At 9 o’clock on the dot, a round of dissonant alarms go off on my friends’ cellphones. Each friend rummages in their purse, looking for a small rectangular packet to retrieve a small pill from. They pop it in their mouths. It’s like this every time we hang out at night, a well-worn ritual: the alarm, the search, the birth control. Most women on oral contraceptives must do the same thing each day (or at least once every few months), because most modern day birth control requires some kind of daily action. Being on hormones takes vigilant upkeep.
Which is why the news of a potential remote-control-activated contraceptive in the form of an implantable microchip is causing a stir. Massachusetts-based MicroCHIPS is developing the new form of birth control, which would be implanted in the butt, upper arm, or abdomen of women. The buzz is that the chip is only 2 cm-wide and contains 16 years worth of levonorgestrel — a common hormone found in the pill, emergency contraception, and some IUDs today. Women who used the implant wouldn’t have to worry about taking a pill everyday because the chip would automatically release the hormone each day and they wouldn’t have to worry about upkeep because, well, 16 years is a really long time. The implant is being supported by noted contraceptive innovator Bill Gates.
Touted as both the “holy grail,” and “the future,” users of the new birth control implant and their doctors would have the option to shut it off or turn it on at any time (thus the “remote control”). Want to conceive five years into having the implant? Not an issue. Want to go back on birth control after your second child? Easy as a click of a button.
While all this sounds great — nay, perfect — some physicians worry that the implant might have some of the same attendant risks that other birth control and other wearable technology already has. Dr. Patricia Salber, the founder and host of The Doctor Weighs In, and a board certified internist and emergency physician, noted to Nerve that levonorgestrel products today are approved to be in place for up to five years. “It is likely that the spectrum of common hormone-related side effects will be similar including nausea, bloating, breast tenderness, weight gain, acne, mood changes, and more,” Dr. Salber says.
And how safe is it to be implanted with something someone can control remotely? “Medical device hacking is a real possibility,” Dr. Salber notes. “Although hacking into chip contraception could have adverse effects, such as an unwanted pregnancy if the device was remotely turned off, it is unlikely that manipulation of the device would be immediately fatal as could be the case of hacking insulin pumps and pacemakers.” But MIT reports that developers are already working on securing the device’s encryption, so that the device can only be activated within a close-range distance.
The autonomous care component — the fact that patients are able to turn it on and off without seeing a physician — could be a boon for areas where healthcare access is limited. But “DIY medicine is not a substitute for periodically seeking care from a physician,” Dr. Salber warns. “However, it is a part of what I see as a very good trend – the empowered patient. The chip contraceptive will most likely require a prescription and will come with recommendations to use it after a first pregnancy, when in a stable relationship, and in conjunction with regular care by an ob-gyn.”
Whether this is yet another step towards transhumanism or just an incredible next step in revolutionizing women’s health is up for debate. Though, most likely, the implantable birth control chip will become yet another stone to throw in the heated debate surrounding the Affordable Care Act. Dr. Salber explains, “The owners of the Hobby Lobby company objected to the use of emergency contraception and hormonal IUDs. So, it is likely the chip we are discussing would fall into this category and religious business owners could opt out of coverage of them.”
Dr. Salber admits, “Many women’s organizations are worried that this decision opens the door to a broader effort of certain corporations to opt out of the ACAs birth control mandate, thus refusing to pay for coverage of any type of birth control. I think they are right to be concerned.” In the future, it will all depend on how many women are ready to implant a chip in their bodies for long-lasting birth control coverage and just how effective that tiny chip will be. Maybe one day women will be able to say goodbye to the tell-tale birth control alarm.