The Cyborg Mystique: Remote Control Birth Control


BACK in the nineties feminist theorist Donna Haraway asked women to choose whether they wanted to become cyborgs or goddesses. If the response to the recent news of a remote-controlled hormonal birth control microchip is anything to go by – it seems that many have chosen to go with cyborg.

Within a few years this device will be on the market. It was created with funding from the Gates Foundation by MicroCHIPS and originally developed at MIT. Designed to be implanted in the body, the chip will secrete the synthetic progesterone levonorgestrel daily. An electrical current instigated via remote control will melt a metal seal to let the chemical out. The device can remain in the body for up to 16 years.

In truth, women have been choosing cyborg for some time now. Levonorgestrel is also a component of the Mirena and Skyla IUDs. The use of IUDs, and other long-acting hormonal methods of contraception, have been rising steadily in recent years, and this news has provoked discussion of whether the search for the “perfect contraception” is over.

Some pronounced it the ultimate “birth control hack.” Hannah Gold of Alternet saw it as a boon for women who do not have health insurance and cannot visit a doctor frequently, as well as a way of preventing the unplanned pregnancies that result from user error. Considering their work in the developing world, it was likely Mr. Gates was thinking of the women who are currently receiving, via his Foundation’s services, the Depo Provera shot, which requires replenishment every six months.

I often hear women muse on the need for “better” birth control and at this point “better” invariably means more technologically advanced. We live in a technocentric society, placing ultimate faith in the ability of technology to figure out and fix all of our social ills. We love birth control; we love gadgets. What could be wrong about combining the two?

I don’t have the answers, but I don’t think we are raising enough questions.

Popular British feminist Laurie Penny frequently repeats the line “we have the technology” throughout her recently released feminist manifesto Unspeakable Things in the way of a rousing call-to-arms for women to seize the opportunity to overcome their biological tendencies to menstruate and get pregnant. Contemporary feminism is focused on the need for women to take control of their reproductive organs and erase the biological difference between the male and the female. In this regard, devices such as this appear to be a gift that might suggest that those in power are in complete agreement with Penny.

At a time when it seems some doctors are taking it upon themselves to refuse to remove IUDs and implants early for women that feel they are suffering from the side effects; when women in developing countries may get an implant fitted only to not have access to a doctor when it’s time to take it out, a device that a woman, via remote control, can turn on and off herself without consultation seems like a good idea. But would the woman always be the one with the control?

Jenny A. Higgins, a gender and women’s studies professor at the University of Wisconsin wrote a paper for Contraception Journal regarding the recommendation of long-acting methods of birth control, in which she argues that the focus of medical providers on effectiveness rates above all is misguided when an “unplanned” pregnancy is not always “unwanted.” A recent study showed that women are more concerned about discussing side effects of birth control methods with their doctor than they are about effectiveness.

Of the remote-controlled device Higgins told me, “As with any provider-controlled contraceptive technology, a remote-controlled device has the potential to be used coercively with socially disadvantaged women. This kind of contraceptive coercion is often subtle. For example, we have evidence that providers suggest IUDs and implants more to women of color and poor women than to white, middle class women.”

I often hear white, usually middle class, women suggest that this action makes sense – after all it’s women of color and poor women who need this most, what with their lack of access to medical care. On this Higgins states:

“Such tempting reasoning suggests that lack of access to effective contraceptives is the primary driver behind this health disparity – and that unintended pregnancies are a cause rather than a consequence of social inequality. Though use of LARC (long-acting reversible contraceptives) could surely diminish at least some number of unintended pregnancies, LARC cannot alone lead to changes in the educational and professional opportunities (or lack thereof), let alone the gender inequalities, that may strongly undermine consistent contraceptive use in the first place.

Sometimes the coercion Higgins describes is not so subtle. In her excellent book Killing the Black Body, Dorothy E. Roberts outlines how women of color and poor women in the US have frequently been on the receiving end of more aggressive tactics to prevent them from getting pregnant.

Roberts explains:

“This remote control device seems very susceptible to health risks and control by others who may be more interested in population control than women’s freedom. How can we possibly ensure that women implanted with the chip will get and maintain command over the remote?  Some policy makers treat women more as objects of population control than human beings who should make their own decisions about their lives.  Their preoccupation with reducing fertility overrides any concern for either the safety of the device or women’s ability to control its operation.  Even if the developers were not motivated by population control ideology, they are ignoring its history and influence on the development and distribution of birth control devices.”

Roberts cited Norplant, “a long acting contraceptive approved in 1990,” that requires surgical procedures to inset and remove, and “had some of the troubling features of the remote control device.” She said, “Norplant was promoted by commentators and politicians as a way of reducing fertility — and even poverty — in black communities.  Many women experiencing side effects reported difficulty in finding a doctor who would remove Norplant implants from their arms.”

Echoing this idea in a post for RH Reality Check, Abby Lippman, longtime feminist activist, wrote: “We’ve already been down this hazardous route with earlier versions of long-lasting contraceptive implants—and their often coerced use, especially among individuals thought not able to manage their bodies themselves (for example, teens and marginalized women). Despite beliefs that technology is the answer to women’s health needs, it is too often the case that technologies create even more needs from the damage they can do.”

If the device can last up to 16 years it would certainly seem most cost-effective to start women young, in their teens, bearing in mind the average age at which a woman seeks to get pregnant. Often we see the promotion of effectiveness of methods above all else as justified by the opportunity to save us all money that would otherwise be spent on dealing with unwanted pregnancies. But when we’re talking about saving money on the backs of women’s reproductive autonomy, I think we should be, at the least, skeptical. Whom are we saving money for? Will the money we save be used to provide more maternity leave, cheaper childcare options, education, and support for the empowerment of women?

We ought to remember that when women are offered another choice relating to our reproductive lives, even or especially if it just seems like a “better” IUD, those choices rarely come with no strings, or remotes, attached.

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