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2003-2004 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"What Counts? "

October 6, 2003

Paula Viterbo (History of Science Post-Doctoral Fellow)
"Counting the Days: Natural Family Planning"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Paula, who is writing a book called "Counting the Days: The History of Natural Family Planning in America," presented her research in the form of a play in three acts. Her follow-up questions were

  • whom do I count as actors in the history of natural birth control?
  • how do different actors count on different historical stages/arenas? what for?
  • does counting provide a useful birth control method?

The rhythm method is so unreliable because it is counted in so many different ways; Paula presented a confusing array of methods, graphs and results. Drawing on the methodology of "social worlds theory," which identifies parties in an given area of study, she showed us who the players were in the natural birth control discourse of the 1930's and '40's. All of the social actors had their own agendas, which conflicted, agreed or overlapped with those of others: the dynamic was an interactive one. In her presentation Paula avoids assigning weight to any one actor, but places them all in the same plane, acknowledging also that her "choice of who counts" is limited by her own range of skills and knowledge.

During discussion, we considered the late legalization of the pill, and the common use of natural family planning as a birth control method in Japan. What were the cultural reasons that this method was particularly attractive in Japan, as it was to the Catholic Church in the U.S.? We also discussed the ways in which the rhythm method had been used to identify fertile periods, as a means of increasing the probability that women could get pregnant. This early 20th century preoccupation with numbers seemed to us a "striking aberation": in 100,000 years of reproduction, haven't women developed mechanisms for sensing the variations in their own cycles of fertility? Is it not possible to rely on one's own internal experience? (Mention was made, for instance, of the "mittelschmerz," the small pain in the middle of the cycle that, for some women, signals ovulation.) Paula's "lovely metaphor of rhythm" is a way of describing a mid-century U.S. fascination with the scientific method, with a desire to make "rigorous" the "folk methods"--those practices of "counting the days"--that women have always used. In many cases, however, the method was not followed meticulously enough to reach its optimal success rate (which was 10%): a women was told to record her cycles for one year, in order to obtain the statistical reliability needed to "count backwards" from her menstrual period to her non-fertile days.

There will be no Brown Bag discussion during Fall Break; the series will resume at noon on Monday, October 20, when Jody Cohen of the Bryn Mawr Education Program and Nell Anderson of the Praxis Program will discuss "Moving Beyond the Quantitative Definition of Merit: Learning from and with the Posse."

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