There is a quiet revolution going on in London as couples, Catholic and nonCatholic, ditch contraceptive pills and prophylactics and embrace what John Paul II described as “the theology of the body”.
Led, admittedly, more by concerns over fertility, than an eagerness to comply with Church teaching, men and women are starting to believe that the Vatican has got it right on sex and that what Rome has preached – largely to deaf ears – makes sense. Natural family planning, say its supporters, works, and what’s more, once you have acquired the know-how, you’ve got the skills for life.
At the centre of this radical rethink is a young Australian woman whose efforts to teach a pretty ignorant public the joy of “uncontraceptive sex”, as she calls it, have earned her the title Catholic Woman of the Year. Nicole Syed is an exponent of the Creighton Method which focuses on the fertile periods in a woman’s natural reproductive cycle. It’s painless, free (once you’ve paid up and mastered the technique – £50 for an initial one-hour consultation) and frankly, so simple that you’re left thinking, why aren’t they teaching this in schools? She claims the method is as effective as the Pill.
I went to meet Nicole at the FertilityCare Centre which she runs in Soho Square, in central London. The basement offices are a little shabby, the carpet threadbare, but Nicole shines. She tells me that the men on the programme are as enthusiastic as the women. I’m not surprised. She is striking, with a mane of glossy hair, bright eyes and an easy smile. She’s also honest and endearingly upfront about her own “contraceptive history”. That’s the real strength of her approach: I’ve been there, I’ve seen it and I know what I’m talking about.
Nicole’s background is in education and medicine. She first became interested in the whole science of reproductive health and family planning while working as a nurse on a “gynae” ward back home in Sydney. “It just seemed to me that the only methods of family planning being encouraged were artificial,” she explains. “The only way that GPs were addressing reproductive problems was with the Pill. I felt there had to be a better way, a healthier way – we simply weren’t designed to have our reproductive systems repressed like this.” Many of the cases that she observed involved women in their late twenties and thirties who were having trouble conceiving a child.
“Some of them had been prescribed the contraceptive Pill for period pain and they had been on it for years. It was a complete nonsense.” Yet the Church’s attitude to sex didn’t appear to help either. Nicole admits that, at that time, the ban on artificial contraception didn’t make sense to her.
“We seemed to have no real idea of why the Church prohibited contraception,” she tells me. “None of it added up.” Catholics knew about the rhythm method – the “safe” days in the cycle – and there were plenty of unplanned pregnancies that were witness to its unreliability. Other forms of natural family planning rarely got a mention.
“I just thought it was madness,” says Nicole. “We were so-called sexually liberated women ending up with all sorts of medical problems, both physical and emotional, through having contraceptive sex. In terms of building a human relationship, I thought, ‘This isn’t right’.” She decided to look for an alternative approach – a holistic method that would work with a woman’s body rather than against it – and discovered the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Nebraska, in the United States. She came over to England and took a longdistance Masters course.
“What the Institute was teaching was revolutionary, contrary to what the pharmaceutical companies were saying and to what GPs were saying,” she recalls. “It makes people re-evaluate the whole meaning and purpose of sexual intercourse in a relation ship. It empowers women and it allows them to harness their own fertility. This is true liberation – not the Pill.” The Institute was founded to find a method of fertility regulation that would comply with Humanae Vitae. The Creighton Method, which Nicole teaches, derives from that research. What the scientists discovered was that, contrary to the perceived wisdom of regulating fertility artificially, the body’s own natural cycle does this and once you are aware of the signs that knowledge can be harnessed both in terms of planning or avoiding pregnancy.
Nicole unfolds a neat laptop on her desk: here comes the science bit. The simple truth is that men are always fertile, but women are only fertile for a certain number of days a month – on average, three days before, and three days after ovulation.
Every schoolgirl is taught that her menstrual cycle is 28 days but this, as Nicole points out, is a nonsense and is the cause of a great deal of heartache when couples try to conceive on what they think are the optimum fertile days.
“A woman’s cycle can vary considerably and also from month to month,” she says. “What you have to do is recognise the outward signals to understand what is going on internally. It’s simply a myth that we will all conceive on day 14. But regardless of how long or short the cycle is, the same pattern emerges, and this is what we are watching.” For a woman to conceive there has to be mucus present in the vagina that will allow the sperm to reach and fertilise the egg. Crypt cells at the lining of the cervix – the neck of the womb – produce the mucus, regulating the body’s natural ability to allow or resist fertility. On fertile days the mucus is stretchy. On nonfertile days it becomes cloudy and sticky; sperm cannot pass through and the cervix closes.” And there are other variables. When women are under stress the cervical mucus, critical to pregnancy, dries up. This explains why sometimes couples go through years of anguish “try ing for a baby” and when they give up the woman falls pregnant. The mucus also filters out abnormal sperm.
Contrary to some NFP methods, Nicole says Creighton will also pick up reproductive problems – such as irregular cycles – which may then be managed. Intramenstrual bleeding, for example, can be a sign of fibroids or uterine cancer, both linked to use of the Pill.
Charting changes in the mucus can also alert women to a decline in their fertility. Mucus production decreases with the approach of the menopause. And there are other less tangible benefits – men and women must communicate and this builds intimacy, essential to a lasting marriage. “One couple started charting and it opened their eyes to what was going on in their relationship – why aren’t we married? What are we afraid of? They made that commitment and married this year.” The centre is not exclusively Catholic and Nicole is keen to avoid being typecast as “Vatican friendly”.
“I know how anti-Catholic the media can be,” she says. “We’re trying to stay in an objective place, to meet people where they are at.” So there is no opprobrium, no condemnation of lifestyle.
“I’ve had a Catholic woman list her ‘reproductive history’– two terminations, use of the Pill, use of the coil,” she ticks the items off on her fingers. “Yes, this method is based in Catholic ethics, but it is also about teaching people a new way that is better for their reproductive and general health.” She is already involved in some marriage preparation programmes at Catholic parishes in London – largely through the interest and invitation of the local priest – but she is keen to get into schools too, to talk to both young women and men before they are submerged by the contraception mentality. “Men have copped out,” she tells me. “If we bring them back into the picture it will help to change the way they view women.
“We are so used to having what we want, when we want it. Many women have told me that they feel like a ‘sexual object’ used at will by their partner. This method does rely on abstinence – if a couple wishes to avoid pregnancy – but that brings control back into a relationship. It makes the woman feel more valued.” I tell her that all this charting and recording of figures and “mucus consistency” has a certain geeky male appeal.
She laughs. “I get the women to observe and the men to write the results down. One guy even set up a spreadsheet at work to do it.” And the science is attractive to women too. “One client looked at her paper charts and sighed: ‘Oh God, can’t I just download it on to my Blackberry?’ Mother Nature meets the 21st century.” So how does she answer the critics who will say that a 14-year-old girl fuelled on alcopops will not really be in the mood to mucuswatch. Or that not using condoms will lead to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases.
The smile slips. “Well, the Government’s strategy isn’t working, is it?” she replies. “The condom mentality, the teach-them-all-there-is-toknow-about-sex approach...
“This method isn’t costly, it’s not invasive and it’s empowering. Rules and regulations mean nothing without the ‘why’. John Paul II gave people that higher vision and that is what we must aspire to.”