing serious chronic illness.” Bodyecology.com reminds us that the “physical and emotional changes” brought on by contraceptives “are permanent while you stay on the pill”: a statement that only proves that the website’s writers have no idea what the word “permanent” means.

Natural Cycles may truly want to eliminate unwanted pregnancy, but misleading claims about its product muddy the waters. In the U.S. and around the world, a preoccupation with harmful contraception inflicts damage on individuals, families, and entire communities. If the doctors behind Natural Cycles might want to empower women, they’ll stop denigrating safe, reliable medicines, and start being open and honest about women’s birth control options.