Natural Cycles was hailed as a stress-free, hormone-free contraceptive. Then women began reporting unwanted pregnancies
Last summer I had an abortion. Statistically unremarkable, yes, but mine wasnt because of a split condom or a missed pill. I was four months into a tense relationship with a much-hyped Swedish digital contraceptive, a smartphone app called Natural Cycles. I had spent my 20s on the pill, but hated not knowing whether my emotional state was down to artificial hormones or not. My boyfriend and I had been together for eight months, and I was desperately seeking something new, something that wouldnt make me feel so anxious.
Thats when the adverts started following me around on social media: glowing women reclining in Scandi bedrooms, all pale grey sheets and dappled light, brandishing basal thermometers and telling me how great it felt to get to know yourself better. Natural Cycles ads promised the worlds first contraceptive app, something natural, hormone free & non-invasive. I could start using it without a two-week wait for a doctors appointment and so, in a fug of hormones and frustration, I bought a subscription. I was sold on shiny promises, a sleek user interface and the fact that a former Cern physicist, Elina Berglund, was at the companys helm. But four months in, it failed. Berglund helped discover the Higgs boson; but it turns out her algorithm couldnt map my menstrual cycle.
Femtech, or female health technology, is going through a boom phase, with an estimated $1bn of investment raised worldwide in the last three years. Apps such as Clue, Dot, Glow and Spot On are all popular period trackers, but Natural Cycles is the only one certified as contraception. In 2017, it was approved for use across the EU, getting the green light from the German inspection and certification organisation, Tv Sd.
How does it work? It comprises an app, an annual subscription of about 60, and a thermometer accurate to two decimal points (free in the post). You input your temperature as soon as you wake up, and the app makes predictions about your fertility each day: green for go have unprotected sex, red for not unless you want a baby (you can also use the app to plan a pregnancy). No hormones, no implant and, supposedly, no stress. It has its own language: users are known as Cyclers, and useful information is available via a Cyclerpedia. It seems as easy as ordering a takeaway or a taxi from your phone; of course theres an app for fertility, too.
Natural Cycles has now registered more than 700,000 users from more than 200 countries, 125,000 of them in the UK. But its certification as contraception is under review in Sweden, where the company and its married co-founders are based. In January, a major Swedish hospital reported that 37 of the 668 women who had sought an abortion there between September and December 2017 were using Natural Cycles as their sole birth control, and the Medical Products Agency of Sweden began to investigate. Natural Cycles has responded that the number of pregnancies is proportional to the registered number of Swedish users and in line with our expectations; but as someone who didnt report my own pregnancy last year, keeping it secret even from my parents, I wonder how many more there have been.
It wasnt the stigma that kept me quiet, or the sadness, though that trailed me all summer like the sinister melody of an ice-cream van. It wasnt the fact that being 28, in a stable-seeming relationship and game for motherhood in a couple of years, I lacked an explanation other than precarious finances and a relationship just shy of its first anniversary (those are excellent reasons). No, my silence was because I felt colossally naive. Id used the app in the way I do most of the technology in my life: not quite knowing how it works, but taking for granted that it does. Speaking to others who bought the app as contraception (about 75% of Natural Cycles total user base, according to its CEO), it seems that many feel the same.
I spoke to Amy, 29, who was fed up with hormones when she started using the app as her sole birth control. Three months later, she was pregnant, a massive shock. Though she admits she may have made a mistake, she cant pinpoint the error. Youre told all you need to know is yourself. I believed in it the same way I did the pill and thought I did everything right. Having already booked her wedding, she went ahead with the pregnancy, giving birth weeks before she walked down the aisle. Its supposed to make you feel like you have more control, but in fact it did the opposite: when I fell pregnant it felt like a decision was taken out of our hands. It wasnt how wed have planned it, and I dont recommend weddings two weeks postpartum, but Im lucky it was something we wanted in the long run.
Marie, 30, first heard about the app when she saw an Instagram post about it (search for Natural Cycles and you will find hundreds of posts by influencers telling you how it changed their lives). I didnt spot the hashtag at the very end of the caption which said that it was a sponsored post, she says. She had been taking Yasmin, a commonly prescribed contraceptive pill, for six years when she made the switch, hoping that the app would be a reliable and easy alternative. A year into a relationship, and eight months into using Natural Cycles, Marie realised she was pregnant. She had an abortion that proved traumatic, contributing to the breakdown of the relationship and leading her into what she describes as a pit of despair.
She didnt want to tell anyone about it. Shed had an abortion once before, when a morning-after pill didnt work, but this time she felt ashamed: I felt like Id acted alone in the decision to use the app and had been overly trusting. But I was also angry that Id been treated like a consumer, not a patient.
