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Would you trust this app to be your contraceptive pill?

Is there anything more completely and utterly terrifying in life than a pregnancy scare? Cue: days of nervous waiting to see if you’re going to be unexpectedly blessed or lumbered (depending on your view) with a little bundle of accidental joy. Never has coming on your period seemed more of a gift.

While there are a wide array of options designed to prevent unplanned pregnancy - including condoms, the pill, the coil, and contraceptive injections or implants - one in six pregnancies in the UK are unplanned, according to estimates from the Office of National Statistics. In 2016, almost 15,000 women who were treated by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK’s largest abortion provider, had been on some form of longterm contraception when they fell pregnant.

A woman holds her contraceptive pills out of her makeup bag Credit: Getty

In the UK, the pill remains the most popular form, with a study by The Telegraph showing that 63 per cent of women relied on this and condoms as their primary form of contraception. When taken perfectly it can be up to 99.9 per cent effective, but it’s almost inevitable that even the most diligent of women will forget to take it once in a while. So could an app do just as good a job of preventing unintended pregnancy as other forms of contraception? A study conducted by Natural Cycles, the EU’s first approved contraceptive app, contends that it just might be able to.

Describing the product as: “protection with more sexual freedom”, the app tells users when it is safe to have unprotected sex and indicates when additional contraceptive methods, such as condoms or abstinence, are required. It designates days as either green or red. It’s not entirely that simple, though. In order to work properly, a woman is required to input her menstrual details and to take her own body temperature every morning - after a good night’s sleep and before getting out of bed - then enter it into the app. The app will then use this data and a series of algorithms to calculate where she is in her menstrual cycle (a woman’s temperature is generally up to 0.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher after ovulation). In turn, it is able to pinpoint the days that fertility is at its highest, and those where it should be “safe” to proceed.

Close up of a woman's hands holding a pregnancy test Credit: Getty

In a study of 22,785 women that tracked 224,563 menstrual cycles, it found that the app was 93 per cent effective, with this number rising to 99 per cent if used “perfectly”. Obviously, the figures come from the app-makers themselves, but the app will undoubtedly pique the interest of those women for whom medical forms of contraception are a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice and those who have recently stopped using cycle disrupting contraception, such as the pill. Yesterday, Natural Cycles signed a deal with Sweden's biggest pharmacy chain, making a widely available option throughout the country.

Of course, the app relies on you to follow it down to a tee, but then, so does the pill really. Makers say that for the first few weeks it is crucial that a secondary form of contraception, such as condoms, is also used in order to give the app time to get to know your body. Theoretically, the longer the app is used for the safer it should be as it gets to know you better, although there are external variable factors that could influence results including being hungover, ill or stressed.

A photo of the Natural Cycles app open on a phone and thermometer Credit: Natural Cycles

Natural Cycles may also offer a tiny glimmer of hope to women living in the US, where President Trump’s administration has repealed a mandate for employers to provide free of charge contraception as part of healthcare insurance packages, now allowing them to opt out on moral or religious grounds. Instead, women are to be pushed towards this kind of "calendar" method of avoiding sex on the days they are most likely to get pregnant. Don’t get me wrong, Trump should absolutely stay away from women’s uteruses (on every single level possible), but if society really will insist on going down this route then it's easy to see how apps like this could come in useful.

Personally, I’m not sure I’d trust an app not to get me pregnant. Call me cynical, but in a world where I can forget to take one pill in the morning, there’s little chance I’m going to find the time to take my temperature and fiddle with my phone. However, for women who do wish to remain free from artificial hormones or other forms of contraception for religious or moral reasons, I see how it could be an attractive prospect. 

That said, however you choose to manage your contraception, no app - however snazzy - is going to protect you from an STI so the same golden rule still applies: don't be silly - wrap your willy.