12 Years Later, It's Finally Today Again

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Seinfeld" 's Elaine can stop rationing her birth control for "sponge-worthy" men only. Twelve years after the Today sponge left store shelves -- to the dismay of fictional and real women alike -- the over-the-counter female contraceptive is making a comeback.

Women can dip this spermicide-infused foam doughnut in water and pop it in before a night out. For the next 24 hours, the sponge traps and zaps any sperm it encounters en route to the cervix, according to an advertising campaign unveiled last month.

"The nice thing about it is that it's something that can be used on an intermittent basis, for women who would not be interested in using birth control every day," said Constance Bohon, a Washington obstetrician-gynecologist.

The hormone-free sponge does nothing to guard against sexually transmitted infections, and it is at best only 91 percent effective against pregnancy, leading some experts to worry that users will put more faith in the method than it may merit.

Still, said Amy Allina, program director at the National Women's Health Network, "it's good for women to have more options."

"At the time that it first came on the market, it was hugely popular, in part because it gave women a choice of something they could get over-the-counter," she added.

Oral birth control and most other barrier methods for women require a doctor's visit, while condoms rely on male cooperation.

There is a risk of toxic shock syndrome if users wear the sponge for too long, "but it's extremely rare," said Bohon.

Wyeth, the maker since 1983, dropped the sponge in 1995 when the company decided not to update its factory equipment to maintain FDA approval. The product reemerged eight years later but kept a low profile until Synova Healthcare Group acquired rights to it in January. It is now selling the sponge online and at drugstores and supermarkets for several dollars a pop.

When it first left, "there was a real sense of disappointment," Allina said, remembering Elaine's desperation. "This time around, the method will have a better shot."

-- Ishani Ganguli

© 2007 The Washington Post Company