Cyclebeads: The UNFPA Discovers Natural Family Planning, Sort of

Steven Mosher
by Colin Mason
Population Research Institute
24 September 2008
Vol. 10 / No. 39
Reproduced with Permission

In an apparent break with its pill-pushing past, the UNFPA has begun promoting a natural method of birth regulation. To avoid confusion with (or to avoid giving credit to?) Natural Family Planning, which is so closely identified with the Catholic Church, they call it "Cyclebeads."

Cyclebeads consists of a string of plastic beads, each color-coded to represent a different day in a woman's menstrual cycle. "The day a woman starts her period she puts the rubber ring on the red bead," says the product's web site. "Each day she moves the ring one bead, always in the direction of the arrow. When the ring is on the red bead or a dark bead, there is very low likelihood of pregnancy, so she can have intercourse on these days without getting pregnant. When the ring is on a white bead - Days 8 through 19 - there is a high likelihood of getting pregnant if a woman has unprotected intercourse."

The UNFPA says that Cyclebeads are more than "95% effective," and that they are now being offered by UNFPA affiliates in some developing world countries.

It is hard for those of us who have been in the pro-life movement for a long time, especially those of us who come from Catholic backgrounds, to know how to react to this news. On the surface, what the UNFPA is doing sounds like Natural Family Planning. Insofar as it is, we would want to celebrate it as a step away from the force-pace contraception and sterilization campaigns, with their implicit view of Third World women as so many breeding machines, that have been charcteristic of the UNFPA's activities in the past.

The problem is, Cyclebeads are not Natural Family Planning. At least it is not the highly developed, scientifically researched NFP that has been developed over the past few decades. Although Cyclebeads are offered by some NFP groups as an alternative form of NFP, to act as if it is the very latest in natural birth regulation methods is misleading. Most of those who practice NFP today, including this author and his wife, would shake their heads at the claim that this method was either "invented" by academics at Georgetown University, or that it represents the most advanced form of natural birth regulation methods. The first claim is, at best, questionable, while the second is patently false.

Cyclebeads is essentially nothing more than a modest refinement of the old "rhythm method" of the early 20th century. This method works under the assumption that a woman's cycles are more or less regular and that fertility can be accurately predicted by simple day-counting. The creators of Cyclebeads insist that their method is "very different" from the rhythm method, since the rhythm method "involves having exact information about the last 6 menstrual cycles and every month making complex calculations . . . to figure out which days in the current cycle you're likely to get pregnant." Their method, they insist, "is simple -- it doesn't involve any calculations, and it is the same every cycle. It has also been tested in a well-designed effectiveness trial, with excellent results."

It is true that using the beads to count does away with any calculations, since even the most mathematically challenged individuals can use the beads and the rubber ring to avoid computations. The Standard Days Method, upon which Cyclebeads is based, also differs from the old rhythm method inasmuch as it is the same every cycle. But it clearly operates on the same basic principles, and suffers from the same flaws and uncertainties. Both methods assume that once a woman's fertility patterns have been established, they will remain more or less the same as her cycles continue. It is now common knowledge that measuring a woman's menstrual cycle is not an exact science. Women are not machines, but human beings, whose bodies change and whose cycles fluctuate. Scientific studies show that "symptoms-based" methods of NFP, that is, methods that track day-to-day signs of fertility, are much more accurate. Whereas the rhythm method creates an average model based upon what a woman's body has a tendency to do, symptoms-based or sympto-thermal fertility models provide a couple with empirical evidence about where a woman's body is in its monthly cycle at any given time.

While we at PRI would normally applaud an effort by the UNFPA or anyone else to promote Natural Family Planning, we wonder why it has chosen to promote "Cyclebeads." The Cyclebeads' own web site was has a detailed questionnaire designed to test whether or not this method is "right for you." During this questionnaire, we find that cyclebeads are not recommended for women whose menstrual cycles are not predictably between 26 and 32 days long, who have ever been on the Pill or any other artificial contraceptive, or who have had an abortion. This means that Cyclebeads is not recommended for women who have previously participated in UNFPA programs, since the UN agency is the largest distributor of hormonal contraceptives in the world. In the past, the UNFPA has insisted that it will promote only modern methods of contraception that have a failure rate of 2% or less. Cyclebeads, by its own admission, has a much wider margin of error. The UNFPA's own employees have long mocked the rhythm method as not being "a modern method of birth control" for this very reason.

If the UNFPA really wants us to believe that it has had a change of heart concerning contraception and NFP, it should allocate some of its ample resources toward education and promotion of modern, tested methods that work. As it is, it would seem that their promotion of Cyclebeads is little more than a publicity stunt designed to provide them with a modicum of cover while they continue to pursue their longstanding agenda to contracept, sterilize, and abort as many women as possible.

Colin Mason is the Director od Media Production at Population Research Institute