Natural family planners cautious about fertility monitoring apps

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — As new fertility monitoring apps such as Clue and Glow make news, specialists in natural family planning caution that any technological application is only as good as the expertise behind it and the comfort level of its users.

“The caveat with any app is: Who designed it? Is it a real NFP educator?” said Theresa Notare, assistant director of natural family planning in the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Is there concrete, clear information folded into the app?”

Notare acknowledged that she does not have personal experience with new smartphone apps such as Glow, marketed by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin and aimed primarily at those trying to achieve pregnancy, and Clue, which helps women monitor various physical symptoms to avoid pregnancy or become pregnant.

John Kippley, president of Natural Family Planning International, based in Cincinnati, said apps can be “a waste of money” unless they educate couples about the science behind the measurements.

“But if they can get people oriented toward natural family planning, then they can be worthwhile,” he added.

Smartphone applications such as ‘Clue’ monitor fertility cycles, helping inform couples who practice natural family planning. Specialists in natural family planning caution that any technological application is only as good as the expertise behind it and the comfort level of its users. (CNS illustration/courtesy HelloClue)

Natural family planning involves the monitoring of certain physical signs and symptoms such as basal body temperature and cervical mucus to help a woman track the fertile and infertile phases of her menstrual cycle. It requires couples to abstain from sex during the woman’s fertile days and is the only method of avoiding pregnancy supported by the Catholic Church.

But Ida Tin, the developer of Clue, said her ultimate goal is “to replace the birth control pill, or at least give an alternative” to the use of hormonal birth control, which the church opposes.

Clue adds self-measurements of such categories as sex drive, mood, pain levels and skin problems to its algorithm that determines fertile days.

Although they may not be getting the national media coverage given to Glow and Clue, several fertility apps with ties to Catholic universities or to the Couple to Couple League, a natural family planning organization with Catholic roots, are on the market now or will be soon. These include:

• MUFertility, developed by the Marquette University College of Nursing Institute for Natural Family Planning and used in connection with the Clearblue Easy fertility monitor, which measures hormonal levels in the urine to determine fertility.

• iCycleBeads, which uses the “standard days method” of family planning and originated at the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University in Washington.

• CycleProGo, offered by the Couple to Couple League in Cincinnati, “allows couples to chart electronically, record symptoms, confirm their fertility status, and share charts with their teacher or friends,” the organization’s website says. Charts and data can be accessed from multiple devices, so husband and wife can both be involved in charting. CycleProGo can also be used to determine peak fertility as an aid to achieving pregnancy.

Among the other apps currently offered for sale or for free are Woman Calendar, iChartMe, myNFP, MeFertil, NFP Manager:Sympto, FemiCycle, iOvulation, Nurtur, FemCal: Period and Ovulation Calendar, My Cycles and iFertility Log. Prices range up to about $9.99 although some many offer additional services or notifications for an additional fee.

Some work only with a specific form of natural family planning — Creighton, Billings or Marquette — while others, like myFertilityMD, work with all three methods.

Kippley, who helped found the Couple to Couple League in 1974 but split with the organization in 2003, said the danger in relying on an app for natural family planning is that it may overestimate the number of fertile days, requiring couples to abstain from sex for longer than necessary.

Only couples that understand the scientific basis behind the natural family planning method they are using will be fully successful in their efforts to avoid or achieve pregnancy, he added.

Notare said that as a couple first begins to use natural family planning, it is especially important that an NFP educator be available to answer their questions so such access should be built in to every app.

“It’s the way of the current generation of young adults” to want information available on their smartphones and laptops, she said, adding that a distance learning course in natural family planning is in the works.

Richard Fehring of Marquette University hopes that his MUFertility app will be on the market by June 1 and said it will offer more research-based science than the new apps do.

Some 6,000 women have been charting their menstrual cycles on the Marquette site for years and “there is a lot of research behind our method,” he said. “Glow doesn’t have that kind of research behind it.”