Public Health

Elaine's Closet

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Makers of a contraceptive sponge pulled the popular product off drugstore shelves in 1995 due to Food and Drug Administration pressure (see "Sponge Bath," June 1995). When last heard from, the sponge was a comic subplot on Seinfeld: After learning its days were numbered, Elaine hoarded her few remaining devices and demanded that her potential suitors be "spongeworthy."

But what the government taketh away, the World Wide Web giveth back–in a new and improved form and with discounts for volume purchases, no less. Contraceptive sponges, along with other devices that do not have FDA approval but have passed official scrutiny in Canada and Europe, can be purchased at www.birthcontrol.com, a Web site based in British Columbia. Other items for sale without prescriptions include a one-size-fits-all diaphragm, an IUD, and a Catholic Church-approved fertility monitor designed to assist women employing the rhythm method.

Birthcontrol.com cofounder Heidi Henderson told Mirabella the site fills about 100 orders a month, with most originating in the United States. A number of other Web sites conduct similar businesses, and most, like Birthcontrol.com, also offer to sell their wares via fax orders and traditional mail orders.

Despite the lack of FDA approval, U.S. citizens can legally import medical devices (and certain drugs) for personal use, as long as the shipments follow official guidelines. In this case, that means no confidential brown wrappers: Birthcontrol.com's order form warns customers that, in order to pass muster with customs agents, their packages will announce that they contain "birth control devices." The occasional snicker from a mailman, however, seems a small price to pay for wider choice in contraceptives.