The Today Sponge survives the strange saga of its five-year disappearance.

Published March 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Tensions are mounting in the Today Sponge discussion list hosted on BirthControl.com. "We need a date, that's all a date a simple date to let us know WHEN?WHEN? WHEN??????????" posts one participant.

"Perhaps I am not the most patient creature in the universe to date, but it seems to me that I have been awaiting the Today Sponge's return for years. I would appreciate some concrete information. Where is it?" demands another.

Others can express only gratitude: "I am so glad that [the Today Sponge] is finally coming back! I am so miserable without them! I cannot be on the Pill anymore, and I used to use these things all the time! Only went to the Pill because they got rid of the sponge! My prayers are finally answered!"

Who can blame them for being anxious? It's been five long years since the Today Sponge sat on drugstore shelves. In March 1999, the newly formed Allendale Pharmaceutical Co. announced it would bring back the sponge, possibly as soon as fall 1999.

Fall came and went, then winter. Now Allendale predicts its resurrected product will be released in Canada sometime this month, and in the United States no later than May. For fans of the contraceptive sponge it can't happen soon enough.

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I was 22 when American Home Products halted production of the Today Sponge -- too young and promiscuous to have considered it an option. When it comes to birth control, I've always preferred my methods to be chemical and imperceptible -- provided I'm in a long-term, monogamous relationship that supports such characteristics.

During the times in my sexually active life when I haven't been on the Pill or Depo Provera, the trusty condom suited me. Unlike female barrier methods such as the female condom, the diaphragm or, god help us, the vaginal film, condoms effectively stop pregnancy and disease without similarly putting an end to the mood.

For many women my age (and younger), when the Today Sponge returns it will feel much like it did in 1982 for another generation of women when a brand-new form of birth control was introduced.

The sponge was invented by Bruce Ward Vorhauer, who struggled for seven years to get the device approved and on the market. The Today Sponge was the first new contraceptive method to appear in decades and, for more than 10 years it was the most popular female, over-the-counter birth-control method around. Five years after its release, 75 million sponges had been sold. During its 12 years on the market, it is estimated that 6.4 million women (11 percent of all women using contraceptives at the time), had tried the sponge at least once, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit family-planning advocacy organization.

(Vorhauer, meanwhile, spent his fortune on a lavish lifestyle, was forced to sell his company to American Home Products in 1987, moved to Montana where he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost, went bankrupt again, set fire to his yacht in an insurance scam and was facing potential arson charges when he committed suicide in 1993.)

The reasons for the sponge's popularity begin with convenience. It was bought over-the-counter and could remain inserted in the vagina for up to 24 hours and multiple ejaculations. You could slip a sponge in before your date and avoid the mad, drippy dash to the bathroom once the deed was done. At a half-inch thick and three-quarters of an inch in diameter, it was both discreet and portable. The sponge was also empowering -- the only nonprescription birth-control method that put women in control of their own contraception from purchase to insertion and beyond.

There were benefits for men as well. "There was definitely the advantage of not having to think about putting on the condom," recalls Matthew, a New York media consultant. He used the Today Sponge with a former girlfriend, who had mood swings while on the pill. And unlike with the condom, there's no loss of sensation for him or her. In fact, Matthew says, it added a new element. "I noticed it inside her because I knew her well. You can feel it. It's not like you're running into a hubcap; it's a soft object."

But it's unclear whether the sponge will be as impressive the second time around. Its low, 90.8 percent effectiveness rate in preventing pregnancy will give many women pause. And the sponge may be even less effective for women who've already had children, because their vaginas and cervical openings are larger, according to Rebecca Pinto, a physician's assistant at Planned Parenthood Golden Gate in San Mateo, Calif. "You have more room for the sponge to move off the cervix and move around," she explains.

The sponge does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases. For women in 1982, that may not have been a huge concern. But for those of us who grew up under the shadow of AIDS and have been taught to use condoms, condoms, dental dams and more condoms in our sexual encounters, the sponge won't even be an option unless we're being monogamous with a thoroughly tested significant other.

For a small number of male and female users, the sponge was more painful than pleasurable. One former male user described the sensation he experienced using the sponge as "the flaming urethra."

"Some people are allergic to the spermicide," explains Pinto.

None of this seems to dampen the enthusiasm of former sponge users, like those in the birth control chat room, whose love of the method was commemorated in an episode of "Seinfeld" titled "Spongeworthy." In the oft-cited installment, Elaine begins stockpiling sponges when she hears that the product will be discontinued. In an effort to conserve her limited supply, she starts determining whether the men she dates are "spongeworthy" -- that is, not only worthy of going to bed with, but of using a whole sponge on.

"With birth control you want a lot of choices. That's because everyone's situation is somewhat different," Pinto says. If you want to get a woman riled, ask her about the availability of effective, user-friendly, inexpensive birth control options. Pills, diaphragms, shots and implants all require doctors visits, can cause serious side effects and are rarely covered by insurers. Female condoms and vaginal films are so poorly designed that their greatest effectiveness in preventing pregnancy lies in their ability to kill the mood. Condoms, while convenient, are still a male method. When the sponge was taken off the market, women lost one of the few decent pregnancy preventers they could call their own.

In the United States, it's worse than in other developed countries. The FDA is slow to approve new methods, such as RU-486. Meanwhile, abortion foes use everything from clinic blockades to "partial-birth" abortion bans to limit women's reproductive options.

While thousands of Elaines stockpiled sponges, Canadian women were enjoying a perfectly decent alternative, the Protectaid Sponge. In fact, the Protectaid Sponge may be even better, according to Barbara Bell, host of the Canadian-based Birthcontrol.com, which sells the Protectaid Sponge (to Americans and Canadians alike) and will sell the Today Sponge when it's available. She explains: "There are a lot of women who are less allergic to the Protectaid Sponge," which uses a mix of three spermicides instead of just nonoxynol 9, which many women and men are allergic to. It also has three finger slots for removal instead of the sponge's string.

"Apparently the United States is one of those countries that's very behind in contraceptive choice for women," Bell states.

Particularly frustrating for American women is the fact that the Today Sponge was deemed perfectly safe by the FDA when it was taken off the market. It was American Home Products' plant, where the Today Sponge and several other pharmaceutical products were produced, that had problems -- specifically, high levels of bacteria in its air and water.

Gene Detroyer, president and CEO of Allendale Pharmaceuticals, explains: "What American Home Products did is take their big products to a new plant. Those that could be made by an outside packer were sent to contract packers. The Today Sponge fell in between. It had to be made on special equipment. It wasn't a very big product, $20 million in sales. They decided not to do anything with it but to sell it."

Allendale bought the patent and the equipment and moved it to a new plant. All that remains now is FDA approval of the new plant, which has been a slow and grueling process, to say the least. In fact, Detroyer refused to comment on the agency's snail's pace, lest there be ramifications that would slow approval even further.

The sponge's difficult journey from success to near death and impending resurrection after five years is difficult to come to terms with. Whom do you blame? The FDA? But it was only looking out for women's best interests. American Home Products? It made a tough business decision, and women paid the price of one less choice in contraception. It's unfortunate, but now there is nothing to do but wait.

How the Today Sponge will fare this time around is anybody's guess. Pinto says her clinic will probably stock them again, and there's clearly an eager base of former users on Birthcontrol.com ready to purchase it as soon as it's available again. Detroyer is, obviously, optimistic: "We're very encouraged that we have a very solid foundation of users. I get e-mails from them every day -- who really like the product and will be the foundation of our business. We'll have to spread the word to women who may have been too young to use the sponge."

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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