February 25, 2024

Questions over wireless-controlled contraceptives

Would the device be safe and unhackable?

New ethical dilemmas may be coming if a Massachusetts company succeeds in developing a contraceptive chip which could be activated and deactivated with wireless technology.

MicroCHIPS will begin preclinical testing of its device next year. If it passes safety and efficacy tests, it could be on the market by 2018. According to Technology Review, “the device would be more convenient for many women because, unlike existing contraceptive implants, it can be deactivated without a trip to the clinic and an outpatient procedure, and it would last nearly half their reproductive life.”

The chip measures 20 x 20 x 7 millimetres and would be implanted under the skin of the buttocks, upper arm, or abdomen where it would dispense daily doses of the hormone levonorgestrel. To conceive, women would turn the dosage off with a remote control. To resume contraception, they would log in to the system and turn it back on. It is designed to dispense contraception for 16 years. The device could dispense other drugs, but the company is initially using contraceptives.

The idea originated with philanthropist and billionaire Bill Gates, who is keen to develop new methods of birth control as part of his foundation’s programs for the developing world.

Even if the chip is safe and effective, wireless control raises a host of issues which need to be addressed. Any device which is controlled wirelessly can be hacked. Absolutely watertight solutions would be needed to prevent angry ex-boyfriends, the NSA, snooping journalists or controlling governments from manipulating women’s fertility.

Dr Robert Farra, of MIT, believes that these scenarios are unrealistic. He told the BBC: “Communication with the implant has to occur at skin contact level distance. Someone across the room cannot re-programme your implant. Then we have secure encryption. That prevents someone from trying to interpret or intervene between the communications.” 

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Bill Gates