On Friday, NBC News released a news piece covering the reactions of various Ob-Gyns to the recent FDA approval granted to Natural Cycles, the first app to officially qualify as a contraceptive.
But there are a few important elements that NBC misrepresented.
The Rhythm Method
The NBC article starts with a glaring mistake: comparing Natural Cycles to the Rhythm Method, implying that the former — and apps like it — are just tech-savvy versions of the later.
Here’s an article explaining the difference between the Rhythm Method (literally counting days on a calendar) and fertility awareness-based methods (scientific monitoring of individual fertility symptoms). And here’s another one. And another one. We’ll control ourselves and stop there.
Natural Cycles relies on a woman’s temperature sign, so it falls under the category of fertility awareness-based methods (FABM), which NBC’s article didn’t even address.
Fertility awareness-based methods
Okay, but isn’t all this fuss over terms merely semantic? Isn’t the efficacy the same?
Just as the Rhythm Method and FABMs are very different approaches to natural fertility, they have very different effectiveness.
Natural Cycles’ algorithm relies on decades of fertility research to achieve its daily recommendations for its user. It should be no surprise, then, that its 93 percent effectiveness rating is significantly higher than the Rhythm Method statistics NBC supplied at the beginning of the article (which translates to 76 percent effective).
Comparing Natural Cycle’s typical effectiveness stats to those of other FABMs would have been far more reasonable and unsurprisingly, they’re all in the same neighborhood.
Misrepresenting the numbers
The next big problem with NBC’s article is its incorrect use of statistics by comparing “typical use” stats directly with “perfect use” stats. For the uninitiated, perfect use means the product was used exactly correctly every time. Typical use, however, reflects what happens in the real world, where people frequently make mistakes.
Interestingly, this important distinction is rarely made when used to promote contraceptives. It is not uncommon to see the perfect use stats of birth control compared to typical use stats of natural methods.
This NBC article itself is a perfect example, as author Nicole Spector compares Natural Cycle’s typical use statistics (93 percent effective) against the birth control pill and IUD’s perfect use statistics (98 and 99 percent, respectively) — all in the same sentence.
Holy journalistic irresponsibility, Batman!
As for the actual stats compared side-by-side, we’ll just leave this here:
- Birth control pill — Perfect: 99 percent, Typical: 91 percent (by the most optimistic reports)
- Sympto-thermal Method (STM), a popular form of FABM — Perfect: 99.6 percent, Typical: 98.2 percent
- Natural Cycles (an app using FABM) — Perfect: 99 percent, Typical: 93 percent
- Hormonal IUDs — Perfect: 99 percent, Typical: 99 percent (as an invasive, hands-off device, these stats rarely differ)
Not entirely NBC’s fault
To be fair, misreporting the effectiveness of natural methods isn’t entirely NBC’s fault, nor is it entirely the fault of the Mayo Clinic, cited in NBC’s article, which also gets the numbers wrong. All of these sources rightly draw from the CDC, which relies on one very low-quality study to generate its numbers, and then blindly applies that number (the 24 in 100 statistic that Spector uses) to the entire gamut of natural methods.
Thankfully, there’s a movement to encourage the CDC to update its reports with high-integrity studies that accurately reflect reality and differentiate between the Rhythm Method and various FABMs. You can read more here and sign the petition here.
Moral of the story
When it comes down to it, NBC’s inaccurate report is just another demonstration of the importance of learning fertility science from the actual scientists. Distinctions aren’t made where they belong, and bias (coupled with laziness) easily clouds the truth.
If you’re interested in the implications of the FDA’s approval of Natural Cycles, may we shamelessly suggest this article from our own scientific advisor, Dr. Michael Manhart? You can find it here.
An open invitation
If NBC or the Mayo Clinic would like to talk to us or FACTS, a nonprofit that provides accurate information to medical professionals on the natural methods, we’d be more than happy to oblige.
We really, truly want to provide the very best information to women and couples so that they can make the best possible decisions for their health, and we believe NBC and the Mayo Clinic do, too.
— Forest Hempen
Marketing and Communications Associate