The future of contraception

Una Harty outlines the past, present and future of contraception in our society.


The world’s population growth rate peaked in 1962 and 1963 at 2.2% per annum. Since then it hasn’t returned to its former glory. It’s all boils down to a single factor: the introduction of the infamous contraceptive pill three years prior to the birth of the sexual revolution. In 2015, our population growth rate is at a steady 1.096%, but how will the future of contraceptives influence this figure?

History of contraception

The contraceptive cosmos is a complex one. The concept of hindering reproduction first emerged in Mesopotamia in 1550BC where records show evidence of honey, acacia leaves and lint being placed in the female’s vagina to intercept the male’s sperm. The Egyptians applied acacia leaves via medicinal methods by creating a gum from it. The acacia leaf gum is still used today in contraceptive jellies for its spermicidal qualities. Lactation was also used by the inhabitants of the Nile valley as a birth control by breast-feeding for three years in order to reduce fertility.

The Ancient Greeks (circa seventh century BC) were notorious for their contraceptive methods. The study of gynaecology was invented by the Greek civilisation. Academics in this area included Hippocrates, one of the greatest physicians of all time. He prescribed silphium, a plant known for its contraceptive and abortifacient qualities to the people of Cyrene, a coastal city and the only area where silphium grew.

The future of contraceptives seems equally as cosmopolitan as the past. They are developing parallel to our world’s needs – where women are tending towards more equal rights and hopefully, to juxtapose that; better, more effective birth control that’s affordable and accessible for the developing parts of this world.

Contraception today

The problems with our existing array of contraceptives is that they oftentimes have negative side effects and aren’t 100% reliable. A report from the Guttmacher Institute in 2012 found that around 222 million women in developing countries want to use birth control but aren’t currently able to access modern contraceptives. Thus, the ideal future of contraceptives is one that is accessible to all who require them.

By far the most prevalent of contraceptive types are hormonal methods – the pill being the most commonly used method of birth control today with over 200 million women having taken the drug over the past forty years. The pill was first introduced on May 9th, 1960 when the FDA approved Enovid, the shelf name for the first oral contraceptive pill. Rather than seeking to improve upon the most popular contraceptive model to date, researchers are now looking for new ways to deliver hormones for birth control. Instead, researchers are currently looking at new ways to deliver hormones for birth control. Implants and hormone-releasing intrauterine devices are currently leading the vanguard. An intrauterine device sits inside the uterus and dispenses progestogens, and lower doses of estrogen than would normally be produced by the pill. Studies have shown that better balances of hormones could be highly beneficial to contraceptive developments.

Contraceptives of the future

There is one future contraceptive seizing the attention of the pharmaceutical industry and is set to define the direction of contraceptive methods for the next while – remote control fertility. Currently, there exists an implant, commonly referred to as the bar, which is inserted in the woman’s upper arm and typically has a lifespan of about three years.

A company called MicroCHIPS inc. is presently cultivating a wireless device only 20 millimetres in length matched with a lifespan of 16 years. Instead of the upper arm, the chip would be inserted into the buttocks or the abdomen. Its job would be to deliver levonorgestrel, a manufactured hormone used in emergency contraceptives methods frequently nicknamed, Plan B.

The revolutionary aspect of this is that the women using this birth control would have the power to deactivate the device whenever they needed to. They would not require a visit to the doctor to re-prescribe them with a different form of hormones. Instead it would be as simple as pressing an off-switch. This radical concept would provide a long-lasting contraceptive with minimal doctor-patient contact. This is ideal for women of developing countries who may not have easy access to GPs and other healthcare professionals. It is important to note that as of today, no contraceptive method lasts longer than five years so this 16-year span would be truly avant-garde. The device is currently under testing and is due to hit the market in the US in 2018.

In these days of advancing birth control technology, it imperative that the industry analyse the various ways to apply and manage fertility. The future of contraceptives lies in the various means of obstruction of pregnancy. These include meiotic arrest (this would be a male contraceptive method involving an activation of a mechanism to inhibit spermatogenesis), the blockage of follicle-stimulating hormone (would account for the arresting of the final maturation of the oocyte before ovulation or follicle rupture), preventing implantation and immunisation.

Contraceptives for men

If you think  that only women ingest medicinal forms of contraception, think again. Recently there have been calls for advancement in male hormonal contraceptive methods. In the past it has been hard for researchers to receive funding for research into male contraceptive as the pharmaceutical industry show little or no interest in this negligible market. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found 66% of men were willing to take an oral contraceptive, while 44% would get a birth control shot and 36% would try an implant.

Vasalgel is an injection that inhibits sperm from escaping for a temporary amount of time. This pioneering medical technology was developed by           Dr. Guha 15 years ago and has since been under clinical trials with very promising results. Essentially it is a reversible vasectomy. A polymer injected into the man’s genitals traps the sperm as it tries to make its way to meet a female egg. A second injection would remove the polymer when a contraceptive is no longer required and his sperm would not be affected.

Remote controlled birth control and sperm “nets” are weaving their way into the future of our contraceptives. But it isn’t all under our control. A study carried out by the European Union recently shows that our water is polluted with the chemicals typically found in our oral contraceptives. So whether we like it or not, the future it seems, is swimming with contraceptives.

Illustration by Louise Weitbrecht.

Una Harty

Úna is a third year Nanoscience student and Trinity Life editor for Trinity News.