Better birth control

December 17, 1990

Contraception in America is an anachronism. While technology has forged ahead in virtually all other fields, birth control research has been stalled. In 1990, American couples have precisely the same choices for averting pregnancy that they had 30 years ago.

So the Food and Drug Administration's approval of Norplant is welcome news. The new contraceptive, developed over 20 years by the Population Council, has been tested in 44 countries on 355,000 women and has been proven more effective than the birth control pill. Unlike the pill, or any prevailing method of contraception currently available in United States, it is long-lasting. Six match-stick size capsules filled with the hormone progestin are implanted in a woman's upper arm, and the progestin is released slowly over five years. The hormone implant, though it provides a kind a temporary sterility, can be removed at any time, and fertility returns within two months.

One potential problem with Norplant is its roughly $500 cost. That is far less than the $900 birth control pills cost over five years; still, the initial cost of the implant may be high enough to deter low-income women and teen-agers from using it and public clinics from providing it. With the nation spending some $20 billion a year on unwanted pregnancies, however, surely the bottom line justifies governments' ensuring poor women and young women have access to the new contraceptive.

The imminent public policy wranglings, however, should not detract from the great stride that has been made with FDA approval of Norplant. A contraceptive method that is reliable, easy to use and long-lasting obviously will reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus move the nation farther away from the contentious debate over abortion.

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