Calendar-based methods are various methods of estimating a woman's likelihood of fertility, based on a record of the length of previous menstrual cycles. Various systems are known as the Knaus-Ogino Method, rhythm method, and Standard Days Method. These systems may be used to achieve pregnancy, by timing unprotected intercourse for days identified as fertile, or to avoid pregnancy, by restricting unprotected intercourse to days identified as infertile.
The first formalized calendar-based method was developed in 1930 by John Smulders, a Roman Catholic physician from the Netherlands. It was based on knowledge of the menstrual cycle which was independently discovered by Hermann Knaus (Germany), and Kyusaku Ogino (Japan). This system was a main form of birth control available to Catholic couples for several decades, until the popularization of symptoms-based fertility awareness methods. A new development in calendar-based methods occurred in 1999, when Georgetown University introduced the Standard Days Method. The Standard Days Method is promoted in conjunction with a product called CycleBeads, a ring of colored beads which are meant to help the user keep track of her fertile and non-fertile days.
More effective than calendar-based methods, systems of fertility awareness that track basal body temperature, cervical mucus, or both, are known as symptoms-based methods. Teachers of symptoms-based methods take care to distance their systems from the poor reputation of the rhythm method. Many consider the rhythm method to have been obsolete for at least 20 years, and some even exclude calendar-based methods from their definition of fertility awareness.
Some sources may treat the terms rhythm method and natural family planning as synonymous. In the early twentieth century, the calendar-based method known as the rhythm method was promoted by members of the Roman Catholic Church as the only morally acceptable form of family planning. Methods accepted by this church are referred to as natural family planning (NFP): so at one time, the term "the rhythm method" was synonymous with NFP. Today, NFP is an umbrella term that includes symptoms-based fertility awareness methods and the lactational amenorrhea method as well as calendar-based methods such as rhythm. This overlap between uses of the terms "the rhythm method" and "natural family planning" may contribute to confusion.
The term "the rhythm method" is sometimes used, in error, to describe the behavior of any people who have unprotected vaginal intercourse, yet wish to avoid pregnancy.
Early Christian doctrine considered complete sexual abstinence to be the most holy state for humans, with marriage being a holy state for those without the fortitude required by an abstinent life. The Manichaeans (the group the early church father St. Augustine wrote of) believed that it was immoral to create any children, thus (by their belief system), trapping souls in mortal bodies. Augustine condemned them for their use of periodic abstinence: "From this it follows that you consider marriage is not to procreate children, but to satiate lust."
One book states that "[The rhythm method] had been recommended... by a few secular thinkers since the mid-nineteenth century". The Roman Catholic Church's first recorded official statement on periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy is from 1853, where a ruling of the church's Sacred Penitentiary addressed the topic of periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy. Distributed to confessors, the ruling stated that couples who had, on their own, begun the practicing of periodic abstinence—especially if they had "legitimate reasons"—were not sinning by doing so.
In 1880, the Sacred Penitentiary reaffirmed the 1853 ruling, and went slightly further. It suggested that, in cases where the couple was already practicing artificial birth control, and could not be dissuaded to cease attempting birth regulation, the confessor might morally teach them of periodic abstinence.
In 1930, John Smulders, a Roman Catholic physician from the Netherlands, used Knaus and Ogino's discoveries to create a method for avoiding pregnancy. Smulders published his work with the Dutch Roman Catholic medical association, and this was the official rhythm method promoted over the next several decades. While maintaining procreation as the primary function of intercourse, the December 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii by Pope Pius XI gave the highest form of recognition to a secondary—unitive—purpose of sexual intercourse. This encyclical stated that there was no moral stain associated with having marital intercourse at times when "new life cannot be brought forth." Although this referred primarily to conditions such as current pregnancy and menopause, the Sacred Penitentiary in yet another ruling in 1932, and the majority of Catholic theologians also interpreted it to allow moral use—for couples with "upright motives"—of the newly created Rhythm Method. In 1932 a Catholic physician published a book titled The Rhythm of Sterility and Fertility in Women describing the method, and the 1930s also saw the first U.S. Rhythm Clinic (founded by John Rock) to teach the method to Catholic couples.
Into the early twentieth century, it was believed by some Christians that the only licit reason for sexual intercourse was an attempt to create children. A minority of Catholic theologians continued to doubt the morality of periodic abstinence. Some historians consider two speeches delivered by Pope Pius XII in 1951 to be the first unequivocal acceptance of periodic abstinence by the Catholic Church.
In 1999, Georgetown University introduced the Standard Days Method. Designed to be simpler to teach and use than the older rhythm method, the Standard Days Method is being successfully integrated into family planning programs worldwide.
Imperfect use of calendar-based methods would consist of not correctly tracking the length of the woman's cycles, thus using the wrong numbers in the formula, or of having unprotected intercourse on an identified fertile day. The discipline required to keep accurate records of menstrual cycles, and to abstain from unprotected intercourse, makes imperfect use fairly common. The actual failure rate of calendar-based methods is 25% per year.
The postovulatory (luteal) phase has a normal length of 12 to 16 days, and the rhythm method formula assumes all women have luteal phase lengths within this range. However, many women have shorter luteal phases, and a few have longer luteal phases. For these women, the rhythm method formula incorrectly identifies a few fertile days as being in the infertile period.
Calendar-based methods use records of past menstrual cycles to predict the length of future cycles. However, the length of the pre-ovulatory phase can vary significantly, depending on the woman's typical cycle length, stress factors, medication, illness, menopause, breastfeeding, and whether she is just coming off hormonal contraception. If a woman with previously regular cycles has a delayed ovulation due to one of these factors, she will still be fertile when the method tells her she is in the post-ovulatory infertile phase. If she has an unusually early ovulation, calendar-based methods will indicate she is still in the pre-ovulatory infertile phase when she has actually become fertile.
Finally, calendar-based methods assume that all bleeding is true menstruation. However, mid-cycle or anovulatory bleeding can be caused by a number of factors. Incorrectly identifying bleeding as menstruation will cause the method's calculations to be incorrect.