Fascinating news for reproductive health out of Massachusetts, where researchers at an MIT lab have developed a birth control chip — a microchip that delivers targeted amounts of levonorgestrel to prevent conception. The birth control chip can be turned on and off at will, and it would last for 16 years, allowing women considerable personal control over their own fertility. It represents a tremendous stride for women’s rights, much like the earlier revolution brought about by the pill, and it could be on the market as early as 2018.
The chip contains reservoirs of the hormone which are released when an electric charge passes across the chip, temporarily melting a thin film that covers the reservoirs. It’s calibrated to release a steady low dose directly into the body, preventing conception as long as it’s activated. When a woman wants to conceive, she can deactivate it with a remote, without having to make a visit to a clinic or medical office. She can also choose to reactivate it. This differs from current methods of implantable birth control, which need to be removed in a minor procedure, adding expense and other burdens like needing to take time off from work for the appointment for women who want to stop using their birth control.
16 years of life is also a considerable improvement over birth control like Norplant, which lasts only five years at most. The extended lifespan gives women control over their lives and contraceptive options, and reduces pressure on women who might feel like they need to make urgent decisions about birth control and fertility. There are other implications for the birth control chip, too. Namely, if one medication can be embedded on it, so can others. Patients who have trouble remembering to take medications on time or who need routine doses of life-saving medications could get chips to deliver their drugs. No more forgetting to renew prescriptions, accidentally leaving medication at home while traveling, or forgetting dosage timing with important pills.
There are, however, some concerns that need to be ironed out before the chip can be released. The first is the fine detail. Like other implantable medical devices, the chip could fail catastrophically and cause severe medical complications for the patient. If the wrong amount of hormones is released, this could cause problems, and if the chip was accidentally supplied with the wrong medication, or the doses were mistimed, it could pose a health risk. This could be a significant problem if manufacturers started producing a range of implantable chips for various drugs, raising the concern that mix-ups at facilities or the doctor’s office could imperil patients.
Furthermore, there are also worries about vulnerability to hacking. While this device works only at short range (no deprogramming a woman’s birth control from across the room), that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks for the user. If it was decoded, it could be deactivated, or the dosage timing could be interfered with. These risks need to be considered in the encryption of the chip and the remote, and even with considerable care and planning, it’s impossible to provide complete protection when working with a remote device.
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