CARMEL, Calif. — Contraception is a powerful tool. As the world population grows at breakneck speed and the rights of women become a focus of international conversation, family planning becomes a crucial part of the puzzle. Fortunately, science is making strides and some of the world’s most powerful humanitarians are taking on the project. Among these leaders is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
There are 211 million pregnancies across the world each year, 87 million of which are unplanned, according to the World Health Organization. Of these, 46 million end with abortion. Unfortunately, unplanned pregnancies can force mothers who lack the resources to care for a child into poverty, often leading to health concerns and less education for her child. To make matters worse, the prevalence of such pregnancies is higher in already disadvantaged areas of the world where family planning strategies are scarce.
Unplanned pregnancies occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is poor sexual education or disregard for the consequences of unprotected sex. In many places, contraception is illegal, frowned upon or unavailable, so unplanned pregnancies are a side effect of societal oppression of women.
That being said, contraception use worldwide has risen from 10 percent in the 1960s to 59 percent in the early 2000s, and numbers continue to move upward. There are now more methods of birth control at a variety of costs, availability and convenience.
One of the newest methods is a collaboration between Microchips, an MIT associated startup, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The result is a chip under the skin that can last for 16 years and releases hormones to prevent pregnancy at the dictation of a remote control. Under-the-skin methods of hormone birth control already exist, but the ability to turn the release of hormones on and off without a visit to the doctor to have the device taken out makes this new chip revolutionary.
The chip is 20 millimeters by 20 millimeters by seven millimeters and made of platinum and titanium. It has reservoirs that store the hormone levongestrel, which is automatically released every day until the device is turned off. Levongestrel, which is an active ingredient in other methods of pregnancy prevention including Plan B, is on the WHO’s List of Essential Medicines and is understood to be important for improving global health.
“The ability to turn the device on and off provides a certain convenience factor for those who are planning their family,” says head researcher on the project Doctor Robert Farra of MIT.
But it is more than just convenient. The new method could mean important steps in family planning in regions where women do not have regular access to healthcare. Because a woman does not have to see the doctor to get the device removed, she becomes independently in control of the release of hormones and her ability to get pregnant. Therefore, women in rural areas can have the same level of protection against unwanted pregnancy as urban women in wealthier nations.
The chip is set to start pre-clinical testing in the United States in 2015. If all goes well, the device could reach the market in 2018.
However, while promising, there are major concerns. First, the method will fail to be implemented to its fullest potential if it is too expensive. Its main value comes from family planning for women without access to a doctor, but expense inhibits this application. Researchers say it will be “competitively priced,” but that remains to be seen.
Another worry is the concept of “uterus hacking.” Some in the scientific community worry that the remote control will allow others apart from the woman to turn on or off her release of hormones, potentially without her knowledge or consent. Doctor Farra assures critics that this is unlikely by saying, “Communication with the implant has to occur at skin contact-level distance. Then we have secure encryption.”
Professor Robert Langer, researcher of Microchips, has been working on the concept of under skin chips to release medication since the 1990s. Originally, he planned to use it to easily administer medication in the case of disease, and the device still has such potential applications. However, his communication with Bill Gates in 2012 caused him to apply the technology to birth control. The project is now funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This chip is the newest step in a global collaboration of governments and organizations to bring family planning and contraception to 120 million more women by 2020. The hope is to empower women through independence and decrease unplanned pregnancies.
Family planning was one of the original projects of the Gates Foundation, and the group became a part of the “120 million by 2020” plan in 2012. Melinda Gates announced that her company would donate $1 billion to global contraception research and distribution by 2020. “Let’s not be shy about admitting that we’re trying to do something very ambitious. We’re committed to supporting the leadership of the countries where the work is being done and we’re committed to educating women about their options, ”she says.
This remote control contraception is potentially a crucial aid to universal family planning that empowers women. Research has shown that when women control their pregnancies, their children are healthier and more educated, leading to less poverty. Overall, the remote contraceptive could be a revolutionary step for the promoting rights of women and the reduction of unplanned pregnancies around the world.
– Caitlin Thompson
Sources: BBC News, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Washington Times, MIT Technology Review, TIME, Medical News Today, The New American, The Seattle Times, World Health Organization
Photo: Geek Sugar