Empowering women, naturally

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On April 7, 1967, Time magazine's cover featured a new medical innovation: the birth control pill. The periodical hailed it as a "miraculous tablet … (that) has changed and liberated the sex and family life of a large and still growing segment of the U.S. population."

A year later in Rome, Pope Paul VI issued the papal encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which condemned the use of artificial contraception. Instead, the pope urged married Catholics to "rightly use a faculty provided them by nature," or what has come to be known as Natural Family Planning (NFP). He urged scientists to further study human anatomy so as to "elucidate more thoroughly the consideration favorable to a proper regulation of births."

Since the 1960s, use of the pill and other contraceptives has become widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 62 percent of women of reproductive age use contraception, with 28 percent taking the pill. It is prescribed often not just for pregnancy prevention, but for acne, severe cramps and other medical conditions.

Perhaps due to the success of modern contraception, girls today grow up being taught little about their bodies, as NFP instructor Allison Dreher has noticed in her work. Even The Care and Keeping of You, a bestselling book commonly given to adolescent girls, says little about a woman's cycles, she said.

Dreher, a parishioner at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, knows the education the Catholic Church can provide women through NFP. But they often only learn it during engagement preparation - well after their teenage years. "I was thinking, 'Why is there this void of information?' "said Dreher. "You have places like Planned Parenthood pumping out this comprehensive sex education, and the Catholic Church has this gem of information for girls, and for boys, too."

Dreher works for The St. Augustine Foundation, which posts videos on chastity, theology and reproductive health on its website, CatholicSexuality.com. In the future, she hopes to create more online resources for teens, focused primarily on understanding their bodies. She encourages abstinence, and doesn't delve into the rules for preventing or achieving pregnancy.

"I kept looking at this, saying, 'We've got to get it out of NFP world. We've got to get it out of sex and babies,'" she said. "We're keeping very valuable information from our daughters by not telling them exactly what's happening with their bodies."

By reaching younger audiences, Dreher hopes to influence the parents as well. "Maybe then they'll know this is not snake oil medicine, this is not the rhythm method," she said. "This is something very scientific and has a great body of published, peer-reviewed research to support the validity of these methods."

Last month, Dreher spoke to young women by teaching a weekly Natural Woman's Health Seminar at George Mason University in Fairfax. Lori Kostka, a senior at Mason, first learned about NFP last summer through the diocesan pre-Cana program. As president of GMU Students for Life, she wanted to bring that knowledge to campus.

"The whole mindset of contraception in today's society leads to the idea that 'I don't want kids,' which leads to abortion (if the child) wasn't planned. Also, (some types of) birth control can actually cause abortions by preventing the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus," she said. "I think if women understand their natural selves, we can empower them to do things naturally."

Like Dreher, Kostka wanted to make the information accessible to young women. "I wish things like this were offered to the younger population because I think this goes into health in addition to planning a family," she said. "It's about seeing if you're ovulating or seeing why you're not, and solving that problem before you even get to marriage."

"(Charting our cycles) is just good for us," Dreher told the 13 female students. "The fact that you can plan a family is just a bonus."

The class also touched on the potential harms and side effects of using hormonal contraception. "If we do something to stop our ovaries from ovulating, that medicine doesn't just stay in the ovaries. It's going to affect the brain, the thyroid, the pancreas. The body systems are all connected," she said. "This is what I think the typical approach to women's health doesn't want to admit or talk about."

Senior Ketki Chavan came to the first women's health seminar on a whim. "I've never heard of NFP … (but) my cycle is really irregular so when (Kostka) told me I found it really interesting," she said.

After the first class, "I was like, 'What have I been doing all my life?" said Chavan. The knowledge has made her more prepared for the future and more comfortable in her skin right now.

"The past three weeks I've learned so much about what might be happening in my body, what issues there are. Knowing myself better will just overall make me feel confident about myself and my body, and (later on) starting a family."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016