A California Scientist Remodels a Perpetual Problem's Ancient Solution: the Contraceptive Sponge

UPDATED 05/02/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/02/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

For those women who, when turned on by passion, often turn off their partners by a hasty march from bed to bathroom to insert a diaphragm, there is now an alternative to that inconvenient, messy process—a dimpled white sponge. Just approved by the Food and Drug Administration, this new, disposable, one-size-fits-all contraceptive can be worn—and stays effective—for 24 hours. (Ordinary diaphragm spermicides are effective for at most eight hours and for only one act of intercourse.)

Made from polyurethane, the same substance used in artificial hearts, the two-inch-diameter sponge is permeated with a spermicide, nonoxynol-9. Starting July 1, the sponge will be marketed under the name Today in 11 states: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Alaska. By September the California manufacturer, VLI Corporation, expects to have millions on the market nationwide, selling over the counter without a doctor's prescription.

While Casanova wrote of a female contraceptive fashioned from half a lemon, and praised condoms as "preservatives to put the fair sex under shelter from all fear," the history of sponges goes back even further than the 18th century.

VLI's founder, divorced biomedical engineer Bruce Vorhauer, 41, had been researching the use of sponges in contraception for several months when, in 1976, he mustered enough financing to begin seriously what has so far been an $8 million project. A trip to a Cairo library turned up a 3,500-year-old papyrus revealing that Egyptian women inserted sea sponges soaked in a citric juice to prevent conception. (According to Barbara Seaman, a feminist author who co-founded the Washington, D.C.-based National Women's Health Network, "The sponge is even mentioned in the Talmud to be used in family planning.")

Inspired by that evidence, Vorhauer returned to Costa Mesa, Calif. and continued refining his idea. By 1978 he had developed his current model, which weighs one-quarter of an ounce. It won its first approval in Europe in 1982. To meet stringent U.S. drug regulations, Vorhauer tested the sponge for five years, on 3,000 subjects, before gaining FDA approval.

The results showed few side effects; 2 percent of the women were allergic to the spermicide, but that was within acceptable limits. Nowhere did birth defects, cancer or other complications arise. "No other vaginal contraceptive has ever been tested before marketing on such a large scale," Vorhauer insists.

The sponge also proved as effective as the diaphragm—85 percent—in preventing conception. By contrast, the Pill rates close to 100 percent. A marketing vice-president of VLI, Anne Bellegia, attributes the sponge's reduced efficiency to human, not chemical, blundering: "Fifty percent of the women who had failures admitted they didn't use it properly or use it at all. It's the best game in town, but you do have to put it in!"

Some critics are still doubtful. Says Barbara Seaman: "I wouldn't want my daughters throwing away their diaphragms. The studies seem rather iffy to me." Skeptics also argue that the price—$1 a sponge—really soaks the consumer. Bellegia, though, doesn't believe most American women operate in such carnal overdrive: "The sponge is very expensive only for the woman who is sexually active every day. But our clinical tests indicated that the sex lives of Americans are overrated. We used young, supposedly sexually active women in our sample, and on the average they had sex only twice a week."

Women now spend at least $50 million on barrier contraceptives and $450 million on oral ones. Few gynecologists expect Pill users to switch to the sponge because the Pill is still far ahead in terms of spontaneity and effectiveness. But Vorhauer, who owns 15 percent of VLI, anticipates a "major market" among women now using diaphragms, foams and jellies. Next month the company will move to new headquarters in Irvine, Calif. that will triple its production space.

As far as his personal life is concerned, Vorhauer obviously created the sponge more for money than for love. "I've always believed in male responsibility," he says. Ten years ago he had a vasectomy.

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