NORPLANT is the most revolutionary contraceptive for women since the birth-control pill. But its potential is being seriously undermined.
In three states -- Louisiana, Kansas and California -- conservatives are trying to use it to control the lives of poor women.
Implanted in the upper arm, Norplant takes effect immediately. Its failure rate is less than 1 percent, and once it is removed, fertility returns rapidly.
Dr. Sheldon J. Segal, the creator of Norplant, thought coercive measures might become an issue if it were introduced in India or China, but he says he is "shocked that these draconian measures are coming from the conservative right in this country."
Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug last December, Segal and the Population Council, the developer of Norplant, have taken strong stands against forcing or essentially bribing women to use it.
But that doesn't seem to matter to David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who is running for governor of Louisiana.
He has advocated giving cash payments to mothers on welfare if they consent to the use of Norplant.
In the past year a Kansas state legislator has introduced two bills aimed at using Norplant to control pregnancies among poor and drug-addicted women.
The first measure, which proposed giving women on welfare $500 to have Norplant inserted and $50 for each year it remained in place, died in committee.
The second proposal, still pending, would make insertion of Norplant an acceptable condition of probation for women convicted of certain drug offenses.
And in a case still pending in California, a Tulare County judge, Howard Broadman, ordered the use of Norplant as a condition of probation for a woman convicted of child abuse. His order is now on appeal.
For women who freely choose Norplant it has the potential to be a safe, convenient, relatively low-cost contraceptive.
Like the pill, though, it does have drawbacks: It can disrupt menstrual patterns, cause headaches and weight gain, and its long-term effects are unknown.
Many women's health groups argued that the FDA should not have approved Norplant before its long-term repercussions were known.
Norplant is becoming available in clinics and private medical offices across the United States, and more than 20,000 health-care workers have been trained to insert it, according to Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, the manufacturer.
But the measures in Louisiana, Kansas and California are an ominous indication of what could happen with Norplant.
Conservatives maintain that these efforts are in the best interests of the women concerned and avert the suffering of children.
Duke has called his proposals for welfare recipients "tough love," and Broadman says his order is fair and constitutionally supportable because the state has a compelling interest in protecting future children of the woman involved.
But these racist and sexist measures go to the heart of the matter of who should control women's reproduction.
Singling out women on welfare discriminates against blacks.
The proportion of black women who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children) 34.6 percent) is highly disproportionate to their representation in the population (6.35 percent).
There have been no proposals ordering or bribing men receiving welfare or convicted of child abuse to use birth control or agree to a vasectomy. Why are women the sole target of attempts to punish and control reproduction?
These measures have distorted Norplant's original purpose as a freely chosen, long-term contraceptive option for women.
The fight against them is yet another battle over a woman's basic right to control her own body.
Stephanie Denmark writes frequently about women's issues.