Two pills show great promise

... for opposition from those who would rather prevent sex than death.

Published March 29, 2006 5:49PM (EST)

Two potential wonder drugs are currently in the works, both of which stand to revolutionize women's and global health -- and to make ultraconservatives crazy.

First, U.S. scientists appear to be closer than ever to creating a pill that could prevent HIV infection. So far, the pill -- which combines the drugs tenofovir and emtricitabine -- seems to have worked on monkeys; human testing around the world should begin soon.

Also, it turns out that mifepristone (RU-486) can do more than help induce medical abortion. Doctors in Scotland have developed a pill containing trace amounts of mifepristone that appears to work as a contraceptive -- and appears to help prevent heart disease, endometriosis and breast cancer. (Yes, it also does windows.) Unlike the standard "the Pill" pill, this drug contains no estrogen or progesterone, which are both associated with breast cancer. But that doesn't just mean it's safer than the old pill; doctors suggest that the new pill -- which works by preventing ovulation -- could actually make a woman's chances of developing cancer lower than if she'd taken no pill at all. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.,the new pill also affects the uterine lining, which could mean that women taking it will stop menstruating. This, my gut says, is one of those freaky things you have to be careful about wishing for. But, as one of the new pill's lead researchers, professor Richard Anderson of the University of Edinburgh, pointed out: "Having regular periods is very much a modern thing. If you go back 100 years or so before the advent of contraception, or widespread use of contraception, women didn't really have very many periods because they went from one pregnancy to breastfeeding and then very rapidly onto the next pregnancy." (OK, but still.)

Anderson also suggests -- speaking of wishful thinking -- that perhaps the antiabortion folks will not get all up in the new pill's grill, considering that it contains only a teeny amount of mifepristone. But he also acknowledges that opposition to abortion "is a major problem with this class of drugs and it's been a handicap to their commercial development."

The wingnuts will hate this pill for the same reasons that they will hate the HIV pill -- and for the same reasons they already hate the HPV vaccine: because these drugs prevent pretty much everything but sex. If they don't want to put a drug that "encourages" (sic) free-wheeling sex in the hands of our youth, you can bet they don't want the gays getting ahold of one, either. (And yes, you can bet that they assume that only the gays get HIV.) You can also bet that they're not interested in a contraceptive that they can't oppose on the grounds that it may raise the risk of breast cancer.

To be sure, the challenge is not just to make the drugs available (assuming they test satisfactorily) as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, safer-sex practices but, in some cases, to monitor illegal sales. (Rumor has it that tenofovir is already being sold on the street along with club drugs.) But that's assuming -- again with the wishful thinking -- that we'd ever get them past the Food and Drug Administration.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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