Contra-de-ceptive App? Natural Cycles and the Future of Contraception

It has been over 50 years since effective contraception was invented. The invention of hormonal contraception brought widespread benefits to women (and men) such as the opportunity for women to control their childbearing, an increase in women pursuing further education and entering the labour market, and an increase in women’s general sense of self-determination. This development became transformational to women, changing the course of society forever. However, fast forward to today, for all the benefits of hormonal contraceptives, many women describe an array of side effects that lead them often to abandon these contraceptives altogether. Coupled with the rise in the promotion of ‘natural’ living,  a huge market has opened for ‘alternative’ methods of contraception such as the new contraceptive app Natural Cycles. For sexual health awareness week, the Gryphon explores the benefits and potential downfalls of alternative methods of contraception.

A Danish 2016 study which investigated whether hormonal contraceptives were associated with depression, found that hormonal contraceptives caused an ‘increased risk’ in depressive symptoms, especially amongst adolescents. Women frequently report numerous side effects of hormonal contraceptives such as spotting (or intermenstrual bleeding), nausea, acne, weight gain, severe mood swings and decreased sex drive. All these effects can affect a woman’s self-esteem, reducing the desire to engage in sexual activity, defeating the purpose of having the contraceptive in the first place. But, hormonal contraceptives are still the most popular forms of contraception for women, with two-thirds of women aged 20–24 using them – many finding them to be effective, with minimal side effects.

However, for the women that do experience side effects or may be concerned about side effects, increasingly alternative methods of contraception are becoming available. Although non-hormonal contraceptions have existed for a long time – the copper coil, condoms and the diaphragm – developments in technology have led to the creation of contraceptives that claim to work by utilising algorithms. According to their website, Natural Cycles use an ‘algorithm [that] analyses the temperature measurements [that] you enter into the app to detect ovulation, thereby identifying green days when no protection is needed, or red days, when you should use condoms or abstain from sex to prevent a pregnancy’. They state that you should ‘measure your temperature first thing in the morning before you get up and out of bed. This reading is an indirect measure of the hormone levels in your body and increases just after ovulation.’

Natural cycles claim to be 93% effective (under typical use, but 99% with perfect use), but they emphasise that the app is only suitable for women who ‘have a lifestyle that enables them to take their temperature first thing most mornings’ and that it requires ‘a level of commitment’. Realistically, taking your temperature every morning will not be much more hassle than taking a contraceptive pill every morning. Therefore, this app may be a blessing for women that would like a contraceptive method free-from physical side effects or intrusive implantation methods. However, it is important to emphasise that this doesn’t protect against STIs.

However, the recent negative press has put the effectiveness of Natural Cycles under scrutiny. The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) recently banned a Natural Cycles Facebook ad that claimed that the contraceptive method was ‘highly accurate’. The ASA considered the ad misleading and an exaggeration of the app’s effectiveness. In addition, according to the Guardian, ‘the app was referred to Swedish authorities after 37 of 668 abortions sought at one hospital in Stockholm were for women who had been using the app as a method of contraception.’. However, despite these pitfalls, under typical use, the app still has a higher effectiveness at 93% against 91% for the pill and 82% for condoms. Therefore, it is for women to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages and make their own decisions about their contraceptive methods.

In any event, it is clear that this technology is here to stay, and with all its teething problems, the future of contraception will likely be technological in some form.