Like Marie, I didnt go to my GP before I switched to the app, probably because I subconsciously knew hed advise against it. In many ways he knows me better than any algorithm can. He put me on the pill at 18 because I had an irregular cycle. I later learned I had polycystic ovary syndrome, which I now know makes me a terrible candidate for Natural Cycles, because my ovulation is unpredictable and erratic.
A year earlier, before Id heard of the app, I had been to see a gynaecologist to discuss birth control, thinking I wanted a non-hormonal coil fitted. It was the first time a medical professional had helped me to truly understand the extent of my options. She drew me a set of coordinates and plotted each option available (no app got a mention) to show me the benefits and drawbacks. Spotting v cramps, depression v maintenance, long- v short-term.
Id read grim things about the hormonal vaginal ring a widely shared article about a young, fit woman who died after a blood clot but agreed, based on what she felt would suit me best, to try it. We laughed at how its impossible to research any birth control online without encountering horror stories. I told myself I would trust a professional and cease my Googling as it only induced anxiety; but after a few paranoid weeks wearing compression socks to avoid blood clots, I was done.
None of the posts on my social-media feed suggested that being a Cycler would be such a frustrating, often daunting commitment. One paid-for post I saw featured a still life of a puppy, a pair of on-trend headphones, a self-help book and a thermometer, with a 250-word caption starting with 5 things I need in the morning. Cuddles from Bee [the dog], tea, music, positive quotes and the first thing I do when I wake up my Natural Cycles thermometer. But I found that taking your temperature regularly is not so easy. The number of times I leapt out of bed bleary-eyed and needing to pee, then realised I hadnt first taken my temperature, meant I started waking up in the middle of the night to pre-emptively urinate, panicked about missing my measuring window in the morning. On the pill, it didnt matter if Id just woken up, was lying down or standing up when I took it. With Natural Cycles, the slightest motion seemed to count. It was comedic until it became tragic; I got pregnant when the predictions of fertile and infertile changed back and forth in one day, turning from green to red, after I had unprotected sex.
I now know that the ideal Cycler is a narrow, rather old-fashioned category of person. Shes in a stable relationship with a stable lifestyle. (Shift-workers, world-travellers, the sickly, the stressed, insomniacs and sluts be advised.) Shes about 29, and rarely experiences fevers or hangovers. She is savvy about fertility and committed to the effort required to track hers. I could add that her phone is never lost or broken and shes never late to work. She wakes up at the same time every day, with a charged phone and a thermometer within reach.
From the information provided by Natural Cycles, I expected that my body temperature would follow a clear pattern and that I would be able to pinpoint five days in every four-week cycle that I was fertile, says Lucy, 32. She switched from the pill after becoming concerned about an increased risk of breast cancer, after one of her friends was diagnosed. I did feel like I was getting to understand my body better, but soon realised that I cant pinpoint when I wake up each day. Some mornings I stir at 5am, roll over and try to sleep for another hour or two, sometimes I toss and turn from 2am to 6am and then fall asleep, and so on. Her readings were erratic. I couldnt see a pattern and this undermined my confidence. After using Natural Cycles for three full cycles, I found I was still having eight to 10 red [ie possibly fertile] days per cycle. After four months, she decided it was no better than using a calendar and went back on the pill.
No form of contraception is 100% effective; most are assessed according to two metrics: typical use and perfect use. Typical reflects a margin for human error; perfect is when its used absolutely correctly. With perfect use, Natural Cycles scores as 99% effective, with just 1% of women becoming pregnant. With regular use, according to clinical studies carried out by the company (self-selecting, rather than randomised control trials), that drops to 93%. This is often cited by the company as favourable compared with the pill (91% effective with regular use). But, unlike the pill, youre not covered for every day of the month. You have to abstain or use other contraception on fertile days. And in the first few months, as the app gets to know you, these are pretty near continuous.
When I talk to Raoul Scherwitzl, the CEO and co-founder of Natural Cycles, he is charming and sincere and calls at precisely the appointed hour, not a second early or late. My wife and I represent a typical user-couple, he says. Elina was on hormonal birth control for 10 years and we knew we wanted children, but in a couple of years. We both had PhDs in physics and were working at Cern, dealing with messy, fluctuating data, trying to look for the Higgs boson, which is basically looking for a signal amid noise. We started applying the same statistical methods to pinpoint my wifes ovulation amid her varying temperatures. We read up on the literature and developed an algorithm which our colleagues started using, too. We were running it on the Cern servers and then using Google spreadsheets. We saw it as an unmet need. There was a lack of choice and we wanted to innovate in an important field.