Thursday, 28 January 2021

In late 2020, Australia's drug regulatory body, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), approved the first so-called “digital contraceptive”, a Swedish app and thermometer product which aims to support natural family planning methods.

By recording your basal body temperature, the app claims to calculate your daily fertility status and let you know when you can have unprotected sex without falling pregnant.

While speaking to Triple J Hack, Dr Deborah Bateson, Medical Director for Family Planning NSW, said that while she strongly supports people choosing the contraceptive option that works for them, these decisions need to be evidence-based.

"It's all about people making informed choices, weighing up all the different options and finding out what works best for you," Dr Bateson said.

What are the risks associated with this method?

Studies for fertility awareness methods of contraception quote effectiveness being quite high with perfect use, but Dr Bateson says these studies are not as robust as we’d like them to be.

Fertility awareness as a contraceptive method only really started to become more well-known and researched in the late 1980s and 1990s.

These methods require a consistent, daily awareness of physical changes and the signs and symptoms of fertility in a cycle. This doesn't suit everyone, and it's important to note that external factors like stress or illness can affect the indicators of fertility.

You should be cautious about this method if:

  • you are certain you do not want a pregnancy right now
  • you have only recently stopped using hormonal methods of contraception
  • you have irregular periods
  • you are not meticulous in tracking your cycle
  • you are approaching menopause

Additionally, if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, you need to ensure your partner will be cooperative about using condoms or abstaining from sex during fertile times.

"If you've got a medical condition where a pregnancy would be a risk for the mother and the foetus, then obviously the lack of reliability of these methods – compared to other methods like an IUD – is a concern and these apps would not be something that we would recommend."

Why are people interested in the fertility awareness method?

Dr Bateson says over the years there's been an increase in young people seeking non-hormonal birth control methods as alternatives to the pill.

A recent Roy Morgan study showed a 4.5% decline in use of the pill among Australian women between 2008 and 2015. This decline is probably caused by these emerging methods, or a welcome rise in the use of IUDs or implants, which are extremely effective.

Fertility awareness methods and apps are relatively cost-effective and don't contain hormones, so they don't have side effects.

But, Dr Bateson says these methods are often best used to help women learn more about their reproductive cycle so they can plan a pregnancy rather than to prevent it.

The copper IUD is the most effective non-hormonal birth control method on the market at an effectiveness rate of 99.5 per cent.

"Long acting reversible contraception - also known as LARCS - are also very cost-effective, and unlike fertility awareness methods, these options are something you can effectively 'set and forget' for several years."

There are also more permanent methods to avoid pregnancy such as vasectomies and tubal sterilisation.

If you're having sex for the first time, or thinking of changing the contraceptive you currently use, head to your local Family Planning NSW clinic to find the best option for you.

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