For the first time in three decades, American women have access to a new, effective birth control option offering greater control over their reproductive lives and the possibility of quelling the furor over abortion. Norplant, a surgical implant approved by the Food and Drug Administration this week, is in essence a new way of introducing pregnancy-preventing hormones into a woman's system. Its effectiveness and longevity make it far superior to existing methods.
A small fan-like arrangement of soft tubes implanted under a woman's skin protects against pregnancy for five years and can be easily removed once a woman decides to conceive. Because it eliminates human error, the biggest factor in birth control failures, Norplant is incredibly effective with a reported failure rate one-tenth to one twentieth that of contraceptive pills.
This new method isn't without caveats. Norplant cannot be used by some women with certain health problems and has been known to cause annoying side effects in others. The full implications of long-term use are not yet known.
Norplant also raises disturbing social questions. Its relatively high up-front cost -- $500 for the initial implant versus $18 a month for birth control pills -- puts it in the category of limited-access drugs. Thus women most in need of effective methods may find themselves relegated to the hardest-to-use, least-effective methods. More worrisome is the possibility that Norplant will be used as a lever to control the reproductive behavior of women deemed "social problems."
Norplant nonetheless is a welcome addition to the all-too-sparse universe of birth control choices available to American women. Its effectiveness holds great promise, both for giving women near-absolute dominion over their reproductive futures, and as a powerful tool against the unwanted pregnancies at the center of the abortion debate.
American women, for all their advantages, have been under-served in birth control offerings. Norplant represents an important victory in the continuing struggle for reproductive freedom.