A panel of experts gathered by Planned Parenthood of Maryland asserted yesterday that the United States lags many years behind Western Europe and even some Third World nations in making new forms of contraceptions available.
The experts -- who included physicians, research scientists and family-planning advocates -- blamed the sluggish pace of contraceptive development on a lack of federal research grants, DTC corporate fears that birth control is unprofitable and the specter of multimillion-dollar liability suits.
Meanwhile, they said, a less hostile environment in Western Europe has given women a much wider range of methods to prevent pregnancy. These include a new generation of extra-low-dose oral contraceptives, a variety of intrauterine devices, injectable contraceptives and under-the-skin implants that give women five years of protection.
"We often miss the important aspect that there is no single contraceptive that is appropriate for every woman at every phase of their lives," said Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
"And since the ancient invention of the condom, there isn't anything available for men."
Dr. Sheldon J. Segal, director of Population Sciences at Rockefeller University in New York, noted that 1.6 million pregnancies result each year from contraceptive failures or from the difficulties couples have in using them properly. Half of those pregnancies end in abortion, he said -- a number that accounts for about 50 percent of the abortions that occur each year in the United States.
Perhaps the only glimmer of hope, the speakers said, was the likelihood that the federal Food and Drug Administration would approve Norplant, the contraceptive implant. Dr. Segal, who developed Norplant for the non-profit Population Council, said he expected the FDA to approve the drug within a few months.
Norplant comes in several forms, but the device currently under review consists of six tiny tubes that release small amounts of hormone into the bloodstream when implanted under the skin of the upper arm. It provides five years of protection but can be removed at any time if a woman decides she no longer wants to prevent conception.
The Population Council pumped $20 million in private donations into the research and development of Norplant. If approved, it will be marketed by Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, a division of American Home Products of Philadelphia.
Dr. Segal said it was impossible to find a private pharmaceutical company interested in making a huge investment in developing the drug, which is implanted only once every five years and is unlikely to reap large profits.
In the meantime, more than 1 million women use Norplant in Western Europe and in some developing nations -- including Indonesia -- that have aggressive family planning programs.
Judy Norsigian, co-director of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, said the nation would continue to be plagued by unwanted pregnancies until it does a better job of teaching young people about sexuality. Sex education should include child-care lessons for boys, she said, opening their eyes to the responsibilities of parenthood and "making them think twice about conception."
"Despite what you hear, real sex education has not emerged," she said. Right-wing activists, she said, have prevented comprehensive sex education to be introduced in Massachusetts, a state ordinarily thought to be in the liberal vanguard.